April 1, 2012

A Passover Story

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The appearance of inedible matzah in Noyes can mean only one thing: Passover begins this Friday night. Though many students will head home to celebrate the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt, others will stay and take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Jewish community. This latter group will follow in the footsteps of many Cornellians before them. Since Passover celebrates the Jewish past, it’s worthwhile to see how Passover has historically been celebrated on Cornell’s campus.

The first mention of Passover I could find in The Sun is from April 1910, when someone requested “Board during Passover” in the classified section. More interesting is a story from April 1911 entitled “Hebrews Celebrate Passover,” which assumes that the campus audience knows little about the Passover story. It states that Passover celebrates “liberation of the ancient Hebrews from the bondage in Egypt,” and informs all interested students that a “local Jewish society, Shevra Khadish” will host Passover services in Collegetown.

Similarly, an April 1914 article describes Passover as “one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar” and explains that it “commemorates the deliverance of the ancient Jews from slavery in Egypt and the incidents connected therewith.” It goes further than the previous articles by informing Cornellians that the holiday runs for eight days and involves “the use of unleavened bread, in memory of the privations of the ancient Jews in Egypt and during their wanderings.”

Clearly, Cornellians were sufficiently unfamiliar with the Jewish rituals that they required these explanations. As further evidence, consider that in April 1924 The Sun included information about the Passover services in an article entitled “In the Churches.”

As the years went on Passover services became more organized. In March 1927 The Sun announced that Milton Steinberg, who later became an influential rabbi and author, was coming to Cornell to run “Passover rites” for “the 500 or more Jewish students on the Campus.” The article explained the concept of the Seder, the service where “meals are served with great ceremony, adequately commemorating the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt over 2,000 years ago.” About 100 students would take part in Passover meals in Collegetown.

The Hillel Foundation, founded at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana in 1923, began sponsoring Seders for Cornellians in the 1930s. It continued doing so during World War II. In 1943 Hillel invited “Students, Navy personnel and Curtiss-Wright cadettes” to a Seder at Temple Beth-el in downtown Ithaca. These “cadettes” were women trained by Curtiss-Wright engineering company to design airplanes for the United States’ war effort. In 1944, Hillel sponsored a Spring dance “to close Passover week” featuring the now-obscure “Eddie Moore and his orchestra.”

As the campus became more politicized in the 1960s and 1970s, so did Passover. In 1968 Passover occurred a little more than a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Sun’s editors saw a connection, noting that Passover’s theme of “freedom from Egyptian bondage” inspired Dr. King’s tireless advocacy for civil rights. They noted Dr. King’s role as a Moses figure of sorts and expressed their hope that “there may well be a Joshua, ordained to complete the journey across the river Jordon and to lead the final struggle.” The continuing struggle, they asserted, should inspire an attitude “not of solemn celebration but of pessimistic uncertainty.”

Things took a more radical turn in 1970 when noted Jewish activist Arthur Waskow led a “Freedom Seder” for hundreds of students in Barton Hall. The event emphasized Passover’s “liberation theme,” which Waskow used to critique US government policy. After Waskow blessed the wine and candles he introduced Cornell United Religious Work associate director Father Daniel Berrigan, who at that time was wanted by the FBI for his involvement in anti-Vietnam War protests. Berrigan then defiantly spoke out against the federal government and joined Waskow at the service.

Today Hillel advertises its “Super Seder” without explanation, and attendees will include leaders in the Student Assembly, The Sun and the Greek system. From obscurity to integration to the forefront of our politics and social life: The story of Passover at Cornell is in many ways the story of the Jewish experience in America.

Judah Bellin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin