A Black-hyphen-Jewish Seder in the Land of Civil Rights

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When I couldn’t find a #Blewish Seder in Atlanta, I did the next best thing: took my son Calvin, 22, to a Black-hyphen-Jewish Seder in The Temple, a local synagogue.

The Atlanta-slash-Black Jewish Coalition has held this event on alternate years since 1982, when they forged an alliance to ensure that the Voting Rights Act was renewed, and stayed together ever since.

ImageThis Seder was held 11 days before Passover, on Thursday, April 3, to honor the eve of the 46th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

Calvin and I had attended a Black-slash-Jewish Seder in 2007, when we lived in Montclair, NJ, a liberal, progressive town outside of New York City. My late mother, Rosalyn, came with us and as “a mother who speaks Yiddish and jazz,” (to borrow a phrase from #Blewish author Lisa Jones Brown), she was thrilled. But Calvin, then a teen, wasn’t so interested in his roots, the food was bland, and conversation stalled when I tried to explain being Black and Jewish to the folks seated at our table.

So I didn’t have high hopes for the Atlanta Seder. I knew much more about Black Atlanta than Jewish Atlanta and had next-to-no experience with Southern Jews.  I prepared to be annoyed at best, and deeply disappointed at worst.

But I was pleasantly surprised. The people at our table (a good balance of Blacks and Jews) took Calvin’s explanation of our identities in stride (perhaps because he slightly resembles famed #Blewish rapper Drake), the conversations were pleasant and the food was fantastic.

I don’t usually like matzoh balls, but theirs were superb, floating in chicken soup that rivaled my mother’s (and beat any NYC deli I’d seen). The brisket was truly divine, and I even had more than one helping of gefilte fish, which I normally avoid. In a nod to Black culture, fried chicken sat next to the brisket, and there was a side of mashed sweet potatoes.

The heart of a Seder is The Haggadah–a script for a choreographed ritual meal. Haggadahs can vary widely in style and tone. This one, read by Father Jeffrey Ott, O.P., of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and Rabbi David Spinrad of The Temple, hit just the right notes.

Along with the traditional Jewish script (which had sufficient English translations of the Hebrew for everyone to follow along), their Haggadah included relevant quotes from Julius Lester, Bob Dylan, Nelson Mandela, Langston Hughes and Barack Obama. References to the enslavement of Black Africans were interwoven with the story of the Jewish exodus from Egyptian enslavement.

ImageAnd a sign of progress: an orange on the Seder Plate to represent gays, lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community.

Sure Calvin and I seemed to be the only #Blewish folk in the room of about 200. And there were no great moments of synthesis. But the Father and the Rabbi did a great job, the energy was positive, and it was a beautiful way to honor a moment of blending traditions in a part of the country that still bears blatant signs and attitudes of Jim Crow. As the room vibrated with the traditional song of gratitude, “Dayenu,” and the strains of the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” I felt my mother’s spirit smile down upon us.

Every group should have the equivalent of a Seder: a yearly ritual meal where each bite symbolizes ancestral history, tradition and culture. From time to time, different groups could share their meals with people they view as different from themselves. The 2014 Atlanta Black-hyphen-Jewish Seder was still very much about the hyphen, but it was also a warm, enjoyable reminder that when people reach past barriers to break matzoh and explore commonalities, the results can be deliciously divine.