Around the seder table in Newport


On Friday [April 22], I attended a community seder at Touro Synagogue’s Levi Gale house opposite Touro Synagogue. I will always think of it as the Jewish Community Center. About 60 attended. Many were visitors, most from New York with one from Fairhaven. There was also a table of people from the Navy Base. Jackie Mandel organized and did the cooking ably assisted by her husband, Rabbi Marc Mandel. There was plenty of food to go around, and although we had the bread of affliction, in no way were we afflicted. The rabbi led us in a spirited seder with lots of singing. He said rasha should not be translated as the evil son. Children are all different and the story needs to be tailored to the recipient. The rasha sets himself apart. We were as diverse as the four sons, and Rabbi Mandel was careful to tailor the seder to the attendees.

When the rabbi went into the kitchen to assist his wife, he asked two of the attendees to speak. An OCS (Officer Candidate School) student described the early strict part of training as slavery. Freedom came when the cell phones were returned, and it was permitted to relax at the dining table. But is it really freedom? Or is it slavery to our devices, especially our cell phones with the ever-present need to keep people apprised of our whereabouts and wellness. The paradoxical conclusion: the strict training phase was itself a kind of freedom. 

We also heard from a South African student at the Naval War College. He started by saying in his culture, it’s disrespectful to wear a hat indoors. He was saddened that his children, although urged to choose, are not speaking either one of their parents’ native languages, Zulu or Xhosa. They speak mostly English at home. He joined the Navy at 20 and is now 44. He went from a patrol boat to a frigate, the SAS Mendi. It is named after a Brifish ship SS Mendi that was sunk after a larger ship traveling at high speed and without proper warning signals collided with it in the fog 10 miles from the English coast on the way from Cape Town, South Africa on Feb. 21, 1917 during WWI. Dead were 626 mostly black soldiers, most of whom had never been to sea before and could not swim. They went down heroically as a chaplain declaimed, “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies...” There were approximately 200 survivors. The SAS Mendi dropped a memorial wreath at the site on its maiden voyage. Feb. 21 is now observed as Armed Forces Day in South Africa.

When Rabbi Mandel reappeared (we were about to send out a search party) he led Achad Mi Yodea? (Who Knows One?) as a revival song. It was lots of fun and perfectly appropriate. 

At shul the next day, the rabbi used audience participation to deliver his message. It was a clever way to avoid interruptions. He asked, “What are the themes of Passover?” The replies included matzah, the exodus, slavery, the transition from slavery to freedom and more. Two major themes took some prompting. One was mishpacha –  family – that we should tell the story to our children; another was zachor – memory – that we should remember who we were and what happened to us. In context it was our history from Abraham to Moses. After consideration, I think it means the entirety of the experiences of Am Yisrael, even to today.

Aaron Ginsburg a Newport native attends Shabbat services at Touro Synagogue.