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Celebrating Freedom: Reflections on upcoming Jewish holidays

Spring in the Jewish calendar brings two festivals which commemorate past attempts to wipe out or dehumanise the Jewish populations in the countries concerned.

These festivals, Purim and Pesach (Passover) resonate with the mission of the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre.

Purim celebrates the rescue of the Jewish population in the Persian Empire from a planned genocide approximately 2300 years ago. The story is told in the Bible in the Book of Esther, where we read that the Persian vizier (prime minister), Haman,  sent out orders to kill all of the Jews throughout the empire on the same day out of resentment at a perceived slight. The Bible describes how the plot was miraculously exposed and the Jewish population saved. While Jews around the world mark the day with celebrations, they also reflect on what it is like to live in fear or hardship, and so have the tradition to exchange gifts of food and to give additional charity to the poor.

The weekly reading in the synagogue on the Sabbath before Purim recalls an event during the Jewish people’s forty years of wandering following the Exodus from Egypt. In the reading we are told to remember for all time the unprovoked attack by the Amalekites on the Jewish people, and we are taught that in every generation an Amalek will emerge who will try to destroy the Jewish people. Jewish tradition suggests that both Haman and Hitler were descendants of Amalek.

Children celebrate Purim; Jewish Chronicle

Four weeks after Purim comes the festival of Pesach or Passover when we commemorate the Exodus, the freeing of the Jewish people from centuries of forced labour in Egypt and from the attempts of Pharaoh to restrict the growth of the Jewish population by killing all baby boys. The festival is marked by a wide range of rules and traditions, but particularly the service and a festive meal with family, friends and other guests in the home on the first night of the festival.

This focus on celebrating with family in the home reinforces the importance of preserving family life even in the darkest times. When the story of the Exodus is read at the meal, children are given a key role. They are our future and lead some of the most important parts of the ceremony. We are told to teach our children what happened on that day in our history – education is crucial to Jewish family life.

Passover celebrations;

We are told in the service that every generation must act as if they themselves were rescued from slavery in Egypt; in other words, we must reflect on what freedom is and what it means to us, how we should behave and how we should treat others.

We are also told that in every generation someone will emerge to try to destroy the Jewish people. So many families also include in the service readings describing events in more recent centuries targeted at Jews: blood libels, massacres during the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Tsarist pogroms in Russia and the Nazi Holocaust. Many such readings commemorate the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which was an attempt to prevent the Nazis killing the last Jews in the Polish capital.

Warsaw Uprising
Jewish people who had been captured during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; Yad Vashem

Such an approach to “updating” the Passover service is something that I place particular emphasis on with my interest in Holocaust education. I see a direct link between the story of the Exodus and the more recent events of 80 years ago. How should we relate to and treat minorities and groups who may be targeted for discrimination? For me, there are clear lessons to be learnt from these events of Biblical times, as well as from the Holocaust, for the sort of society we want in Europe, and around the world today.

Michael Sharp – March 2020

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