Eph offers Passover survival guide

This Monday marked the first day of Passover – a Jewish holiday involving unleavened bread, a celestial firestorm, and Moses doing his best Gandalf impression. Like most religious holidays, it exists to commemorate a strange event chronicled in a religious text, so few people actually remember all the details. That’s why the Record staff brought me in: to set the record straight. What follows is a brief synopsis of the Passover story, in which I omit the slower parts and retain only the .gif-able stuff. You know, like if Buzzfeed tried to explain it (oh capital-G God, the fabric of our society is crumbling).

Anyway, thousands of years ago, the Jews toiled in Egypt under the tyrannical reign of an oppressive pharaoh. God was unamused by this development, and inflicted ten deadly plagues upon the Egyptians – lice, frogs, locusts, infanticide and other terrifying stuff – which forced Pharaoh’s hand, and he allowed the Jews to leave. Unfortunately, being an incorrigible curmudgeon, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after the fleeing Israelites. Moses, the leader of the Israelites,  saw the oncoming chariots and parted the Red Sea with his staff. The Jews crossed safely, and Moses un-parted the waters just as Pharaoh and his gang of Egyptians started down the passageway. They drowned, and the Israelites rejoiced when they realized they were free. After that, they wandered around aimlessly in the desert for several decades, but the Passover story ends here, on a happier, more positive note.

So, in honor of this debatably factual event (you can’t prove it didn’t happen!), modern Jews celebrate Passover. Probably the most significant observance of Passover involves avoiding bread throughout the 8-day holiday, a tradition that commemorates the hurry in which the Jews left Egypt, without even giving their bread enough time to rise properly. Thus, the observant can only eat matzo, a flat cracker that almost remarkably mimics the taste of cardboard, meanwhile kvetching about not being able to scarf down all the carbs their hearts desire. (Our hearts go out to you poor, unfortunate gluten-free souls who have to be without bread all year long.)

Another element of Passover is the Seder – an evening service which the College hosts at the faculty house on the first night of Passover, an event run by the Williams College Jewish Association. Each table gets a plate of foods that symbolize various aspects of the Passover story – bitter herbs, charoset, parsley dipped in salt water, a lamb shankbone and a hardboiled egg – and you eat a little bit of each. Hey, it’s actually a fairly sad story, so the food can’t be that great. Once we finish with the prayers and the obligatory debates about the past, we move on to the actually tasty stuff that Dining Services have so graciously prepared.

You might be surprised how divisive Jewish holidays can be, especially on a campus as opinionated as this one. So to uncover this polarizing divide, I asked several non-Jewish members of the student body, known lovingly as gentiles, to provide their thoughts on matzo. Some loved it. Sarah Meyerhoff ’14 spoke glowingly of the stuff: “I eat matzo instead of regular bread all the time!” Others, not so much. Nathan Leach ’17: “Easily the tastiest cardboard I’ve ever eaten.” Chris Riegg ’15 opined, “If I had half the number of taste buds I currently possess, matzo would be awesome.”

By this point, you’re probably chomping at the bit to get started on your own Seder. But how on earth are you, a college kid on a tight budget, going to afford a shankbone or some parsley for your Seder plate? Consider the following revision of the Seder plate for the sophisticated collegiate palate. Charoset, a mix of apples and nuts supposed to represent bricks and mortar from building pyramids, can easily be replaced by a kid-friendly jar of applesauce. The bitter herbs, supposed to represent the bitterness of slavery, can totally be substituted for a large helping of wasabi from Sushi Thai. Next, as Williamstown residents who have been locked in eternal winter, I think we are uniquely positioned to appreciate the significance of the parsley and greens, symbolizing the spring season in which Passover falls.

So let’s raise our glasses of Manischewitz high and proud to toast this awesome holiday. To spending next year someplace warmer! (Jerusalem, anyone?) May our charoset be perfectly spiced, may our matzo balls be light and fluffy, and may our bread be unleavened. Amen.

  • Williams College Jewish Association Board

    The following Letter to the Editor was published on April 23, 2014 in response to the article above:

    To the Editor:

    This has been a week of commemoration and celebration for the Jewish community, as Passover encourages us to contemplate the themes of oppression and freedom. The Williams College Jewish Association (WCJA) Board was disappointed to read the article in the Record’s Features section last week, “Eph offers Passover survival guide.” Jewish students at Williams come from a wide variety of circumstances. The satire that one person perceives as benign does not sit comfortably with all of us. We realize that the author of this article is a member of our Jewish community and that many Record staff members are Jewish. Nevertheless, we ask the Record to re-examine the impact of the article, both in the context of Williams College and in terms of the global Jewish community, which continues to struggle against anti-Semitism.

    We recognize the comedic intent of the piece. Humor can enrich our understanding of our own practices and is an important element of Jewish culture. However, given the long history of unintentional and malicious misrepresentation of Judaism, it is important to report with particular care. This article was published in the Features section, where readers expect accurate reporting, and it stood as the Record’s sole representation of Passover. The piece called the tyrannical Pharaoh “an incorrigible curmudgeon,” treated the story of the 10 plagues with a flippancy that undermines the Jewish tradition to mourn the loss of Egyptian life and asserted that we celebrate Passover “in honor of this debatably factual event (you can’t prove it didn’t happen!),” as if a question of factuality negates any value of the text. This language both trivializes our traditions and calls our practices laughable.

    We also object to the use of WCJA’s photo, which was used without our permission to accompany this satirical article. For many of us in WCJA, Passover has deep moral and religious meaning and carries a message that shapes our quest for social justice. We were dismayed that our photograph was taken out of context and used to support a misrepresentation of our religious celebration. The views of the author do not represent the attitudes of WCJA.

    We recognize this article as one example in a series of failures to accurately represent minority students and marginalized voices. Ahmad Greene-Hayes ’16 and Cinnamon Williams ’16 wrote in their poignant letter to the Williams community, “[The Record’s] features and perspectives consistently fail to represent or consider the perspectives of women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, international students, students living in poverty, or students committed to the eradication of oppression in any and all forms.” In the same issue that contained the satire of Passover, the Record printed a front-page image of our Muslim Chaplain Bilal Ansari without covering the purpose of his protest in any substantive way. Chaplain Ansari has expressed deep sorrow at these lapses in judgment. With his support, as well as the support of the Minority Coalition and the entire Chaplain’s Office, we call on the Record not only to immediately remove WCJA’s picture from the article in question, but also to work to expose injustice rather than to perpetuate it. We reiterate our support for those working to create inclusive forums for Williams students.

    Truly,

    The Williams College Jewish Association Board