Friday, April 27, 2012

The Hope

This year we celebrated our 2nd annual passover meal with my father's side of the family. Shauni and I have been celebrating the festival ever since we were married, but it has been very special to celebrate with family who are Jewish. We had a Haggadah for everyone at the table, and we took turns saying the blessings, re-telling the story of the Exodus, and learning why the timeless themes of the passover are still so applicable to us today.  At the end, we drank a toast (just grape juice for us), faced east toward Israel, and exclaimed, "La Shana H'baha V'Yerushlayim!" (Next Year in Jerusalem!). After the festival, I was reminded of the words of Hatikvah, the Israeli National Anthem and longtime hymn of the Zionist movement which began in the 1800's. The melody of this song has haunted me ever since the third grade, when I first heard it.In English, the hymn reads:

As long as in the heart, within,
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
An eye still gazes toward

Our Hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and

-Naphtali Herz Imber, 1878

You may think it strange--a Mormon family celebrating Passover-- but something about the festival has always resonated with me. You may ask, "Why celebrate a Jewish holiday when you're not Jewish? Isn't the passover feast something that God commanded only the Jews to keep?" In response, I would say that I don't feel an obligation to God to keep the festival, or even an obligation to my ancestors to do so. It is out of love for my Jewish heritage, and love for the family I have recently reunited with, that I feel the desire to celebrate this remarkable holiday, and pass that love on to my children.

I'd like to explore some of the themes of passover, and relate them to recent experiences of mine. I'd also like to juxtapose these themes to those of Zionism, of which the Latter Day Saints have their own peculiar brand.

The first theme that comes to mind is, "Waiting vs. Working for Salvation." By salvation, I don't simply intend the spiritual kind from the Christian vernacular, but the temporal kind that, as slaves in Egypt, the Jews prayed for. These two approaches fueled the "faith vs. works" debate in Christianity that was at the heart of the Protestant reformation; they were hotly debated in the Jewish community after WWII when the partition and Jewish re-patriation of Palestine became a reality, and in my opinion they even appear in politics as an important distinction between the conservative and liberal approaches to governance. I know that last example sounds like a stretch, but allow me to expound.

I'm sure most of my readers are quite familiar with the "faith vs. works" debate, as Mormons are frequently the recipients of criticism from those who believe in salvation by grace alone (and grace by faith), and are also familiar with the defense of works as necessary to demonstrate faith and receive grace. So, I will pass over this issue (no pun intended), and address the next: waiting vs. working in Judaism. In my opinion, this is closely related to the expectation of the coming messiah, which Christians have a parallel in the expectation of the Second Coming.

The First Zionist congress, with Theodore Herzl as president, convened in the late 1800's with the express purpose of finding a new Jewish homeland, and adopted Hatikvah (The Hope) as it's official anthem. However, Palestine was not the first choice of new homelands, because of the political and religious problems involved in mass Jewish immigration there. Instead, Uganda, Canada, and the United States were all discussed as real alternatives, for in the eyes of the Jewish leaders. Anyplace where they could be free from anti-semitism and rule themselves was better than living in a diaspora under the Tsars, Kaisers, and Christian Kings of Europe.

After the Russian pogroms of the late 1800's and early 1900's, the intensity of the Zionist's' efforts increased, as many Jews left Russia for Western Europe and America (including my own ancestors, I believe), while some, a very few, made their way to Palestine to live in Jewish communities supported by Western charities and philanthropists. When the Bolsheviks began the October Revolution in 1917, many Russian Jews, identifying with other Russian serfs, saw the rise of communism as an opportunity to achieve equality with their compatriots, and joined the revolution, becoming major players and supporters of Lenin and the 3rd International (which later became the Comintern). One of those who became prominent inside the revolution was Leon Trotsky, born to a non-religious Jewish family, who was the first Peoples' Commissar, founded the Red Army, and was a trusted advisor to Lenin, nearly succeeding him after his death.

The story of Trotsky is sadly symbolic of all Jews who associated themselves with Soviet communism. Trotsky, and all the Jews in Russia, were eventually demonized as "enemies of the people" by Stalin, driven into hiding or exile with the all-too-real threat of torture in the Lubyanka, and death in the gulags or on the frozen plains of Siberia. In short, things became worse for the Jews under Stalin than they had ever been under the Tsars! Trotsky fled to Mexico, where he called for the organization of a 4th International in opposition to Stalin. He was later assassinated by a NKVD agent in disguise with an ice pick to the head.

The early 1900's were not good years for Jews in Europe, as is well-known. Telling the story of the Holocaust to high school students here in America is a mandate, and that is well! But the less well-known story of the struggles of American Jews around the time of WWII for their European brothers is also worth hearing. A couple of books I highly recommend to those interested would be: The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, and Exodus, by Leon Uris, both American-Jewish authors who witnessed and were personally involved in these events.

Yesterday was the 64th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel (Yom Ha'atzmaut in Hebrew), and with the celebration of a new nation's founding is also a great sadness, because it is likely that without the death of the 6 million it would not have happened.

Happy Birthday Israel!

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