This past Erev Yom Kippur I got a little brave. Since I wasn’t eating dinner, I decided on a solo adventure to distract me from the impending, food-free 24 hours. At the time I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn, ten minutes from Union Square once on the L train. Last stop, Canarsie. I’ve always liked riding subway lines to the last stop. A friend once asked me how many last train stops I’d checked off. Probably three-quarters. However, Canarsie was a special “last stop,” and I had never before made time for it.
Growing up in my congregation in New Jersey, I heard the assistant rabbi talk about his childhood in Canarsie. Apparently it was about half Jewish, half Italian Catholic. He mentioned on several occasions, “Church-goers from Sunday would beat up Jews on Monday.” I didn’t imagine it would still be that way. It wasn’t. Actually, I was the only Caucasian female on the train for the last ten stops. I still felt drawn to observing this place once so filled with blatant anti-Semitism, something I never experienced in the New Jersey suburb in which I grew up. Strangely enough, my hometown was also heavily Italian and Jewish, with some Asians thrown in for diversity.
We’re now entering another holiday season. Hassidic, half-Conservative half-Orthodox, high holiday, Hinjuistic, hedonist, and heretical Jews alike sit around the Passover table. But no matter your background, there’s weighty baggage attached ,. Every year Passover and “the E word,” as I heard it described last Shabbat, coincide. Historically—though thankfully not in recent memory—this time of year has brought with it major persecution of our Jewish people by some who called themselves “Christians.”
The blood libel charges would start with the disappearance of a Christian child and rumors would spread that he was murdered by Jews who used his blood for Passover ritual purposes. The first such blood libel is noted in Norwich, England, in 1144. The scenario was repeated again and again. Medieval passion plays were no help. The infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903 which began on the last day of Passover was the result of a blood libel. The Nazis heavily propagated the blood libel.
In their fervor to retell the crucifixion story, many church-goers pounced on all Jews because the Jews of 30 A.D. exclaimed, “[Jesus’] blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25). Some feel this was fulfilled with the second Temple’s destruction 40 years later, but, if so, the punishment ended there. Jesus prayed as he died, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34a). The Roman soldiers and leaders, the Jewish people requesting Jesus’ sentencing, and even Jesus’ disciples who fled his side at the first sign of danger, were forever released from their culpability.
The true shame is that Easter, a holiday to celebrate the resurrection from death of God who became human, has at times instead been used as another excuse to persecute our people. The God of the universe willingly surrendered himself to death for the spiritual benefit of all people, especially his Jewish people. Jesus’ Last Supper was a seder. The two holidays are purposefully interconnected. Jesus’ resurrection on the third day, much like the afikomen‘s “burial” and return at the third cup, are often eclipsed today by plastic, kaleidoscopic eggshells and a glazed ham dinner.
Just like some of the disconnected traditions of Easter celebration for many families today, this hatred of Jews is irrational and illogical. We, as God’s chosen people, have experienced much pain from our neighbors’ jealousy via leaders who hate God and His promises to the Jewish people. These promises include a future messiah who will rule all nations (Genesis 49:10). Acts of anti-Semitism, particularly by self-identifying Jesus followers, is a spiritual attack. It forms additional obstacles for a Jewish espousal of Jesus. It has produced in us a fear of betrayal by accepting the one in who’s name we have been oppressed. Perhaps the boomer generation, find this more the case than my millennial peers would. Regardless, this fear lives on. It cripples many from choosing a life connected to God in the way He intended.
Referring to Jewish opinion, Naomi Alderman said in a recent interview for Tablet, “If there’s something that everybody agrees on, it’s probable that we’re missing some really important perspectives.” Alderman just wrote a novel on Jesus’ life from a Jewish perspective. She doesn’t embrace Jesus as messiah but admits that the Jewish world has often thrown him out with the bathwater. Jewish believers in Jesus have surrendered their embedded fear and embraced messiah.
It’s not exactly a train ride, but this Passover will you allow yourself to get a little brave? Challenge yourself to think outside the constraints of this holiday season. Reread Isaiah 53 and ask yourself whom its subject might be, without rabbinic commentary.