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Thursday, April 12, 2012

On Slavery and Freedom

     During our Passover Seder last Friday, as our family and guests finished reciting those portions of the Haggadah that narrates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their regained freedom after four centuries of enslavements, I felt compelled to bring up the story Jim Yardley had written in The New York Times only for days earlier (April 4th). In it Yardley revealed the plight of a thirteen year old maid who had been practically enslaved by her captors, both doctors, who had bought her from a job placement agency, which in turn had bought the girl from her uncle.

     In the article, Yardley tells about the growing problem of child labour in India, caused by an expanding middle class, a development that has created a greater demand for a cheap domestic labour force that include children between the ages of five to fourteen, who are usually sold by poor families to those who can pay.

     “Debbie Downer,” two guests cried simultaneously, referring to the former Saturday Night Live character that used to habitually interrupt a pleasant group conversation with depressive comments, bringing down the group’s mood.

     But I insisted that we recite the Haggadah not only to retell the story of the Jewish People’s exodus from Egypt, but also to apply our own historical narrative to current world events. As I was doing that I looked across the table at my beautiful grand children, a girl age seven and a boy age four, thankful for their relative safety, and comparing their sense of security to the predicaments of the girl in Yardley’s story, and that of other  girls or boys like her.

     My insistence to apply the Jewish People’s saga to today’s world brings symmetry with my introduction to a Haggadah that I had edited a decade or so ago for our own use in our Seders. In those passages I paid homage to oppressed minorities who yearn for freedom, tolerance, dignity and the preservation of the human spirit; as well as the many men, women and children who are denied basic human rights, and Peoples who have suffered the indignities of prejudice and persecution, impoverishment and landlessness.

     Yardley’s story was published a week or so after Rod Nordland’s piece, also in the New York Times (March 29), telling the sad story of jailed Afghan women, ages fifteen to thirty-six, whose only crimes were reporting their own abuse, mostly domestic violence. I was thinking about those women too, as I was sitting safely in my Upper East Side apartment, looking at my elegant Passover tables, with their white table cloths, fine china, and beautiful flowers I had so carefully arranged.

     I did not always feel so safe. As a child of four and then twelve, and as a young woman, I personally suffered the consequences of war. I tell about my experiences in my memoir War Widow. But my experiences, harrowing as they were, were distinct from the experiences of the young girls and women in both Nordland’s and Yardley’s stories: Unlike those girl and women, I was surrounded by a loving family, and I had choices and conveniences those females did not have.

     I do not have the answers of how to solve the problem of Afghani women, Indian girls, or other women and girls around the world—as-well-as boys--who are sex slaves or are victims of other abuses. There are numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations that have resources and skills to deal with these problems. But as an individual and as an educator I feel I have the moral obligation to raise the consciousness of those around me concerning the plight of those who are less fortunate. And if each of us who are privileged enough to live in places where we can speak out will do just that, we can help address the problem.


  1. I agree w your stand. Women, especially, are treated as second class citizens in many areas of the world. All we can do is continue to tell our stories and try to right the injustices as we hear about them.
    I support you in your stand.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I find them valuable.

  2. Ziva, what a thoughtful piece! When the Haggadah is read each year and current issues of slavery are NOT paralleled in our thoughts and discussion, I think it's a major disservice to my children and to the world. Why read about the past to simply acknowledge it and remember it? Why not remember it and retell it to make a difference today? Your post resonates with me! XO Meredith

  3. Passover night should be dedicated to tell our children, our future generation, the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, from being slaves to become free.
    Universal suffering should be left for the other 364 days of the year!

    1. DBinder,
      Thanks for your comment. Our history is unique, to be sure. And as we read the Haggadah we don’t only recite our narrative, but we also remind our children and their children the danger each generation of Jews has faced throughout history. Isn’t there room, too, to teach them Tikun Olam, not only for our People, but for others as well?

    2. I agree Ziva and plan on doing more teaching or comparing during next year's Sedar even though the grandchildren are so young. If we start now then when the older generation is gone, our children will continue teaching Tikun Olam to their children rather than just singing songs and seeing eyes roll as we read the Hagaddah.