When we sat down at our seder tables recently, we took a break from the hectic secular world.
Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), British Jewish writer and Zionist, captured the dichotomy of the world out thereand our ancient Passover rite in his poem “Seder Night in London.”
Zangwill’s poem is a sonnet: 14 lines in iambic pentameter (ten syllables), often with a thematic break after line eight. Sonnets are typically love poems, and “Seder Night in London” does indeed feel like a love poem to the seder – and to Jewish tradition.
Zangwill first describes London’s harried cosmopolitanism. He takes note of the city’s modern technology: “thund’rous trains” and “throbbing wires.” (Remember, this was written a century ago.) He also describes urban licentiousness: “gin-palaces in tawdry splendor” and “the last burlesque” of the day.
Zangwill then passes judgment on the city. “In modern prose,” he writes, “all poetry seems drowned.”
In the poem’s second part, though, he finds “poetry” within London’s Jewish homes on Passover eve.
Yet in ten thousand homes this April night
An ancient people celebrates its birth
To Freedom, with a reverential mirth,
With customs quaint and many a hoary rite,
Waiting until its tarnished glories bright,
Its God shall be the God of all the earth.
Note the contrasts between “ancient people” and “thund’rous trains;” between “customs quaint” and the “last burlesque;” between “reverential mirth” and “tawdry splendor.”
Zangwill is much better known for his play about America, “The Melting Pot.” But “Seder Night in London” still resonates. It captures Passover’s enduring ability to bring our “ancient people” together, even still. It also celebrates Judaism’s potential to be a counterpoint to the wild world – and its temptations and distractions that surround us. Finally, it reminds us of Passover’s ultimate message – that the whole of humanity will someday recognize “the God of all the earth.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Weill