A Haggadah of Hope

It’s not hard to be disenchanted with Israeli politics these days. While most of the world has been focused on Benjamin Netanyahu’s anti-democratic “judicial reform”, his same government has also been engaging in racist incitement and encouraging violence against Palestinians. The pogrom in Huwara is only possible because of a government that cares nothing for the lives of its Palestinian neighbors and who views its own Arab citizens as a threat. With a new militia promised to radical racist cabinet member Itamar Ben-Gvir, we may only be steps away from even more confrontation and death.

In such dark moments, we must not find the light – we must be it. For me, that means digging through my books. It means finding some knowledge, some history, some inspiration for how we can overcome such horrible things.

I found just the book!

Digging through my bookshelves, I found a 1935 Haggadah, or Passover prayer book, from Jerusalem. But it was not any old Haggadah, it was a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic book – with the Arabic written in Hebrew characters.

It remains a mystery to me as to why this Haggadah was published in both languages! Not because there is no reason for it to be – but rather many! First things first – this was published by an Ashkenazi printer – Mendl Friedman. So the printer was unlikely to be a native Arabic speaker, like some of the Jews who had been living in Jerusalem for centuries before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Also, the Arabic inside the the Haggadah seems to be Levantine, though it’s a bit unclear at times and there seem to be a few inconsistencies. For example, in the Four Questions, the writer may have made a grammatical error (or I’m a bit rusty!), by first translating the Hebrew “leylot” (nights) as “leyli” (night as an adjective) instead of “liyali” (nights) before later switching back to “liyali”:

These inconsistencies make me think it was probably not a native speaker doing the translation, although I can’t be sure. In any case, we may never know whether this was an attempt to write in Judeo-Arabic, an attempt by Ashkenazi Jews to fit in their local environment, or the off chance that a Zionist organization wanted to promote integration into the local Palestinian culture (as some of them initially supported). Although the latter seems unlikely since the most pro-Arab Zionist movements tended to be extremely secular and were not likely to be publishing a religious text. If anyone reading this blog has insight into the who, what, when, where, why of this book, please share it with me.

So what does this have to do with today? In short, I am inspired by the publisher’s attempt to integrate Jewish and Arab cultures by way of language. Without knowing the intended audience, I can still say that publishing a sacred Jewish text in Arabic is a statement – especially in the conflict-ridden years leading up to Israel’s founding. I am moved by it and hope we will find many more ways to connect across cultures using language and our sacred texts as a point of commonality rather than conflict.

This Passover, Benjamin Netanyahu will probably be spouting off racist bullshit with his equally crazy family in a comfortable home rather than a jail cell where he belongs. However, we can be comforted by the past and inspired to act in the future. Jews and Arabs have not always been at each other’s throats. In 1935 an Ashkenazi Jew published a Passover Haggadah in Hebrew and Arabic. He probably couldn’t have imagined it would end up in a gay American-Israeli Jew’s hands, but that is the magic of history in action.

May this holiday bring more joy to the world. May it bring freedom. May it give us the courage to confront our modern-day autocratic Pharoahs in America, Israel, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, China, and more. For these Pharoahs sit in temporary comfort – justice will come. Avadim hayyinu – we were once slaves, and we will not stop fighting until we are all free. Chag pesach sameach, Happy Passover, and Ramadan Karim.

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": http://tiny.cc/qjfbsz & http://tiny.cc/gkfbsz. Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/matt.adler.357. May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

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