“You May as Well Fight”: Thoughts from the Passover Season

Passover began on Friday, April 19 and lasted through sundown yesterday, Saturday, April 27, the day that an anti-Semitic 19-year old (who shall not be named) chose to open fire in a synagogue near San Diego, killing Lori Kaye and wounding three others. I have much to say about the upsurge in hate crimes that has occurred under encouraging watch of the current regime in Washington, but I’ll hold that for another occasion.

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The Family Seder, The Sister Haggadah (Barcelona, mid-14th-century)

Here, I want to talk about the Seder we hosted for many friends and family on the first night on Passover and the interesting conversation that unfolded during the gathering. We all read from a Haggadah that a colleague and I compiled and have edited over many years, with additions that call attention to events of the past year that have a particular resonance with Passover as a celebration of liberation, a call to struggle, and a reminder that we are to treat the “strangers” among us with the dignity that all humans deserve since not only were we once slaves in the land of Egypt, but we remain morally compromised and metaphorically enslaved until all are free.

Late in the order of the Seder (“Seder” actually means “order”), after we have re-experienced the exodus, savored our meal, and opened the door to welcome in Elijah, we sing “Dona, Dona.” If you don’t know the song, which was made famous by Joan Baez in the 1960s (as “Donna, Donna”) it relates the story of a farmer “bound for market” with a calf destined for the slaughter house. We assume the calf does not look forward to his fate, as the farmer tells it to stop complaining, for “who told you a calf to be?” The farmer, or an offstage narrator, reminds us that:

Calves are easily bound and slaughtered
Never knowing the reason why.
Those who love and treasure freedom
Like the swallow, will learn to fly.

I love the discussions that pop up at our Seders – they’re always plentiful, interesting, sometimes passionate, frequently provocative. The discussion generated by “Dona, Dona” was all of the above. How can you blame a calf for being a calf, some protested? What kind of privileged arrogance is it to tell the calf to be like a swallow and learn to fly – because it can’t. As much as the calf may dread the fate that awaits it when the wagon reaches market, as much as it would rather be soaring to freedom, its hooves will remain firmly planted on the ground. As much as it may want to fly, calves don’t sprout wings. The song, the dissenters argued, is a blatant example of blaming the victim. The calf is criticized for being a calf, blamed for not becoming something that it can’t become. They pointed out that one might as well blame the countless masses who come into the world as “calves” – the poor, people of color, Palestinians, the dispossessed of Central America or Syria, Muslims and those lacking “proper” documentation in the United States, and so many others – for not having the gumption to soar above the oppression which pins them to the earth.  Meanwhile the “swallows,” those who use their privilege as wings to sail above it all, mock those stuck down below: “If you really wanted to live in a reasonable house, you would just work harder,” they chide. “If you really wanted to get into Harvard, you would be smarter; if you really wanted to be an American citizen, you wouldn’t have been born in El Salvador.”

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Bet Ha-Shitah Kibbutz Haggadah, 1947

Some others, however, pointed out that the lyrics were meant to be read metaphorically. Even those against whom all the odds are stacked can be like swallows, resisting oppression and fighting against victimization. One of the additions to our Haggadah this year, they reminded us, was a plea from Yehuda Bauer, a Holocaust scholar, that three commandments be added to the original ten: “Thou shalt not be a victim; thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” The song, they argued, calls on the “calves” to refuse their victimization, even though success is far from guaranteed; overcoming that which oppresses or lessens us is often not possible.

What did the song’s author intend? Smart phones at the ready, we turned to Wikipedia to provide at least some initial insight on the song’s meaning. The lyrics to “Dona Dona,” were written by Aaron Zeitlin for a composition by Sholom Secunda. Originally in Yiddish, ‘Dana Dana’ (דאַנאַ דאַנאַ), also known as ‘Dos Kelbl’ (דאָס קעלבל) or The Calf,  was part of a Yiddish play produced by Zeitlin; it was composed in late 1940. I had always thought of the song as a reference to the Holocaust, but the date makes that unlikely. The director of the Yiddish Art Theater invited Zeitlin to come to New York in the summer of 1939 to oversee the staging of one of his plays. He accepted, but when the war broke out, Zeitlin found himself stranded in New York for the duration of the conflict. We know that relatively little information circulated in the West about the Holocaust before late 1942, so “Dona, Dona,” composed in late 1940, was likely not a response to that criminal atrocity, one which consumed Zeitlin’s entire Polish family.

Scholars have proposed different interpretations of the song, including a mystical one in which the calf in the song

represents the body, the seat of desire… [L]ike an animal, the body is a slave to these desires. The calf bound on the way to market to be slaughtered is a metaphor for the body’s journey towards death. The calf (i.e. the body) is mournful because it has become attached to life and pleasure, and fears the unknown of the next world. The swallow,” on the other hand, “represents the soul…It is free to soar in the spiritual realms high above the earthly one.

This is possibly Zeitlin’s intended interpretation, as he was grounded in mystical and Hassidic traditions, according to one student who has written about the origins of the song.

While the mystical interpretation may most accurately represent Zeitlin’s intention, the song earned its contemporary meaning via Joan Baez who always sang it as a protest anthem suggesting the need to resist oppression and not be “led to market.” (She recounted once singing the song in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, with an audience that included many of the country’s most noted dissidents, including Vaclav Havel. Part way through the concert, the police cut her microphone, so she urged the audience to sing with her. “…[W]ithout a microphone in a hall of about 4,000 people we sang ‘Donna Donna.’ You could have heard a pin drop… Even the police were too embarrassed to interrupt and do their job. It was an important moment – a big victory.”)

So which version? Does the song blame the victim? Is it a mystical account of body and soul? Should we use it as a song of protest? The question was still on my mind some days later as I went for a morning walk, with Slate’s Political Gabfest playing on my headphones. The Gabfest always ends with “Cocktail Chatter,” something the podcast’s participants  might talk about with friends over cocktails. For his “chatter,” David Plotz remembered Rosemary Quigley, who had died in 2004. I’ll let him introduce her:

Rosemary Quigley died last week in Boston from complications of a lung infection. She was 33. Rosemary suffered from cystic fibrosis, and she had a double-lung transplant in February to relieve symptoms of the disease. Just one month later she wrote about her recovery from the transplant in this Slate Diary.’ She got married in May [2004] to Jeffrey Harris. At her funeral on Saturday, Jeffrey eulogized her as a ‘fireball.’ There is no better description of her. A medical ethics professor at Baylor College of Medicine, she was a poet, a lawyer, a swimmer, a tireless patient’s rights advocate, a troublemaker, a beloved daughter, a delighted wife, and a great friend.

To close his remembrance, Plotz quoted from part of Quigley’s diary that she had written after her transplant:

I have been trying to conjure some philosophical reflections about this experience, given my self-proclaimed professional title of ethicist. But it feels amazingly presumptuous to say anything about what has happened, in terms of where fortune has fallen. I know very little about the person whose lungs I now inflate; this is the single most difficult thing for me to contemplate about this experience. (Even harder than considering my own demise, given that I have mulled that over so extensively.) My donor was a 19-year-old killed in a car accident. Her parents agreed to donate several organs, no doubt restoring and saving a handful of lives. Sometimes I think about all the experiences I will be so sorry to miss out on in the event of my premature death—a prolonged career, rich marriage, generations of family unfolding. And last week, just walking through a grocery store, I thought of the donor and how she absolutely misses out on all of these. It is a harrowing feeling, but not one that holds me back. I’m not saying I owe it to the donor to make the most of her gift; this would imply that I have control over whether something goes awry with the lungs. If anything, I have learned that such command is fleeting. Faith, on the other hand, goes pretty far—except faith means taking a good outcome the same as a bad one, as something that was meant to be. I have much less confidence nowadays in the idea that if you fight hard enough you will beat the odds. If only it worked that way. Still, you may as well fight.

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William H. Johnson, “Harriet Tubman,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, oil on paperboard, ca. 1945

And so we’re back, full circle, to a world in which those consumed by the hatred of “others”  – the “calves” of our contemporary world – feel called upon to slaughter Jews and Muslims, gays and Blacks. So, what are we called upon to do? What is our response to be? In our Seder, we read some passages from Anne Frank, who wrote,

I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death…I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

Fighting back doesn’t guarantee that we will soar free…but we may as well fight.

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