Meet the ‘greatest hits of Jewish thought’ — the Haggadah

Fifteen years ago, Mark Gerson, the co-founder and chairman of United Hatzalah and African Mission Healthcare, was invited by a friend for the unexpected combination of a cigar and Haggadah study session. Apprehensive to believe the Passover manual required more of his attention, Gerson agreed to join what seemed more an excuse for a cigar than an illuminating discussion.

To his surprise, the evening jumpstarted an obsession with the Haggadah. “It is nothing less than the greatest hits of Jewish thought,” Gerson told Jewish Insider in a recent interview wedged between virtual book tour appearances for his latest title, The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jewish Insider: Passover is probably the most popular holiday in Judaism, why is that? Is it for the same reasons the Haggadah is the “greatest hits of Jewish thought”?

Mark Gerson: I don’t know because I don’t think most people recognize the Haggadah as the greatest hits of Jewish thought. If people go through it quickly and basically treat it like a dinner program — literally, the book you get to before you can get to the meal — we’re not going to see this ‘greatest hits of Jewish thought,’ and we’re not going to get very much out of it. Just the fact that it is completely loaded with Jewish wisdom, perfectly oriented, to help us live happier, better and more meaningful lives in the year to come — it’s the best book ever written word for word, but if you treat it like a dinner program we’re not going to see it that way. Alternatively, if we think that the obligation of the Seder is to get through the entire Haggadah, we’re going to have a similarly bad experience, because we’re not going to be able to really stop and contemplate the existential lessons and the life-altering meanings that come out of basically every passage.

JI: Why do you think it’s so significant that the Haggadah and the Seder are so full of questions?

Gerson: That’s such a deep and fundamental question, and it gets to the essence of Judaism. The fundamental characteristic that all children share all over the world and all throughout history is curiosity, and every parent knows that when a child is two or three years old what that child will say about 20 to 25 times an hour… And so Moses — he’s a genius psychologist — identified the curiosity of children. He heard those 20 to 25 ‘whys,’ and he said, ‘That is what I will build the future of the Jewish people on, on the questioning of their children.’ These are all basing education on the question. The idea of using education at all as a means for perpetuation is totally radical. Because if one generation takes it off, the whole previous chain is broken… So it’s paradoxically on the basis of questioning, which leads to unpredictable answers and unexpected responses that we’ve built the future of the Jewish people, and that’s the focal point of the Seder night.

JI: Does that make Judaism more liberal than most religions?

Gerson: I think just the fact that we have no word for obedience is kind of astonishing. I mean you know other cultures and traditions command obedience, we don’t have a word for it. Even in the Bible, what’s our great tradition related to obedience, for which we have no word? It’s arguing with God. It’s Abraham arguing with God at Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s Moses arguing with God after the golden calf. It’s the daughters of Zelophehad arguing with Moses, and ultimately with God. So, yeah, we love questioning and Moses invented the idea of perpetuating a tradition through questioning, and it’s done very well.

JI: What do you think is the most important question in the Seder?

Gerson: I think they’re all important. The Haggadah, because it asks and answers all the great questions in life, it addresses each of us at any stage we’re at. Whatever anyone’s thinking about, aspiring towards or going through, the Haggadah is there to help in different passages. So it’ll be different for each person in each year.

JI: One of the passages you look closely at is perhaps the most perplexing and problematic of the whole Haggadah — the Wicked Son. What did end up finding so redeemable in that passage?

Gerson: It’s a very interesting response because the phrase blunt your teeth, a lot of people think it means punch him in the face. I don’t know if people thought that in ancient times, but certainly now when we hear blunted teeth, we think punch him in the face but then we realized that same expression comes from Ezekiel and Jeremiah. So where was that used? Well, it was used twice, neither of which had anything to do with punching anybody in the face. It was that the father who ate sour grapes and his son’s teeth were blunted. [Ezekiel 18:12 and Jeremiah 31:29] It’s clearly an expression of the father accepting the blame. This is why it’s good to really consider this when one has small children, because then you could think, what might I be doing that will lead to a wayward child when the child is 15 or 16, and then not do it.

JI: After a full year of the COVID pandemic, what new understanding do you bring to the Seder?

Gerson: Exodus 12 has this very strange but deeply instructive passage which says that there can be no leftovers at the Seder meal. Why are leftovers un-kosher for Passover? You can have leftovers any other time, but not after a Seder meal. It explains that if one household is too small to consume a lamb by itself, it must invite another household. Now we know from Josephus and modern science that it took approximately 15-20 to consume a lamb, meaning every household is too small to consume a lamb. So we begin this fundamental night of Jewish peoplehood — the great new year of the Jewish people — in the act of giving and sharing the spirit of hospitality. And that’s why we set big Seders, because it tells us to in the Bible. We couldn’t do that last year, and we really can’t do that this year.

JI: You write about how the Egyptians don’t seem to learn from the plagues. After letting the Israelites go, Pharaoh decides “Actually, we’re going to go after them,” and of course we know what happens then. How do you see that as a warning to us now?

Gerson: Everything in the Haggadah exists to teach us a lesson to be implemented today… and if we don’t see it in the passage, we’ve just got to keep interpreting. The purpose of the plagues was obviously not just to free the Jews, because if God wanted to free the Jews, as my daughter said when she was five years old, well, why don’t you just use a magic carpet or a big waterslide which starts in Egypt and ends in the Promised Land? (I would pick the waterslide.) But that wasn’t his purpose, that was one of his purposes, but his purpose was to educate the world that he is the one true God and that people should turn towards ethical monotheism. That’s the purpose. He wants to win an argument.

JI: Any special plans for this year’s Seder? Anything new or different?

Gerson: Well the difference is it’s the second year of just family, and, God-willing, it looks like the last year of just family. Normally we have 50 people or so — Jews, gentiles, people who have never been to a Seder before. It’s often a gentile at the Seder who is coming with such newness, freshness and appreciation who are the ones who most enhance and enrich the evening.

JI: Who are the Seder guests past or present you would most like to invite?

Gerson: No one’s ever asked that. Number one is Martin Luther King Jr., because he was living the Exodus story. Exodus is the great freedom story for the world and he was magnificently applying it to the struggles of his day… You know who else I’d like to have? I don’t even know who this person is, but in the Capitol there is a relief of 23 lawmakers with 11 facing one way, 11 facing the other, and Moses in the middle. I want to know who designed that, because the greatest Seder of them all is American history. I would say Harriet Tubman, who was nicknamed Grandma Moses. This story massively inspired her as well. It’s the quintessentially Jewish event with quintessentially universal implications and applications so I would want to have Maimonides — the quintessential rationalist whose approach I so deeply admire. I’d love to have some of the early rabbis. I talked in the book about how the early rabbis all had professions. If they weren’t working hard enough at their profession, whether it was a shoemaker or a carpenter or whatever it was, they were criticized by saying people say that you’re not going to be a great rabbi unless you work hard at your profession. I’d love to have that discipline.

Luxury Passover programs are hoping to woo COVID-weary Jews. It’s working

Next year in Jerusalem. Last year on Zoom. This year — vaccination proof or negative test in hand — in Miami. 

The end of the coronavirus pandemic is in sight — millions of Americans have already received the COVID-19 vaccine, and many are ready to party. Or at the very least, spend Passover at a luxury resort with gourmet kosher food. 

Passover is a holiday typically celebrated with family and friends, at large Seders that go on for hours. After the pandemic forced Jewish families around the world last year to host downsized Seders, people are beginning to plan larger celebrations, asking guests to have either a vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. This year, several dozen luxury Passover retreats are operating around the U.S., roughly a quarter of the number that normally run in a typical year — but more than the zero that were in operation last year

The all-inclusive getaways — which can cost up to $11,000 per person — offer a week of kosher food, entertainment and activities to those who want to celebrate Passover without the hassle of cleaning a household and with the luxuries of a getaway stay. Though operators are implementing COVID precautions, including capacity limits in dining rooms and mask requirements, thousands of people want in. 

“The interest has just been mega,” said Raphi Bloom, the co-owner of Totally Jewish Travel, a website that serves as a directory for Jewish travel companies and programs around the world. “It’s unbelievable. Considering the world we live in, the desire for people to travel is just incredible.” Spaces at these programs usually fill up months in advance. Now, less than a week before Passover, families are still trying to find spots at these retreats. 

In a normal year, about 130 Passover programs are offered at luxury resorts around the world, in places like Miami, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Tuscany. Bloom estimates that upwards of 100,000 hotel rooms are sold each year for Passover vacations. “Some of our program operators will do an entire hotel buyout,” said Bloom, while others “will do a partial buyout where they’ll buy 50 rooms or 100 rooms and one of the banquet rooms and one of the kitchens.” In any case, attendees get access to extravagant Seders, multiple minyanim, buffets open round the clock and entertainment ranging from live music to rabbis-in-residence to guest speakers like conservative commentator Dennis Prager and parenting expert Sharon Mazel

Last year, Passover program operators were forced to shut down at the last minute, when shelter-in-place orders emerged at the start of the pandemic. Many companies offered partial refunds or full credit toward a retreat this year. In some cases, operators had to forego a year’s salary. 

This year, about a quarter of Passover programs are operating. Many, like those in parts of Europe where lockdowns remain in effect, are not able to operate at all, while certain American companies are forgoing programming this year in order to give the industry a year to bounce back. Some retreats have moved location from states with more restrictions to states with less. Others are going ahead with their normal programming, with some adjustments. “Everything about the whole landscape is different in terms of how we operate,” said Avi Lasko, president of Lasko Getaways, a travel company that this year is operating three Passover programs in Miami and Orlando.

“We have put a lot of COVID precautions into place, but we are running a full program, not cutting back or scaling down on anything,” Lasko explained. “In fact, I would say it’s just the opposite. It’s probably more than ever before. We’re doing more programming and more entertainment and things that are obviously very COVID-safe, but we’re really putting all of our effort into making this a fantastic program.”

In a typical year, Lasko’s three programs draw up to 3,000 guests. This year, he expects to serve about 1,000 people, due to capacity limits his company has set. But among participants, the desire to be on a vacation and with the Jewish community is enormous. “A lot of people have told us this is the first time they’re leaving their own house or their state in more than a year,” Lasko observed. 

There is at least one entirely new program this year, in a location that could never have hosted a Passover retreat in the past: Dubai. “Since the Abraham Accords were signed last year, there’s been an explosion of kosher travel to Dubai in the UAE,” Bloom said, referring to the deal brokered by the Trump administration normalizing relations between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. “Rooms are still being sold as of today,” Bloom said last week. “Even 10 days, 11 days before Pesach, people are still booking to get on a plane to Dubai.” 

Food on display at Whistler’s “Pesach in the Mountains” program in 2019. (Courtesy)

The luxury Passover hotel industry has grown exponentially in the past decade, although its roots date back to the Catskills resorts popular in the mid-20th century. Due in part to discrimination — and the difficulty of finding kosher food — Jews have long traveled en masse, and the Catskills provided a close, convenient option for people from New York City looking to get away. But with the rise of air travel in the 1960s and 1970s, people began to travel to farther-flung destinations, leading to the decline of the Borscht Belt resorts in upstate New York. 

“Twenty-five or 30 years ago, if you wanted to go on vacation and have kosher food, you would either have to schlep it with you — you have to buy frozen meat or fresh meat and take it with you on the plane or in the car — or if you are going on a cruise, you could order kosher food, but it would be basically an airline meal,” said Totally Jewish Travel’s Bloom. “So everybody else is at their tables getting full service, [but] the waiters will be bringing you a triple-wrapped plastic dish in foil.”

Mediocre pre-packaged kosher meals are no longer a necessity for observant Jews who wish to both travel the world and keep kosher. “As people’s demands got greater and as the ease of transporting the food around the world got greater, travel companies started to offer kosher tours,” Bloom explained. 

Passover is the biggest event for the global kosher travel industry, but Jewish travel companies offer tours year-round. “You can go on a five-star Glatt kosher safari in the middle of South Africa or Zimbabwe,” said Bloom. “The company will hire a chef, they’ll get a mashgiach, fly in all the kosher meats, and you can eat like a king in the middle of [South Africa’s] Kruger National Park.”

Of course, most of those programs are not operating right now amid the COVID threat. But the Passover programs that are taking place this year offer an opportunity for Jewish travel operators to find out: Are people going to travel when the pandemic winds down? The answer is unequivocally yes — even if travel might not look exactly the same.

Some of the Passover programs are tweaking their offerings so that individual families can have private service. Instead of getting a block of hotel rooms, with family members eating in the same communal spaces as the other guests, a family might rent a private villa, with a full-service chef and catering service provided by the travel company. 

Yocheved Goldberg, the rebbetzin at Florida’s Boca Raton Synagogue, told JI that a lot of members of her community are going to Orlando and renting houses at resorts that offer in-home catering. “That’s very popular,” Goldberg said, noting that people generally booked those private houses months ago, “when they weren’t sure the [Passover] programs were opening and didn’t want to risk not having an option.” But not everyone who previously used to travel will do so this year. Many people who used to go to the luxury getaways every year were forced last year to buy Passover dishes and host Seders. “They’re all set up to do it again,” Goldberg explained, and many have realized “it wasn’t so bad.” 

Some people see Passover 2021 as the first opportunity for a full, in-person Jewish celebration in more than a year. “Purim [in 2020] was the last holiday before everything shut down literally overnight,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, CEO of Aish HaTorah, “and, I think at that time, everyone was saying, by Pesach, by Shavuot, then it was by Rosh Hashanah [that things will reopen] — that’s how we divvy up our years, totally based on holidays, so just the ability to be with people is nice.”

Burg will be a scholar-in-residence at a Passover retreat in West Palm Beach, where he will spend the holiday with his family. The hotel is requiring either proof of vaccination or a negative test within three days of arriving, and the hotel will offer testing on the reverse end for people who have to fly home afterward. Burg intends to focus his talks and discussions on reconnecting to Judaism after a difficult year of isolation. “Because everyone’s so spread out and split up,” he said, “we want to come together and really refocus on Jewish spirituality.”

Saved from auction, looted Jewish treasures highlight dark market

A Brooklyn auction house’s attempt last month to auction off two Jewish communal registries — one a list of Jewish residents of a Romanian city from the late-19th and early 20th centuries and the other a book of Jewish burials in another Romanian city — was set to proceed until it was halted at the last minute. The sudden move highlighted a wider issue regarding items looted from Jewish communities that, many decades later, are being sold at auction.

“The private market sale of Judaica and historical Judaica items tends to operate in the dark,” Gideon Taylor, chief of operations at the World Jewish Restitution Organization, told Jewish Insider. “There is not a visible or known market [for these items], and there is no central registry or depository. What we do know is that these were treasures of Jewish history that belong to a Jewish community and, thus, to the Jewish people… For many, it is the last connection with people who died and their roots.”

Taylor said he wants to use the attempted sale of these two registries to “open up and expose this trade. We want to talk with state and federal authorities and auction houses to try to ensure that such items of huge significance to the Jewish people are not held privately but instead are available as part of the heritage of the Jewish people.”

Just days before the Feb. 18 auction at Kestenbaum & Company, members of the two Jewish communities to whom the registries had belonged learned of the impending sale and wrote to the auctioneer asking that it be canceled. One letter was from the Jewish community of Oradea in Romania, whose Jewish population registry, which dated from the late-19th century to 1944, was to be auctioned. The community’s more than 30,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis in May-June 1944, and most were murdered while their offices were ransacked. 

“The item that will be auctioned is very valuable on its own and very precious for the history of our community,” said the letter. “It is one of the items which disappeared during the Holocaust. This volume was illegally appropriated by persons who have not been identified to this day.”

The other item was a registry that contains a handwritten list of all Jewish burials in what is today Cluj/Napoca, Romania, between the years 1836 and 1899. Most of the city’s 16,000 Jews were similarly murdered in Auschwitz and the community’s offices were “ransacked and robbed.”

The communities pointed out that stolen goods are covered by clauses in the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 and the 2009 Terezin Declaration in which 46 countries, including Romania, pledged to return all objects illegally appropriated to the rightful owners.

In an email, Daniel Kestenbaum, the founding chairman of the auction house, wrote that the items were withdrawn from auction to give the communities time to “present necessary documentary evidence” of ownership.

On its website, Kestenbaum & Company said the seller of the registries is a “scholarly businessman who for decades has exerted enormous effort to rescue and preserve historical artifacts that would otherwise have been destroyed — either willfully or due to neglect.” It said the registries were “saved from certain destruction in the horrifying war years and through the [subsequent] decades of repression and institutional neglect” that make the matter of their ultimate title “deeply complex.”

In an email, administrative manager Massye Kestenbaum told JI  that the auction house is “deeply committed to Jewish cultural needs” and that the seller of the registries “was eager to discuss with the relevant parties their concerns. Please note, we are not a party to these discussions and so cannot comment.”

Jonathan Sacks wants to prevent the failure of liberal democracy

Philosopher, writer, spiritual leader… soothsayer? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has filled many roles, but even he could not predict the timeliness of his latest book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.

“A free society is a moral achievement,” Sacks, formerly the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain, opens. “Over the past fifty years in the West this truth has been forgotten, ignored, or denied. That is why today liberal democracy is at risk.”

The last portion requires little further elaboration. Any casual glance at the current state of the Western world reveals the fragmentation of a society in an era of rising tensions. But rather than dwell only on describing the existence of these problems — as many recent authors have done — Sacks follows their historical and philosophical origins to understand how what he calls the “moral achievement” of creating a liberal society could become forgotten.

The book, which is released today for American audiences by Basic Book, examines what Sacks terms the “I” of self-interest and the “we” of shared values and responsibility, ultimately providing a pathway for moving from the former to the latter.

In doing so, Sacks provides as good an argument as any for moving forward productively and conscientiously. 

Sacks — who studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, including under the late Roger Scruton — mixes sociology, history, philosophy and theology, all the while writing with a perceptive clarity and underlying warmth that explains his status as one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of today.

Building his argument from the ground up, Sacks starts with the roots of free society in examining the political philosophies that not only informed the creation of modern democracy, but also developed the idea of individuality and personal liberties.

In his chapter “Democracy in Danger,” Sacks contrasts the two most influential definitions of the social contract that defines liberal democracy: Rousseau’s definition of rights as rendered by individuals against the state versus Locke and Hobbes’ definition of rights as a mutual protection from the state. He warns that a growing Anglo-American preference for the former belies the importance of shared responsibility in a democracy, writing that if communities “stop believing in the existence of a significant arena of individual responsibility, we will lose the sense of common morality that finds its natural home in families and communities.”

Sacks further connects this thread to Anglo-American society’s growing sense of separation and loneliness, joining a long list of thinkers — including Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker — in citing the twin processes of social media use and identity politics as driving factors in an epidemic of isolation and fragmentation that has increasingly transformed Western politics.

In an interview with Jewish Insider, Sacks cited the multiculturalism that began in the 1970s and more recent identity politics each as a wave that “fragments and destroys the idea of an overarching culture that turns disconnected individuals and communities into a cohesive society.”

While he reserves no criticism, Sacks treats these movements and their disciples with evident care, describing them as unfortunate products of postmodernism rather than simply the work of ill-intentioned radicals seeking disruption.

“The first country to introduce multiculturalism, and the first to regret it, was the Netherlands.” Sacks writes in his chapter on identity politics. “When asked why they were against it, the Dutch people interviewed said: because they were in favor of tolerance. When asked for their explanation of the difference between the two, they tended to reply that tolerance means ignoring differences; multiculturalism means making an issue of them at every stage.”

In most Western countries, that heightened focus on identity has coalesced into nationalism, the return of which has become especially apparent across Europe. As history shows, the products of such movements ultimately target the foundations of liberal democracy, while including a rise in antisemitism and other forms of hatred.

The way forward, Sacks argues, requires an acceptance of difference alongside a shared cause, more commonly and aptly called patriotism.

In conversation with JI, Sacks cited George Orwell’s differentiation of the two in his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” during which the English novelist wrote, “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

Patriotism, Sacks argues, is the best means to turn from “I’ to “we.” Inserting a shared commitment and shared values without erasing individuality or identity. Throughout his book, Sacks also refers to this commitment as a “covenant,” a permanent and powerful collaboration that turns individual “I”s seeking personal good into “we”s seeking common good.

Yet many of the examples of success that Sacks cites from the 19th and 20th centuries were precipitated by violence, including the Civil War and World War II.

Jonathan Sacks readily acknowledged this pitfall. “Violence is always a sign of political failure,” he said.”I would hope that wise political leadership will lean in to people suffering early enough to avoid the need for violence”

In his epilogue, Sacks touches on this subject, contrasting the different responses to World War I — which saw few changes and ultimately led to more chaos — and World War II — which saw a reformation of institutions and a commitment to shared values. 

The latter saw a development of national narratives that inculcated a common morality and sense of commitment. 

Now, 75 year later, these narratives are depleted. “Britain, like America, has recently become sort of ashamed of its national narrative,” Sacks remarked, noting that he has spent time working alongside numerous prime ministers in an effort to resurrect a respectable replacement. He cited the popular Broadway musical “Hamilton” as an important example of renewing old values by “[retelling] the national narrative in a thrilling way.”

But broader than hit musicals, Sacks argued that the most effective and immediate move towards reinstating a shared commitment lies in requiring mandatory national military service.

Citing Israel — which he called one of the best examples of a current Western-style democracy with a “we” culture — described national service as “the most sensible socially and financially way of engaging that generation and getting them to feel that this was something other than a black period in their lives.”

But Jonathan Sacks wisely advised that no quick fix exists. 

“You don’t expect quick victories. When it comes to changing the mood, we expect to win a few cycles,” he said. “And then they generate disciples and before you know it, the world has changed. But it changes in very small steps at the beginning.”

South Carolina congressman pens letter to Pompeo to pressure Ukraine to let Jews visit Uman

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) has begun to circulate a letter among his House colleagues calling for the Trump administration to pressure the Ukrainian government into allowing religious exemptions for Jews looking to make their annual pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine, for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The move comes amid a strict border closure by Ukraine designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

The House letter is addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and asks him to “consider advocating on behalf [of]  a group of American citizens whom find this annual pilgrimage extremely important.” 

Duncan’s office distributed the letter, obtained by Jewish Insider, to other Capitol Hill offices for signatures late Friday afternoon. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Ukrainian border closure extends through September 28, Yom Kippur. The letter references a number of exceptions in the current order, and states that all of the visitors would pay to test themselves upon arrival and would quarantine apart from the local population.

“The Ukrainian government could add a limited religious exception allowing for a small fraction of the regular attendees (not to exceed 2000 people) to enter the country for a total of five days,” the letter to Pompeo reads. 

In recent years, as many as 30,000 Orthodox Jews have made the annual trek to Uman to visit the gravesite of Rabbi Nahman Breslov around the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

Israel’s coronavirus commissioner, Ronni Gamzu, has been vocally opposed to this year’s pilgrimage, predicting that it could prompt a major spike in coronavirus infections. Gamzu asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week to ban Israeli pilgrims from entering the Eastern European nation, prompting public clashes between Gamzu and several ultra-Orthodox politicians in Israel.

The pilgrimage has already become a flashpoint between local Ukrainian residents and visitors, with a scuffle breaking out between residents, local authorities and pilgrims earlier on Friday. Following Ukraine’s border closure, some pilgrims also found themselves stranded at Ukrainian airports on Friday.