A teenage boy stands at the seder table, reading from a Haggadah. Around him are a group of Jews in quarantine, unable to leave the building where they find themselves. The evening’s mood appears somber.
The above scene, captured in an archival photograph, is not New York City in 2020, but Ellis Island in 1908.
From the time that the 27.5-acre site in New York Harbor became the country’s primary immigrant inspection station in 1892, until immigration decreased in the early 1920s, Ellis Island was the site each year of Passover seders conducted for Jews who were not cleared to enter the United States.
“The federal officials did their best to accommodate various ethnic groups,” said Alan Kraut, distinguished professor of history at American University, specializing in immigration and public health.
A combination of causes kept some Jews there temporarily; they slept in dormitories or hospital beds. Some had communicable diseases; others were the victims of red tape.
When the immigrants spent the holiday on the island, representatives of local philanthropic Jewish organizations arranged for the seders, made the food and led the evenings of readings and rituals.
On seder night of 1908, Benjamin Axelrod, arguably the most famous stowaway in U.S. history read the Four Questions in Yiddish, in the Great Hall. A native of current-day Ukraine, he tried to enter the country, where he had no close relatives, eight times, and was sent back each time; finally, he entered via Canada, stayed and became a successful businessman in Florida.
Axelrod’s story, and the Ellis Island seders, have special resonance in these days of social distancing and guest-less seders.
Axelrod, who died in 1973, “never talked about it,” but the exploits of the “boy stowaway” became the stuff of family lore, said his granddaughter Arline Ferguson, a retired educator who lives near Boston. “Possibly it brought back all the memories of when he was stowing away.”
More than 100 people were known to have attended each Ellis Island seder.
They were “depressing affairs for all Jews involved,” one newspaper reported.
Yiddish journalist Yakov Pfeffer, who attended one Ellis Island seder, found it a fitting Pesach metaphor for Jews seeking freedom. “When the future historian tells the story of the freedom of the Jewish people,” he wrote, “he will need to tell of the Seder night on Ellis Island.”