Friday, June 5, 2020

Members of LGBT community reflect on Passover's meaning

April 26, 2016

The Passover holiday, which commemorates the Jewish escape from slavery in Egypt, is a time for members of MSU’s Jewish community to not only look back to the past, but to look at the present as well.

“The Passover narrative reminds us not only to retell the story of the Exodus, but it’s also about reliving that experience,” Dana Benson, Rabbi at the Hillel Jewish Student Center, said. 

Jewish people commemorate their exodus with Passover. The holiday lasts eight days, with the first two nights featuring special dinners accompanied by a ritual retelling of the story. The event is called a Seder in Hebrew.

"The Passover narrative reminds us not only to retell the story of the Exodus, but it’s also about reliving that experience."

Central to this holiday is the Seder plate, which sits near the center of the table, bearing items of metaphorical significance to the Passover story.

Throughout the years, some Jewish people have added new items to the Seder plate to commemorate new instances and types of struggle, Benson said. Some of these items include an orange for women and members of the LGBT community, a tomato for migrant farm workers and a banana for victims of the Syrian Civil War.

Additions to the Seder plate are part of keeping the holiday’s spirit of liberation relevant, she said, adding that the Passover narrative is also about "recognizing that each day someone is coming out of their own personal struggle.”

Benson, who identifies as a lesbian, recalled her own coming out. 

“I always look back towards the end of high school,” she said.

Benson was watching comedienne Ellen DeGeneres on television, who had just publicly come out as lesbian.

DeGeneres performed a joking "interpretive dance of coming out" before launching into her stand-up bit, Benson said. Benson was troubled by what happened next.

“She looks into the camera and says, ‘if you’re watching this, you’re probably gay. Just kidding, no but really you’re probably gay,’ at which point I turned off the TV because I was so nervous, so uncomfortable, at possibly being gay,” Benson said.

Melody MacLachlan, a music education sophomore and vice president of campus LGBT group West Circle PRIDE, experienced their own feelings of isolation as they began to understand their sexuality, they said.

“I felt like a bird in a cage,” MacLachlan said. “When I finally told my parents, it kind of felt like my own exodus. I was finally being who I really am.”

The question of how to explain the Jewish legacy of slavery to children is explicitly addressed in "The Story of the Four Children" found in Passover prayer books, which are read aloud during most Passover Seders.

The story of the children — one wise, one simple, one wicked and one who does not know how to ask about the Passover story, is relatable for MacLachlan.

“I wasn’t sure how I identified in my gender or sexuality,” MacLachlan said. “I used to feel like the child who did not know how to ask, but now I feel like the wise child.”

Using bits and pieces from different Passover prayer books, nursing junior Emma Morris and Rabbi Benson put together a special prayer book to use for the Hillel’s Seders.

Morris led the second night’s Seder.

In addition to the four children story, they included a piece on four different generations of Jewry, and how they each relate to Passover, Morris said. The third and fourth generations both lack a substantial sense of identity with the holiday.

"(At the Seder) we talked about how to pass on traditions to that generation and help them feel a greater connection to their Judaism."

“(At the Seder) we talked about how to pass on traditions to that generation and help them feel a greater connection to their Judaism,” Morris said.

For International relations and political theory and constitutional democracy freshman Kaila Waineo, the holiday is way of celebrating the past, she said.

Waineo has been working with Benson to create an LGBT Jewish group on campus.

"Sometimes it's lonely to be a religious person and identify as LGBT. I want to create a community for religious and LGBT students."

“Sometimes it's lonely to be a religious person and identify as LGBT,” Waineo said. “I want to create a community for religious and LGBT students.”

Often LGBT individuals and other oppressed people can feel a sense of isolation and weakness akin to that experienced by the Jews in Egypt, Benson said.

“We need to be able to move past that, across the water, to be proud of who I am and then to reach back across and say, ‘you can come, too’ to anybody else who is feeling isolated or alone,” she said.

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