In Freedom Seder, Jews And African-Americans Built A Tradition Together : Code Switch More than 40 years ago, the communities wove together their stories of enslavement and liberation to create a new Passover ritual.
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In Freedom Seder, Jews And African-Americans Built A Tradition Together

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In Freedom Seder, Jews And African-Americans Built A Tradition Together

In Freedom Seder, Jews And African-Americans Built A Tradition Together

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Last night marked the beginning of Passover when Jews around the world tell the story of the Exodus. That tale, with its radical message of freedom, has resonated with African-Americans since the days of slavery. As Deena Prichep reports, over 40 years ago these two communities wove their stories together for a new Passover ritual - the Freedom Seder.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. The U.S. military rolled in to occupy Washington, D.C., and a week later, the sun set on the first night of Passover.

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: I walked home to get ready for the Seder and that meant walking past the Army with a machine gun pointed at the block I lived on. And my kishkes, my guts, began to say this is Pharaoh's army.

PRICHEP: Arthur Waskow is now a rabbi. But in 1968, he was working in the peace and civil rights movements. And he decided to come up with a new Haggadah, a guide to the Passover service, that spoke to this moment.

WASKOW: I wove the story of the liberation of ancient Hebrews from Pharaoh with the liberation struggles of black America, of the Vietnamese people, passages from Dr. King, from Gandhi.

PRICHEP: In 1969, on the anniversary of King's death, 800 people gathered in the basement of Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, D.C. There were Jews and Christians, rabbis and ministers, black and white, and they used Waskow's Haggadah to hold a Freedom Seder. When you listen, it really sounds like a prayer for that moment - both mournful and, at same time, electric.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1969 FREEDOM SEDER)

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Singing in Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It was the bush that burned and burned and did not stop burning. What was God all burned up about? It was the physical, economic and spiritual suffering, the injustice...

TOPPER CAREW: In the church basement that night, the spirit was high.

PRICHEP: Topper Carew was one of the readers leading the service. He is now a filmmaker and television producer, but in the late 1960s, Carew was an urban designer working in the civil rights movement.

CAREW: I will tell you that this was the first Seder that I'd ever been to. I didn't even know what a Seder was. But religion has been a northern star for, you know, much of the movement activity that has gone on in the black community.

PRICHEP: And that Passover, according to Arthur Waskow, that northern star can light up the room.

WASKOW: There is a line that says in every generation - every generation - every human being must look upon himself, herself, as if we go forth from slavery to freedom, and that night that line became utterly real.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1969 FREEDOM SEDER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We were slaves of the Pharaoh in Egypt. The Lord our God brought us forth from thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

WASKOW: By the late '60s it was clearer and clearer that American society had opened up to include the Jewish community. It had not opened up - it still hasn't really opened up to include the black community.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1969 FREEDOM SEDER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Black and white, young rebels are free people, free in a way that Americans have never been before in the history of their country. All power to the people.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: All power to the people.

PRICHEP: Topper Carew raised his fist in that rallying cry more than 45 years ago, but he still remembers the power of that moment.

CAREW: Both the Jewish community and the black community have suffered great atrocities. And so the fact that were coming together was a very important and powerful idea. And the way to best understand that was when people locked arms and sang "We Shall Overcome."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE SHALL OVERCOME")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) We'll walk hand in hand someday.

PRICHEP: Moving from slavery to freedom is an eternal journey, a story communities write and rewrite, tell and retell, year after year because just as at the Freedom Seder in 1969, there is much to celebrate together, and much work left to do. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

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