Passover: After the eighth day

By Bill Simons

“In every generation, each Jew should regard himself as though he too were brought out of Egypt. Not our fathers alone, but us also, did the Holy One redeem; for not alone in Egypt. Not our fathers alone, but us also, did the Holy One redeem; for not alone is Egypt but in many other lands have we groaned under the burdens of affliction and suffered as victims of malice, ignorance and fanaticism.”

The preceding words come from my 1923 copy of “The Union Haggadah: Home Service for the Passover.” At sundown on April 30 (22 Nissan 5784), Passover 2024 came to an end. More so than at any previous time in my life, the injunction to regard myself as part of deliverance from Egypt continues to resonate after the eighth day. 
For me, Passover is the most indelible Jewish holiday. It is home and family-observed, rendering Passover accessible and experiential. Rooted in sacred tales and venerable traditions, Passover synthesizes family histories within the collective Jewish experience. 

Passover 1951: With my parents, Shep and Elaine, we motor from our triple decker in Lynn, MA, to the first-floor rental in nearby Revere of my maternal grandparents, the rarely present Grandpa Sam and beloved Nana Kahan. Not yet 2, I am given four small sips of wine from a special blue ceremonial glass at appropriate intervals in the seder. The wine imprints a dreamy primal memory.

For over a decade, my paternal grandparents, Joe and Bertha Simons, hosted what I still regard as the template seder. Their four children accompanied by spouses and the 11 Simons grandchildren participated. From Grandpa Joe’s formidable extended family, his widowed sisters and unmarried nieces and nephews were invited. Folding card tables temporarily extended the dining table. We went through the entire haggadah, telling the story of the deliverance from Egypt and emphasizing that it was our story. Knowing that Grandpa Joe had led our immigrant family from Tsarist Russia to the new American promised land lent him a Mosaic presence. Symbolic foods burnished ancient rituals. When my grandfather announced that he was leaving the room to wash his hands, I joined the other children in “stealing” the afikomen in anticipation of ransoming it for a reward. When the entrance door to the house was open, we could see, abetted by imagination and wiggling of the table, the fill line of Elijah’s cup descending. Across the decades, the security and warmth generated by those large Simons seders still resonates amongst the grandchildren who are now themselves grandparents. 

During my high school, college and early employment years, my parents, sister Jo Ann and I would celebrate the first night seder with my mother’s sister, Lucille, Uncle Ben and cousins Lloyd, Robert and Stephen. And Nana Kahan was still with us. Even when living in distant outposts, I would return for those seders. Those Simons-Benson seders were imbued with confidence derived from Israeli military triumphs in 1967 and 1973, the decline of American antisemitism, the business ascent of my father and Uncle Ben, and achievements by the Simons and Benson cousins. 

Time and dispersal scattered the family of my youth, and my grandparents, our anchors, died. My first marriage ended in divorce. My son, Joe, knowledgeable about the man whose name he carried, and I were not alone on Passover. Faye Munson, the soul of the Jewish community in Oneonta, NY, invited us to share in her robust family seders. And her father, Donald, was the pre-eminent hider of the afikomen. 

Even while doing relief work on the Mississippi Gulf in 2006, following the devastation of Hurricane Katina and living in a tent with students in the land of the stranger, Passover provided grounding. As April 12, 2006, my first day on the Gulf Coast, drew to a close, Passover arrived. Tent Village in Pass Christian, MS, lacked the resources for a seder, but I had brought a box of matzoh. Two of my fellow volunteers, SUNY Oneonta students Ian Gillman and Steve Kaplan, shared the matzoh with me. Despite our unconventional observance, we felt that the true spirit of Passover had brought us to this ravaged place.

Passover 2024: On the first night, Nancy prepared traditional foods, and I led an intimate, family seder. For the second night, I joined more tahn 100 SUNY Oneonta students for a robust, joyous seder hosted by Chabad Rabbi Meir Rubashkin, wife, Fraidy, and their seven young children. The gathering began by singing “Take Me Out to the Seder” to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” From the balcony, the children threw waves of projectiles at us to announce each plague. By Zoom, Nancy and I shared the third night with our four grandchildren and observed a venerable Simons competition to determine who could read “Chad Gadya” the fastest, an honor earned by granddaughter Hannah. 

Passovers recent and distant played a major role in shaping my Jewish conscience and consciousness. Thus, a fresh communication from my cousin, Robert, gave me pause. In response to my Passover greeting, he wrote, “All my life, our family and community at large believed to a point of moral certainty that we Jews were different... We rode with the Freedom Riders, made moral decisions, and we knew what was right and what was wrong… Right now… Jews have killed more people, more women, more children that at any time in our history. The mass graves are not Jewish mass graves. We are now the bringers of forced migration, famine, the destruction of hospitals and schools with complete disregard of Jewish values.” 

Introspection followed Robert’s Passover words. I remain convinced that Hamas is a terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel and Jews, builds tunnels in locations to use civilians as a shield, and would repeat the atrocities of October 7 if given a chance. The Israeli war of self-defense to destroy Hamas and to rescue the hostages must continue. However, it is imperative to prioritize protecting the lives of Palestinian civilians and to start planning for a just two-state peace. Passover dictates our obligation to abet the deliverance of innocents, not to preside over their annihilation, lest we become Pharoah.