An empty picture frame at Rodger Kamenetz’s seder table this year is not an empty gesture.
Kamenetz sees Tibet in the frame.
A poet-writer-professor in New Orleans who has become the Jewish community’s most prominent liaison with Buddhists, Kamenetz will place the empty frame in front of him Saturday night as a symbol of solidarity with the embattled country of Tibet. China, which has ruled the mostly Buddhist country for about four decades, has banned displays of the Dalai Lama, the exiled religious leader of Tibet’s Buddhists, and has also confiscated empty frames that Tibetans put up in response to the ban.
Now, the empty frame is part of a new Jewish tradition.
In many parts of the Jewish community, especially in non-Orthodox circles, it has become a common practice in recent decades to add creative readings and tangible symbols to recall the struggle of various oppressed peoples — both Jewish and non-Jewish — on the first nights of Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom.
In past years the focus was on Soviet Jewry or Ethiopian Jewry, contemporary slavery or civil rights, Darfur or the environment.
This year, as opposition to China’s crackdown on Tibetan dissidents and to China’s support for the Sudanese government mounts with the approach of this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, Tibet is emerging as the issue of choice to be remembered at Pesach.
Tibet, which operated as a de facto independent nation from 1911 to 1951, lost its independence following a Chinese invasion in 1950. A Tibetan uprising took place in Lhasa, the capital, in 1959, and the Dalai Lama fled to exile in India, followed by some 80,000 Tibetans. Over the years, remaining Tibetans have complained about a curtailment of religious and political freedom by China.
In addition to Kamenetz’s empty frame, activist Jay Michaelson is suggesting an unlit candle or empty candlestick at the seder table as a reminder of “the light [that] has been extinguished” in Tibet. Hebrew Union College rabbinical student Daniel Bogard has developed a liturgy about Tibet to be read at the seder, and members of the New York Board of Rabbis are inviting members of the Tibetan community to their congregations’ communal seders.
In recent months Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel recruited 25 of his fellow Nobel laureates to sign a letter that condemns the Chinese government’s “violent crackdown” on protestors in Tibet; the New York Board of Rabbis requested a meeting with the Chinese consulate here to discuss the Tibet issue; the rabbinical student organization at Hebrew Union College passed a resolution is support of the protestors in Tibet; a group of 40 Orthodox rabbis joined some 200 scholars and politicians in Israel who signed a petition that condemns China’s violations of human rights; and author Ira Rifkin asked in the Jerusalem Post, “Are Tibetans the new Jews?”
“This is the year for Tibet,” says Michaelson, a law school professor and the chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. At Passover, he says, it “seems appropriate to recognize a huge population that’s not free.”
“This year’s Olympics present one rare opportunity to apply pressure on a regime that’s incredibly resistant to pressure, and seder night is our opportunity as a people to think about that,” writes Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon. In an online letter, he urges seder participants to add some words on behalf of Tibetans to the harachaman section of the blessing after the meal. “Think about what ‘never again’ means,” he writes.
“As Jews we know in our bones how it feels to be oppressed and murdered while the whole world stands silent — and we ought to cry out for the fate of the Tibetan people,” Kamenetz wrote in a statement posted on Rabbi Michael Lerner’s spiritualprogressives.org Web site.
“As Jews we can’t help but help because of our own history,” says Kamenetz, who took part in a Jewish delegation that visited the Dalai Lama in 1997 in the leader’s exiled home in northern India. The Chinese, Kamenetz says, are using the 2008 Olympics as a propaganda showpiece, as the Nazis did with the 1936 Summer and Winter Games in Germany before they speeded up the persecution of Jews after the foreign tourists and journalists left. “That’s the fear I have.”
It’s not only Tibet this year. Readings and symbols of other issues will find their place at some seders.
American Jewish World Service has distributed an open-ended “Why is this year different from all other years?” reading that urges a commitment to “vulnerable strangers in faraway places.” A “Passover Ritual for the Midwives” was written by Hebrew Union College rabbinical student Leah Rachel Berkowitz to honor the forgotten “heroines” of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt. The Union for Reform Judaism’s Commission on Social Action has prepared readings about the plague of malaria in Africa. Rabbis for Human Rights has distributed a “North America Pesach Seder Supplement” with a series of alternative Four Questions on political themes. And Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced that she will save an empty seat at her seder “for the missing sons,” Israeli soldiers abducted by Hamas and Hezbollah two years ago.
This expansion of the Passover message beyond the Exodus from Egypt is increasingly a means to make “the seder ‘more relevant’” to “an increasingly assimilated American Jewish population,” writes Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.
“Such efforts,” he writes, “raise the hackles of some who fear that Jewish concerns are being subordinated to other agendas, when these agendas are entirely praiseworthy.
“Passover,” Tobin writes, “is first and foremost, a rite of Jewish freedom and not merely and empty metaphor into which any other story can be funneled at will.”
The references beyond the Jewish Passover story are entirely within the spirit of the holiday, say the proponents of this year’s Tibet symbols.
“The analogy of Passover is liberation,” says Kamenetz, author of “The Jew in the Lotus” (Harper, 1995) and a participant in 1997’s well-publicized “Seder for Tibet” in Washington in 1997. “Our liberation as Jews won’t be complete until all people complete their liberation.”
“The dialogues between Jews and Tibetans and Judaism and Buddhism are both very significant,” Kamenetz says, pointing out that the Dalai Lama has sought to learn from the Jewish experience in exile, and that Tibetans have made “Next Year in Lhasa” one of their slogans.
He plans to add the phrase “L’shana HaBa’a b’Lhasa” to the end of his seder, he says.
“If we only celebrate our freedom, it’s a weak holiday,” Michaelson says.
He proposed the unlit candle or empty candleholder (unlitcandle.org) as alternative to the empty picture frame, as a symbol with Jewish ties.
“I wanted a Jewish symbol more than a Tibetan symbol,” he says. “I was concerned that for many frum Jews,” an allusion to the head of the Buddhist faith “wouldn’t feel kosher.”
“Candles in our tradition are symbols of light and freedom,” Michaelson says. “The candle symbolizes both the Olympic torch, whose light has been dimmed” and was the subject of controversy during its relays in the United States last week, “and the unmet hopes of a people still living without freedom.”
The unlit candle, Michaelson says, is not intended to serve as a static symbol. “It’s not just to have the object at the table, but to invite discussion.”
Some day, he says, there may be no need for such symbols at seder tables. “When that happens, we’ll have an apolitical seder. We’ll also be living with Moshiach.”
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