Religion

How to choose a great wine for Passover

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(RNS) — Many of my best rabbinical encounters happen in stores — in this case, Total Wines in Florida.

I ran into a former congregant there who was buying wine for Passover. After an exchange of pleasantries, she asked, “Maybe you can help me. Do we have to have red wine for Seder, or can we have white wine?”

Now, as for me, give me a good Sauvignon Blanc any time (though there are certain versions of Pinot Noir that I love as well, and don’t get me started on Israeli red wines, especially Pelter, which I love).

This is what I said to her. “Not only are you permitted to have white wine at Seder; maybe you should have white wine.”

“Really?” she asked.

An aisle in a wine store is not the best place for a Jewish history lesson. But, that has never stopped me.

I told her about the blood libel — the ancient and medieval accusation that Jews would kill gentile children, use their bones for matzah and their blood for wine. It is the oldest and most horrific antisemitic accusation.

For that reason, certain medieval sages said: Don’t give our enemies reasons to think that Jews are killers. Don’t give them reasons to think Jews drink blood.

“Forget red wine; drink white wine instead.”

Some scholars have suggested the reason why Jews open the door for the prophet Elijah toward the conclusion of the Seder was to show the neighbors: No, we are not engaging in murderous practices!

So, let’s examine that bizarre and horrific lie against the Jews.

The origins of the blood libel — that Jews murder children — go back to the centuries before the Common Era. According to the ancient Egyptian antisemite, Apion, “Each year the Jews kidnap a Greek, fatten him up, then kill and eat him as part of a ritual in which they swear an oath of hostility to all aliens, especially Greeks.”

This led to the accusation that Jews were murderous, xenophobic and misanthropic.

From there, it was just a short walk to the deicide charge — that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth. This accusation was responsible for the banishment, torture and death of countless Jews over the centuries. I heard it as a child growing up on Long Island — and even as an adult from some certified Jew-haters.

Leo Frank during his trial in 1913. His wife, Lucille, sits behind him. Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Leo Frank during his trial in 1913. His wife, Lucille, sits behind him. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

The blood libel accusation reappeared in a different form, in the Leo Frank case in Georgia in 1913.

Leo Frank, a Northern Jew, managed a pencil factory in Atlanta. He was accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a factory girl from Marietta.

Outside the courtroom where Frank stood trial, the mob in the street screamed: “The Jew is the synagogue of Satan!” “Crack that Jew’s neck!” Their main inspiration was the famous Georgia politician, Thomas E. Watson, a Populist who called for Frank’s lynching — writing, as Mark Twain sarcastically put it, “with a pen warmed in hell.”

The jury needed less than four hours to convict Frank. He was sentenced to death. A round of appeals lasted nearly two years. When Frank finally lost the appeal, Georgia Governor Frank Slaton commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment. Slaton had to flee Georgia because of the many death threats against him. He had always believed the truth would come to light and that Leo Frank would be vindicated and released.

It was not to be. Leo Frank was transferred to the state prison farm at Milledgeville, southeast of Atlanta. 

On the afternoon of August 16, 1915, a group of 25 men, who styled themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, drove from Marietta to Milledgeville. They were prominent citizens. They broke into the prison farm. They abducted Frank. Early the next morning, they hanged Leo Frank from a massive oak tree in Marietta.

It took Leo Frank nearly 10 minutes to die. The murderers posed proudly with the corpse. Those photographs became postcards. People purchased them as souvenirs, as they purchased pieces of the rope that strangled Leo Frank.

The Leo Frank case instantly became part of Southern folk culture.

Fiddlin’ John Carson, the first commercially successful hillbilly recording artist, composed and recorded an entire genre of Mary Phagan-themed songs: “The Ballad of Mary Phagan,” “Little Mary Phagan,” “The Grave of Little Mary Phagan,” and “Dear Old Oak in Georgia.”

The Leo Frank case spawned the creation of both the Anti-Defamation League, America’s foremost civil rights organization, and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Leo Frank case was a taste of medieval antisemitism. It conjured up memories of the blood libel and other anxieties about Jews.

It would not be the end of the blood libel. It reappeared in 1928 in Massena, New York, as well.

Let us bring this into the present.

When it comes to antisemitism, we are always in the Middle Ages. No accusation against the Jews ever disappears. It only reappears in different guises.

Since Oct. 7, much of what has happened has been a modern blood libel.

Let me be clear about the subtleties and nuances of this conversation.

Reasonable people can disagree on the particular details of Israel’s military response in Gaza; on the depth of the Israeli response; on whether the IDF has been as cautious as necessary, even as they fight an asymmetrical war against soldiers without uniforms who deliberately and cynically embed themselves within and among a civilian population. This has long been the MO of Palestinian terror squads; the PLO did the same thing in Beirut in 1982, and in many other situations.

Moreover, reasonable people can disagree on how Israel should respond to the distressing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

I can imagine civil conversations on these topics.

Let me stress the word “imagine.”

I have not yet encountered such civility.

But, there is a conversation I will not entertain with any degree of civility. That is the question of whether Israel is waging a deliberate war of “genocide” against the Palestinian people.

To quote that old Levy’s rye bread commercial: You don’t have to be Jewish to be accused of genocide. President Biden has been called “genocide Joe” because of his support for Israel. That slur occurred during a recent Trump rally. Trump responded: “They’re not wrong, they’re not wrong. He’s done everything wrong.”

The term “genocide” was invented by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer. It emerged out of the context of European antisemitism (and, retroactively, the Armenian genocide). Whatever else you think about the war in Gaza, the use of the term “genocide” is sloppy, inaccurate and mendacious. It is an updated version of the myth of the Jews as demonic, evil, misanthropic, outsiders, the Other. It is a blood libel.

As it has been said: Israel has gone from being the nation of the Jews — to being the Jew of the nations.

A plague of darkness has fallen on the world.

That will be on the mind of many Jews during Seder this year. Every Passover symbol, every passage of the Haggadah text — will scream at us.

Especially this one: “It was not just one who rose up to try to kill us. Rather, in every generation there have been those who sought our destruction. But the Holy One of Blessing rescued us from them.”

My translation and interpretation: Hope always triumphs over despair.

To all my friends and readers, hag sameach. Make this as joyous a holiday as you can — even as we remember the hostages and their families — their pain, their anguish, their horror and their longing.

And choose a great wine for Passover as well.

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