Are we all wicked children?


(RNS) — You do know where you packed them away, don’t you?

I am referring to your haggadot for the Passover seder.

I am never at a loss to find my haggadot. I have an entire shelf of them — different editions that I have collected over the years, and which I ceremoniously drag out for seder.

My favorite part of the Haggadah? The four children (or, traditionally, the four sons).

You probably know those characters: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask the questions.

Or, their modern equivalents: the good kid, the snarky kid, the “duh” kid, and the clueless kid.

Go ahead — ask me who my favorite child is.

Yup — the rasha, the wicked kid — better translated, perhaps, as the rebellious kid.

Here is one of my favorite versions of the words of the wicked child, from “A Night To Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices,” edited by Mishael Zion and Noam Zion:

What does the wicked child say? “Whatever does this service mean to you? (Exodus 12:26). This child emphasizes “you” and not him or herself! Since the child excludes him or herself from the community and rejects a major principle of faith, you should set his or her teeth on edge and say: “It is because of this, that Adonai did for me when I went from from Egypt (Exodus 13:8). “Me,” and not that one over there! Had that one been there, s/he would not have been redeemed.

So, let’s meet that kid, and the way various artists have imagined him.

(Yes, “him” — sadly. They were all wicked “sons;” wicked daughters appear only in modern haggadot, as in this one by Michel Kichka (2006), which portrays the wicked daughter as a protestor.

Or, this one from Matan.

Go through various editions of the haggadah, and you will discover there are numerous translations of the Hebrew descriptor “rasha.” “Wicked?” “Evil?” “Rebellious?”

I have an even better translation: “not conforming to type.” Because those illustrations portrayed what Jews should not be.

The haggadah illustrations are a sociology of the Jews.

The wicked or rebellious son as a warrior.

From a haggadah printed in Amsterdam, 1695.

The wicked or rebellious son as a boxer. As compared to the wise, studious son to his right. This is from an illustration in a haggadah produced in Chicago in 1879.

What do we learn from these depictions of the wicked/rebellious son as a fighter — either with weapons, or with his bare hands?

There was a time when Jews fought. Abraham went into battle, to rescue his nephew, Lot, who had been taken hostage (Genesis 14). Moses went into battle. Joshua went into countless battles. King David went into battle. The Maccabees were master warriors — so much so that there is a statue of Judah Maccabee at West Point Military Academy, as a celebration of his military prowess.

But, over the centuries of exile from the Land of Israel, Jewish men replaced military heroism with spiritual heroism — the study of Torah. Which was fine, until Jewish powerlessness proved lethal — as it did during the pogroms in Kishinev (1903) and during the Shoah.

“Jews don’t fight.” Generations of Jews internalized that message until, of course, they needed to do precisely that.

Question: How do we deal with the necessary fact that Jews must now fight? How do we maintain the twin images — of studious, pious Jews and Jews who must get their hands both dirty and bloody?

The wicked son as an aristocratic sportsman. Compare him to the wise son to his right, who is a pious Jew. (From the Arthur Szyck haggadah)

Decades ago, there was a quip: “Think Yiddish, dress British.”

That was the dominant ethos of Ralph Lauren and the Polo label. Here was the subliminal message: I am wearing a picture of a polo player and a horse. I could be someone from the polo-playing class.

But, let us not forget that Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz, in the Bronx. Ralph Lauren imagined a WASP fantasy land. He designed a world that Jews in the early part of the twentieth century could only have dreamed of entering — the clubs they could not join, the tony suburbs in which they once could not live, the universities they could not attend.

His own style icon was none other than the former King Edward VIII, who became the Duke of Windsor — an exiled, royal embarrassment, who had impeccable taste (except in world leaders and ideologies; he admired Hitler).

But that world Ralph re-created — the world of the WASP — has disappeared, and with it, Jewish fantasies of assimilation.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew what they wanted, and by and large they got it. They wanted to be Americans.

And today?

Ever since October 7, we have lived through a tsunami of Jew-hatred in this country. Here is the kicker: Much of it has emerged from the universities — and much of that, from the fabled Ivy League. The latest Ivy to be under investigation for antisemitism is Princeton University.

Here is the sobering truth: The only Ivy League university that is not under investigation for Title VI violations, since October 7, is Dartmouth University.

How is that for a kick in the proverbial Jewish shins?

The institutions that we hoped — that we dreamed, that we expected — would be our intellectual Ellis Islands — ports of entry into American privilege — have failed the Jews.

So much, then, for the monocled WASP wannabee.

The wicked son as the Jew who seeks distance from Judaism, and the Jews.

I have always liked this illustration, from the Liberman Haggadah, Chicago, 1979 — though the original illustration is decades older.

The wicked son is smoking a cigar at the seder. His chair is tilted back — in contrast to the Maimonides look alike who is the wise son. He is demonstrating a sense of distance and mockery of the ritual.

Or, the wicked son as the mocker and scoffer, as in this childlike illustration from the haggadah that Otto Geismar created in Germany, 1927.

Note that the wicked/rebellious child is thumbing his nose. Note, also, the starkness and simplicity of the illustrations — as if they had been created in haste, which, considering the fate of the German Jews, happens to be true.

This year, when we sit at the seder table, how shall we imagine the wicked/rebellious/distancing child?

I go back to the original text.

The key word is “you.” “What does this mean to you?”

It is those who say of Israel: “you.”

As I prepare to recite the plagues, I will dwell upon the plague of darkness.

I will reflect on this.

Last week, the world went gaga over a few seconds of eclipse-induced darkness.

But, this year on Pesach, there are hostages in tunnels in Gaza who have not seen the sun in more than six months.

That is the plague of darkness.

The potential for distancing exists in every generation — as does the potential for liberation.

In the words of playwright David Mamet, in his book “The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews“:

To the wicked son, who asks: “What does all this mean to you?” To the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who, in the nineties, envied the Palestinians; who weep at Exodus but jeer at the Israel Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the seder… whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second-favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu Bi’Shvat … to you, who find your religion repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.

Mamet knew that he was a recovering rebellious kid, and for that reason, he does not write with contempt, but with a kind of understanding and even soft compassion.

Finally, a plug for the publisher of my latest book, Wicked Son Press, headed by Adam Bellow. Wicked Son seeks out dissident voices — Jewish authors whose positions are sometimes at odds with those of other Jews.

Here is how Adam puts it (in Jewish Priorities: Sixty-Five Proposals for the Future of Our People, edited by David Hazony):

The wicked son, as everyone knows, is not a respecter of pieties. Provocative and sly, he [sic] defines himself in opposition to his family and tribe, not necessarily embracing them or granting them authority. As if to say, “Oh really? I’ll be the judge of all that.”

Here is my truth: I would much rather hang out with wicked and rebellious children — even and especially if I disagree with them — they are not boring, they are provocative. They make me think about my own positions more deeply. Sometimes, they even inspire me to change my mind.

Wicked and rebellious kids, unite!

You have nothing to lose but your pieties.

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