NEW YORK — Those who first sang “Go Down Moses” did not need reminding of what slavery was like in Egypt. Their Moses was in fact alive, and her name was Harriet Tubman. The water they waded into was not the Red Sea, but streams and rivers that allegedly threw the slave owners’ dogs off their tracks.
African-American liberation and the Exodus story are uniquely connected in spiritual inspiration and in embodying resilience, yet never before have the stories been brought together and blended like they were at the Juneteenth seder — the first of its kind — in New York City on June 14.
Organized by New York City’s Jews For Racial and Economic Justice [JFREJ], the seder utilized the rituals and traditions of Passover to celebrate “Juneteenth,” the liberation of African-American slaves announced on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas.
“We came together not just as black Jews or Jews of color, but with the entire community,” said the charismatic Yehudah Webster, who co-founded JFREJ’s Jews of Color caucus and was the seder’s MC of sorts. “We know that all of our liberation is tied together.”
A haggadah unlike any other
JFREJ’s Jews of Color caucus led approximately 200 people — black, white, Jewish and non-Jewish — in a seder of their own design. The Juneteenth haggadah provided the blessings, rituals and imagery of Passover that all Jews are familiar with, but with the content itself radically reimagined.
The East River of Manhattan served as its backdrop as the seder began as so many have — with the traditional Hebrew prayer to light candles, and the Shehecheyanu blessing, recited to celebrate special occasions.
This seder, however, beyond providing feminine and humanist prayer alternatives, would offer many blessings for those that came before them — stretching back to Africa.
“We memorialize the ending of chattel slavery in the way we remember our liberation from Egypt because ritual is a form of collective, embodied memory,” read black Jewish activist Koach Frazier from the Juneteenth haggadah, which he co-authored. “We embody our experiences as both slaves and people on a journey towards liberation.”
Elijah and Miriam’s cup honored ancestors in the pan-African tradition. Frazier led the kiddush over the traditional four cups of wine, celebrating black forebears that fought for freedom like Frederick Douglas, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, Audre Lord and Sammy Davis, Jr.
“Our tradition tells us: ‘B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim,” the haggadah continued. “In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they had come out of [slavery in] Egypt.”
The seder plate
The Juneteenth seder plate recreated the traditional Passover symbols using culinary traditions of the American South and Caribbean, emphasizing red foods as is customary on Juneteenth to symbolize “ingenuity and resilience in bondage.”
On this unique Seder plate, the z’roa took the form of beets, a vegetarian substitute for the Passover shank bone. Okra, the green vegetable brought over from West Africa to the American South, served as the karpas, or greens.
Black eyed peas, which represents the new year in American Southern tradition, was beitzah, the egg. Hot red pepper — what else? — induced maror’s bitter tears of slavery. The baked sweet potato was charoset for its hardiness, and there wasn’t matzah but cornbread: the poor bread that Southern slaves were able to make.
Telling stories past, present and future
“Tonight, we will hear stories of our ancestors’ journey to freedom, like we hear every Passover,” announced Frazier.
The Maggid, or story-telling portion of the seder, was carried out in the African-American tradition of oral story-telling. Accompanied by the beat of a drum, these ancestral stories took everyone from Africa to slavery and eventually liberation, an exodus story of its own unfolding over several hundred years.
Ma nishtana, the seder asked next — why is tonight different from all other nights?
“This night is different because we take time for ourselves to revel in the liberation that is our birthright,” read JFREJ organizer Leo Ferguson. He directed everyone to ask among themselves what “a future of joy, freedom and collective liberation look[s] like,” pausing for individual contemplation and group discussions.
As the seder neared its conclusion, its narrative focused squarely on modern-day injustices oppressing the black community. Reading from the haggadah, Rabbi Barat Ellman addressed Jewish complicity in and benefiting from white supremacy, calling to begin black reparations in the form of divestments from oppressive systems like mass incarceration and the NYPD.
Victoria Davis, the sister of Delrawn Small, who was killed by an off-duty New York police officer during a road rage incident last year, spoke earlier at the seder about her family’s struggle for justice. The officer remains on the NYPD payroll.
Uniting a community of many histories
Frazier, who will begin studies at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the fall, led this eclectic congregation in the Hebrew blessings over the (corn)bread and wine (hibiscus tea) before the break for the meal.
As the sun set, and with the East River breeze sweeping across the crowd, soul musician Ashley Philips concluded the seder by leading an emotional rendition of “Wade in the Water.”
“[W]ater to speed our escape from Mitzrayim [Egypt], halt our escapes from the cotton fields,” read this first Juneteenth haggadah. “Water to deliver Moses to Pharaoh and carry him to Batya. Water to swallow up Pharaoh’s pursuing armies and oceans to hold the nations of kidnapped Africans destroyed by the Middle passage. The currents that bore Robert Smalls to freedom, and the undertow that forced the last breath from Emmett Till.”
Weaving these traditions and stories together was a powerful experience for many.
“I love Passover,” said Leo Ferguson. “It’s my favorite Jewish holiday and it feels very meaningful. But in a funny way, this is the Passover that I think I always wished to have — the music that was being played, the people around me, this is what I always longed for as a young person.”
For those in the black Jewish community, the Juneteenth seder affirmed a more whole identity — and the perseverance it has required, past and present — among overlapping and separate communities.
“This was a chance to experiment with something new,” said Ferguson. “When you look at the rate of young people leaving Jewish institutional life, it feels like such an important thing to realize that if we are to have a future as a community that is multiracial and multiethnic, it reflects the way that young people are growing up with different identities.”
Frazier remarked that through shared narratives, this Juneteenth seder could transform what these identities fundamentally mean.
“Freedom and liberation is a part of my story as a black person, as a Jewish person, as a black Jewish person,” said Frazier. “When we hear those stories, we envision what it is like to be free, what it smells like, what it feels like. It is a recreation of Passover. Just like on Passover, we are doing it today so that we can live in that liberation — rather than living in oppression.”