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A Broken Yiddish, a Better World: Activism as Inheritance

Molly Jackson
May 21, 2015

Part One: Ma Nishtana?

by Molly Jackson

To read Part Two, click here. To read Part Three, click here.

What has changed, this night, from all the others?

0PAULINE KATZ TAKES A DEEP BREATH, filling her strong, small frame with as much air as possible. She will need it to get through the next five lines of the “ma nishtana” in one go, as she has promised her eager third-grade students, the Boston Workmen’s Circle “gimls.”

Sung with respectful curiosity and slight gravitas, the Four Questions of a Jewish Passover seder meal last at least a minute and a half. Pauline, however, springs into the song with gusto, racing through its irregular rhythms and jumping pitches in just seconds — a tune so devilish that more melodic versions have replaced it at most seder tables. To the delight of the Sunday school class in front of her, she does this all in one breath, still managing to add extra oomph and a grimace to the word for “bitter herbs,” and accompanying each verse with a gesture: slapping down her fist whenever matse is mentioned, for example, as though she herself is making flatbread, fleeing from Egypt with no time to spare.

Passover is one of the most essential holidays of the Jewish calendar, a week to commemorate the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Jew and non-Jew alike, most Americans can recount the story’s most cinematic turning points from the Book of Exodus: “Go to Pharaoh and speak to him,” God orders Moses. “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” But not even the infamous ten plagues — rivers of blood, clouds of locusts, death itself — can truly convince Pharaoh, and the Hebrews barely escape through a miraculous passage in the Red Sea, beginning their forty-year trek towards the Promised Land.

In Brookline, Massachusetts, however, at the Workmen Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice, what makes Passover a meaningful holiday for these children and their families is neither God, nor religion, nor faith, per se. Each year, the ritual committee recreates the hagode, a set of readings and songs for the seder. Pauline’s mother Linda has been chair of that committee for many years, despite her dislike of the word “ritual” itself: as 26 year-old Pauline explains, “we don’t do things by rote.”

They make adaptations every year based on what the community’s asking for, in a neat way. I mean it means that we’re constantly growing, constantly changing. Constantly pissing off people. “What happened to this song?! I loved this song!?” It’s just a very interesting dynamic, to be constantly in flux but to figure out what are the important things to us? What has to stay in order for us to be the Workmen’s Circle?

Look closely at the seder plate. The traditional lamb shank bone, one of six ritual items representing Jews’ suffering and deliverance, has been formed of clay by the first graders this year: keeping vegans and vegetarians happy, keeping traditionalists at the table, and giving some of the Workmen’s Circle’s youngest members a tangible way to contribute. Conspicuous among the herbs, egg, and mortar-like kharoset spread sharing the plate is one shock of color: an orange, symbolizing the community’s solidarity with LGBQT people worldwide.

This year, the hagode’s focus is the “Black Lives Matter” movement and what its website calls “the virulent anti-black racism that permeates our society.” Although the Workmen’s Circle’s seder theme changes each year, the centrality of social justice does not. Pauline, who considers herself ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’ — an identity shared by most of the Workmen’s Circle — explains the secular, progressive meaning she finds in the biblical story:

To me, Passover is the ultimate leftie holiday. […] Because there are lines straight from the traditional hagode, about how, “Come, all who are hungry.” You leave an empty seat at the table because nobody should be hungry for Passover. That we learn this, generation after generation tells this story to remind us of a time that we were the oppressed. To remind us of the time that we were the slaves, and to remind us that we did not get our salvation by ourselves. To the religious, that’s a way of leaning on God. To me, that’s a way of connecting with others, to strengthen coalitions. Different communities coming together to support each other.

As the first lines of the group’s 2015 hagode sum up, “Let us celebrate our freedom and strengthen ourselves to join the fight against injustice wherever it exists. For as long as one person is oppressed, none of us are free.” Later in the seder, the community will recite the ten Biblical plagues, and then pause in memory of ten modern ones, brushing a drop of wine across their plate for each evil: war, torture, police brutality, racism, sexism, trans- and homophobia, genocide, religious discrimination, greed, global warming.

POST-SEDER, PAULINE muses about the crowd, which ranges from her giml kids to members of her parents’ and even her grandparents’ generations. There are the members who note her every biennial haircut (clippings donated), who cheer on her budding career as a history teacher, who remember nine-year-old Pauline as the youngest member of the Yiddish choir by a good thirty years. “Here’s the crowd that only knows me as an adult,” she says, looking at the shule kids, “and there’s the crowd that watched me grow up.” In fact, her handprint can be found in almost every organizational corner of the Boston Workmen’s Circle: their shule; their Yiddish chorus, A Besere Velt (“A Better World”), the world’s largest; their social action committees; their Yiddish groups. “My commitment stems from a place of giving back to the community,” she says, “and definitely the fact that the only way I know how to be in a community is to be a part of it — you know, to be involved. That’s how you live your life.”

The tradition she draws on for this traces its roots beyond literal family, to a cultural family across time and space who lived “to build a better world, and knew that if they didn’t do it, who was going to?” as Pauline’s father, Mike Katz, puts it. It is a legacy he and Linda have, in turn, given to their children. It prizes the Yiddish language as a wellspring of culture, purpose, and humanism. For at least four generations, Pauline’s ancestors have lived at the heart of Jewish progressivism, enacting their humanist values in the search for a besere velt, a better world, a phrase they use repeatedly.

Such a heritage can be a blessing, or a burden. The word “heritage” gazes backwards, at risk of getting stuck in the past lest ‘moving forward’ betray what came before. But despite the markers of tradition that have helped forge Pauline’s identity — from archiving the manuscripts of her great-grandfather, Yiddish journalist Moishe Katz, at the National Yiddish Book Center, to participating in the weekly choirs and social groups that her parents helped to found, to being raised in Yiddish, a language most American Jews associate with the “Old Country” — the substance of that tradition is values: values of progressivism, change, and, above all, involvement. Pauline believes that “If you know your history, you’ll know who you are and where you’re going.” Her statement reflects a belief that heritage and identity are tools not for preservation or conservation, but evolution.

Indeed, an outsider looking in on the Workmen’s Circle Seder may ask, “Ma nishtana?” — “What has changed?” Where are the prayers? The kiddush cups? This group’s Jewish observance is vastly different from that of their Orthodox Brookline neighbors, or the Reform synagogue down the street. But for Pauline Katz and her family, this night is not so different than all others: Each is a new step forward, a chance to dive into the work of making a besere velt.

SHE AND I first met as student teachers, making the kitty-corner trek each day from Harvard and Somerville to a large high school in a decidedly grittier neighborhood. Our bus schedules often aligned, and here and there, transit talk veered towards a mutual passion: all things Jewish. The Katzes are deeply committed to a secular, socially-involved interpretation, while I have always been more or less on the fringes as a technically Christian girl forever surrounded by Jewish friends and classmates and deeply drawn to their faith, both intellectually and spiritually.

But the pictures Pauline’s stories painted on those stop-and-start bus rides often gave me pause. “Well, you know, my mom went to the Socialist Jewish summer camp, and my dad went to the Communist Jewish one, so everybody called it a mixed marriage,” she mentioned one day, and I knew that my questions had only begun.

To be continued. To see Pauline Katz talking at the Yiddish Book Center about growing up speaking Yiddish, look below.

Molly Jackson studies education and religion at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Before returning to her adopted home of Massachusetts, she taught literature and composition in Hong Kong for several years.