Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Abigail’s Letter to John Laid Down Early Demands for the Ladies

Abigail Adams kept up a frequent and detailed correspondence with her husband John while he was in Philadelphia attending the Continental Congress.

Note--a fitting wrap up to Women's History Month.

On this date in 1776 as the Revolutionary War was still young and Boston was besieged by George Washington Abigail Adams sent a letter to her husband John who was in Philadelphia as a Delegate to the Continental Congress from their home in Braintree, Massachusetts.  The success of the war against the most powerful empire in the world was far from assured and the Declaration of Independence, of which John was a prime mover, was yet months away.  But amidst the turmoil Mrs. Adams admonished her husband not to neglect, as male governors had done from time immemorial, rights and needs of women.  

In the midst of a lengthy, chatty letter filled with news from home she included one remarkable passage not even a full paragraph:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Abigail may have regarded the threat of rebellion with tongue firmly in cheek.  For his part John did not seem to take it seriously, although he frequently relied on his wife’s advice.  Certainly neither he nor Congress did anything about it.  To lawyer Adams, women’s rights and privileges would certainly continue to be constrained by English Common Law which is to say they hardly existed.  Women were and would remain virtual chattel first of their fathers and then of their husbands.  Even widows and spinsters had precious little control of their property or affairs.

Abigail's noted comment was contained in a short passage of the lengthy three page letter.

Mrs. Adams was 32 years old that year and the mother of five children.  She was every inch the match of her husband, well read, keenly intelligent, strong willed, and independent.  She comfortably mastered raising her brood and managing the affairs of the family and their small stone farm during the long absences—months, even years—while her husband was away helping to invent America and serve it interests.  In New England where many wives of merchant traders, fishermen, and sea farers had to cope with such long absences perhaps women were more used to self-sufficiency than in other regions where they mostly stayed with their mates on family farms or tended house in villages and towns.

Since the letter was not a public document, it roused no movement among women who might have been similarly disposed.  It was not published until 1848 when Abigail’s son included it in his multi-volume compendium of his parents’ correspondence.  Of interest mostly to serious historians, the books were not widely read and little special notice was given to a single passage which was not echoed anywhere else in the collection of missives.

Susan B. Anthony, above, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton cited Abigail's phrases in the first volume of their monumental History of Woman Suffrage more than 100 years after she wrote it.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton took note of the letter in the first volume of their epic multi-volume History of Woman Suffrage which was first published in 1886.  Slowly the quote spread in the suffrage movement largely to add a connection to the nation’s founders.

But it was the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s that really made the passage famousGloria Steinem featured it proximately in early issues of MS. Magazine and was featured on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and demonstration placards.  In the 21st Century it has become widely shared as a meme.

Dozens of widely circulated memes keep Abigail's words alive on the internet.

Whatever Abigail intended by her passing comment, it certainly has grown legs.  


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Buying the Ice Box from the Tsar for Pocket Change and Lint

The Negotiators--Left to right: Robert S. Chew, Secretary of State William H. Seward, William Hunter, Russian chargé d'affaires Bodisco, Russian Ambassador Baron de Stoeckl, Senator Charles Sumner. 

Secretary of State William H. Seward, a hold-over from the Lincoln Administration in the Cabinet of weak and unpopular President Andrew Johnson, concluded secret negotiations with envoys from Tsar Alexander II of Russia on March 30, 1867.  With a flourish of a pen he acquired Russian America, a huge territory encompassing 586,412 square miles occupying the northwest of North America.

Of course the interests and claims of the indigenous peoples who had already been enslaved and abused by the Russians and who didn’t recognize the land as the Tsar’s to sell were not considered at all.

Approved by Congress, not without controversy but in good time, the Treasury Department dutifully paid for the deal in full with a single check for $7 million, the equivalent of just a little over two cents an acrevirtual pocket change.

From a narrow strip of land along the Pacific Coast it opened up into trackless forest, rugged mountains, tundra, perpetually snow and ice covered lands on the Arctic Sea.  Except along the coast and a string of fur trading posts the new land was vastly under populated with only about 2,500 Russians and creoles, and 8,000 native peoples under the direct government of the Russian fur company, and an estimated 50,000 Inuit, Aleut, and other native tribes in the vast ungoverned areas.  A once lucrative trade in sea otter, harbor seal, and other furs was petering out due to excessive harvesting.  The territory had no other known resources except for timber too remote to get to markets.

Russian America in 1867.

The Russians had staked a claim to the whole Pacific Coast as far south as Spanish held Yerba Buena—later San Francisco—based on the explorations of Vitus Bering and his successors beginning in 1741.  A lucrative fur trade was established and in 1799 the Russian-America Company was given exclusive rights and charged with governing. 

By the early 19th Century much of the area along the coast was being contested by claims by the British and Americans.  The British relied on activity by their Hudson’s Bay Company around Vancouver Island and the Americans on the explorations of Lewis and Clark and activity by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company.  The rivalry first centered on what became called Oregon.  The Russian agreed to a treaty with the Americans in the 1840’s that ceded their costal claims south of Vancouver.

The British, however, were a more troubling rival.  Not only had the Russians been at war with them in the Crimea from 1853-56, they were emerging as a global threat the Tsarist empire.  After gold was discovered along the Thompson River in 1858, the British established the Crown Colony of British Columbia to reinforce their claims on the mainland north of the recently settled border with American-held Oregon abutting the already established Crown Colony of Vancouver (1849) on the island.  These territories began to fill with gold seekers and settlers, were soon fairly strongly garrisoned with troops and the natural harbors made a perfect base for the mighty Royal Navy.

In St. Petersburg, the Russian government determined that its North American possessions were indefensible in the event of new hostilities with Britain.  Feelers went out to both the British and Americans about a possible sale.  The British turned the offer down, probably believing that they would sooner or later come into possession anyway. Serious negotiations with the United States never got underway after the Civil War broke out.

The end of the war in the in U.S coincided with a huge loan from the Rothschilds to the Tsar to pay off the debts of the Crimean War coming due.  Short on cash and fearing default, the Tsar dispatched a high level team to Washington to negotiate a deal that would pay off the loan, or most of it, and checkmate British ambitions in the Northern Pacific.

The Treasury Department check for $7 million  in specie used to pay for Alaska and stamped "Paid/" 

The shrewd Steward recognized that he had the Russians over the barrel.  He needed to buy the territory for a sum that would not require any borrowing on the US’s part and which could easily be paid in a lump sum out of Treasury reserves.  The Russians were forced to settle for $7 million, far less than they had hoped.

The history books would have us believe that the whole nation mocked Seward’s Folly as a wasteful, bad investment.  But it was actually only a noisy minority in the press who made the biggest stink.  Most Americans, if they paid attention at all, where more than happy to grab more land and pinch British Columbia in on both sides.  Many believed that the purchase would lead to the eventual acquisition of the British colonies on the coast.  The treaty sailed through a Senate dominated by a Republican super majority, many of the Senators loyal to Seward, if not his erstwhile Democratic boss.

A typical cartoon mocking the sale shows Seward and President Andrew Johnson hauling away ice while a laughing Russian officer makes off with a $7 bag of gold.

But the protesting press was loud and creative.  Alaska was denounced as a frozen wilderness not worth accepting even as a gift.  One unknowingly prescient editorialist said that the government would never recoup its investment unless gold was unexpectedly discovered at some distant time.

Of course gold was discovered, but not until 1898 when the Alaskan Gold Rush erupted.  By that time other Alaskan resources, particularly its fisheries, were also beginning to pay off.

But all of that was far in the future when Russian America became the U. S. Department of Alaska under the military governance of General Jefferson C. Davis—no, not the former Confederate President, the former Union officer.  A ceremony in the muddy streets of Sitka on October 16, 1867 outside of the log Government House hauled down the Russian Double Eagle flag—after three soldiers had to be sent shinnying up the flag pole to cut it loose from a snag—and raised the Stars and Stripes .  A handful of American troops and ships in the harbor rattled off a ragged salute.

General Jefferson C. Davis, seated, takes control of Alaska in Sitka from Russian officials.  Note the portrait of the Tsar being taken down.  It is doubtful that a portrait of President Andrew Johnson who was on shaky ground with Congress and would soon face impeachment was hung in its place.

The Russian residents and Creoles were supposed to be given three years to take American citizenship or return to their homeland.  But General Davis ordered most Sitka residents evicted from their homes to make way for Americans and general lawlessness soon overtook the district.  Most Russians packed up their belongings and headed home on the first overcrowded ships available. 

Alaska finally became the 49th U.S, state on January 3, 1960.

In the end the massive natural resources of Alaska including not only gold, but copper and other metals, fisheries, timber, and at last oil and natural gas, made Steward’s investment one of the shrewdest in history.  It also became a strategic check to the Japanese in World War II and the Soviets in the Cold War.  Ask Sarah Palin who said she could see Russia from her house


Monday, March 29, 2021

A Familiar Dutchman and Sweden’s Claim to an American Colony

Peter Minuit, Former Governor of New Amsterdam, famous for purchasing Manhattan Island from the natives, led the Swedish colonization project after being ousted by his Dutch bosses.  

Ok, quickly now, students, go to a map and show me the location of the colony of New Sweden.  What?  You say you’ve never heard of such a thing?  Well on March 29, 1638 two ships carrying Swedish and FinnishFinland was at the time part of Swedenimmigrants sailed up Delaware River and landed near modern day Wilmington.  They claimed the river and its drainage for the New Sweden Company. 

In command was a veteran of North American colonization, Peter Minuit.  Minuit is familiar to school children as the Dutch Governor of New Netherland who supposedly swindled Native Americans out of the island of Manhattan for $24 in beads and trinkets.  Like most such arch-typical tales, the story was only half right.  Minuit did purchase the island—and near-by Staten Island—for about 60 Guilders—a significant sum in those days—in trade goods including steel ax heads, needles, hoes, drilling awls pots, and trade wampum.  A historian described it as a significant “high-end technology transfer, handing over equipment of enormous usefulness.”  Both parties to the deal were happy and neither felt cheated. 

Minuit served as governor from 1626 to 1631 when he was suspended by the Dutch West Indies Company because the fur trade with Native Americans, which was supposed to finance the colony, was less remunerative than anticipated and because Minuit was suspected of skimming for his personal purse. 

Queen Christiana was the early teenage daughter of Gustavus Adolphus when Stuyvesant sailed up the Delaware River.  She was called the most learned woman in Europe but created a scandal by refusing to marry or produce an heir and by famously cross dressing.  When she abandoned Sweden's Lutheran state church and converted to Catholicism she abdicated her throne at age 28 in 1654.  She was memorably portrayed by Greta Garbo in a famous 1933 MGM biopic that wrote in a love story with a Spanish Catholic diplomat as a cover for the real Queen's lesbianism.

Outraged Minuit turned to the Swedes, who were going about the business of entering the competition for New World riches.  They were glad to have him.  Sweden, at the time, was at its height of its influence as a world power.  It ruled over much of Scandinavia including Finland, and most of Norway, portions of Russia, all of modern Estonia, Latvia, and most of Lithuania, parts of Poland, Germany, and Denmark.  The Baltic Sea was a virtual Swedish lake.  The Swedes felt more than ready to join the mercantile powers in America.  

Minuit established Fort Christina, in honor of Sweden’s twelve year old Queen.  But as Minuit well knew, the drainage of the Delaware River was claimed by the Dutch.  After establishing his colony, Minuit decided to return to Sweden for more colonists and make a dash down to the Caribbean to pick up a load of tobacco to make the trip profitable.  Unfortunately, he was killed in a hurricane off of St. Christopher. 

A museum model of Fort Christina 

Over the next dozen years 12 groups of settlers totaling more than 600 reached New Sweden and established settlements on both sides of the river.  The settlers were mostly small farmers.  They introduced a form of shelter never seen before in the new world—the log cabin—which would become the standard pioneer abode for the next two hundred years. 

A tapestry hanging in the American Swedish Museum in Philadelphia depicts the Swede's most enduring cultural legacy in the New World--the log cabin.

They had excellent relations with the local tribes and lived comfortably with the near-by Dutch until a new governor arrived in 1654 and seized the Dutch post of Fort Casamir, modern day New Castle.  The notoriously bellicose Dutch governor in New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, dispatched five armed ships and 317 professional soldiers to retake the post.  They then proceeded up the river and forced the surrender of Ft. Christina.  That ended Swedish sovereignty over the area. 

The wrath of peg-legged Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant upon learning that the Swedes had captured Fort Casamir was depicted in this painting.

But the Dutch made no attempt to expel the existing settlers.  In fact they granted them extraordinary rights to retain their lands, practice their Lutheran religion, and govern themselves as a quasi-independent “Swedish Nation.”

But the Dutch themselves were not long to retain their American possessions.  After a series of wars, they were gone for good by 1674 and New Netherland became New York. 

In 1681 William Penn was granted his charter for Pennsylvania, which included the “Three Lower Counties” which make up today’s Delaware.  The Swedes, with no reinforcements coming from the mother country for decades, were quickly subsumed by the British.

Hundreds of years later an Irish American from Pennsylvania would settle in Delaware and put the small often ignored state back on the map of American consciousness.  But damned few of Joe Biden’s Senate constituents were decedents of those old Swede settlers.   

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Zoroaster’s Clouded Birthday and Origin

A contemporary Zoroastrian print depicting the sect's founder, prophet, and avatar.

March 26 was Khordad Sal celebrated as the birthday of Zoroaster also known as the Greater Noruz and which is marked six days after Noruz, the vernal equinox. 

All founders of great religions need a feast day to be celebrated by their followers.  Most often the feast is identified with the birthday, death date, transformation to godhood, or ascension to immortality.  In the case of Zoroaster, the founder of an ancient proto-monotheistic religion which blossomed in Persia (Iran) and became the state religion of vast empires, the feast is a traditional birthday.  But not only is his real birthday not known, scholars have trouble identifying the era in which he lived by margins of hundreds of years.  At least modern ones do better than the Greek historian of philosophy Diogenes and the Roman Plutarch who misdated him by several millennia at around 6,000 BCE.

The Fravashi are spirit angels whose traditional depictions  are often considered a major symbol of Zoroasterism.  History Channel pseudo science bunk peddlers would have you that they are representations of aliens in their space craft.

The problem with dating Zoroaster is largely a problem of jibing linguistic development with known historical events.  All stories agree that Zoroaster was a priest of an already ancient and long established polytheistic religion who developed new ideas elevating the deity Ahura Mazda of wisdom, truth, and pure goodness to the status of Supreme Being and Creator, while demoting various other deities to Fravashi, roughly analogous to angels or spirit saints and demons under a Satan-like Angra Mainy who introduces the destructive mentality of the lie into the world.   Works of Holy Scriptures are attributed to him—Gathas, Yasna, Vendidad, Visperad, Yashts—which are included in an overarching Scripture that includes ritual practices, prayers, and fragments of other texts not attributed to him. 

The problem is that the oldest of his texts are in an early form of an Aryan tongue known as Avestan of which the texts are the only surviving documentation.  That would seem to date these writings, 17 poems of the Gathas, to sometime before 2,000 BCE.  But later writings, including supposed autobiographical accounts of his life were written in Persian dialects from around 600 BCE.    The great age of the Gathas is what convinced the Greeks and Romans that Zororaster’s origins were very early.

Scholars now date the historic Zoroaster to somewhere in a 200 to 300 year range centering on 600 BCE.  That would indicate that he adapted as his own far more ancient teachings and popularized them.

Then there is the problem of just where the hell Zoroaster was from.  A lot of claimants for this honor.  The earliest texts identify him as coming from Airyanem Vaejah meaning roughly the Expanse of the Aryans a/k/a the Iranians.  It may reference a fast flowing river and valley, perhaps in the southern central Asian plateau or in the north of modern Afghanistan.  These same texts fail to mention any of the well-known tribes of western Iran—the Medes, Persians, and Parthians.

Like Buddhism and Christianity a miracle birth story developed around Zoroaster/Zarathustra as illustrated in this children's book.  

Later texts, however, place him in western Iran and identify his priestly cast was the Magi of the Medes and Persians.  Modern scholars tend to dismiss the possibility of him being from western Iran and argue between themselves over points of origin from central and eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Baluchistan in western modern Pakistan, Bactria on the plateau north of the Hindu-Kush Mountains, Turkmenistan, and the vast steppes west of the Volga.  Put your money down and take your pick.

Although Zoroaster’s original autobiographical writings were thought destroyed in when Alexander the Great’s Army captured Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Empire centered in Persia and burned the royal library there.  Or not.  Some scholars dismiss this and say that the original texts, if they existed were lost long before.  At any rate later summaries of the lost texts provide a fairly detailed biography.

Zoroaster was born into a Bronze Age Aryan culture in a priestly line, the Spitamids.  His father and mother were identified by namePoroschasp and Dughdova.  He followed the family trade but was increasingly dissatisfied with ritual practices that included animal sacrifice and the corrupt use of religion by a governing caste of princelings and soldiers to oppress the mass of common people.  He took a wife, Huvovi and together they had three sons and three daughters.

At age 30 Zoroaster was illuminated by Ahura Mazda and began preaching his revised worship of the elevated deity and his philosophy of a struggle between the forces of pure truth and goodness and those of lies and evil.  He eliminated animal sacrifice, simplified ritual, and argued against excessive religious taxes diverted to the caste of worldly rulers.  He developed a system which, for its time and place, was relatively light on miracles and magic and developed an advanced ethical philosophy.

Huvovi and his children were his first converts and his sons became his priests.  At least one daughter was said to have made a strategic marriage to a local ruler that helped spread adoption of the new religion.  Zoroaster faced many obstacles in his preaching, including the fierce opposition of traditional priests and of the nobility who felt undermined.  He was shunned and outcast in his own mother’s hometown.  Yet eventually truth and goodness—ašatriumphed over druj—the lie and much of Zoroaster’s homeland, wherever it was, was brought to the faith.

Zoroaster preaches to legendary Vishtaspa--Hystaspes to the Greeks--a king and/or Mag sage who became one of his earliest supporters and a major figure in scripture. 

No mention was made of how the Master died, but later traditions have him murdered at his altar in Balkh located in Afghanistan during a Holy War between Turans—an Iranian tribe—and the Persian Empire in 583 BCE.  This tale undoubtedly owes more to politico/religious struggles for legitimacy within the Persian Empire and its successors than any historical truth.

We do know that by reign of Cyrus the Great, about 560-530 BCE, Zoroastrianism was wide-spread in his newly unified Persian Achaemenid Empire, although not yet a state religion. Through their enemies the Persians, the Greeks learned about Zoroaster and his teachings, which later became influential in their emerging philosophy though the work of Plato and others.  Likewise the empire brought it to the Jews who were also influenced, especially by Zoroastrian duality which shows up in the concepts of the struggle between light and darkness of the Essenes as evidenced in the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Through both the Greeks and the Jews it influenced Christianity and later Islam, which conquered the Zoroastrian heartland.

Zoroaster influenced Greek philosophers as well religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,  In his famous painting The School of Athens Renaissance master Raphael depicted Zoroaster--the bearded figure holding the crystal globe--among the sages in the agora.

The name Zoroaster is, in fact, the Greek form of the name which has become generally used in the West.  In Persian the name is Zarathustra, which Friedrich Nietzsche adopted for his philosophical novel, Also sprach ZarathustraThus Spoke Zarathustra—in which he put his own thoughts on the death of God and the Übermensch into the old prophet’s mouth.

Darius the Great of the Persian Achaemenid Empire was a personal devotee of Zoroaster and after his death Zoroasterism became the State religion of the empire.

When Darius I came to the Achaemenid throne in 522 BCE he was known to be a personal devotee of Ahura Mazda, but at the time that did not necessarily mean he was a Zoroastrian.  He could still have recognized the ancient pantheon but simply dedicated himself to that divinity.  On the other hand, he may have been.  Not long after Darius died, after extending the empire from Egypt and the Levant to Trace and Macedonia in the Balkans—after failing to conquer Sparta, Athens, and the Greeks—east into India, Zoroastrianism became the state religion, although other cults were generally permitted

The Achaemenids fell to Alexander, but when his heirs could not maintain his eastern empire, the Parthians arose and established an Empire from eastern Asia Minor down through both sides of the Persian Gulf and east through Afghanistan.  This empire lasted from 247 BCE to 224 AD when it disintegrated after a long series of wars with the Roman Empire and the rise of the Sasanians.  This empire would also make Zoroastrianism a state religion alongside the ancient gods of the Babylonians.

The Zoroastrians had a last, long run as an imperial religion with the Sasanian Empire, which was the chief rival of the Byzantines to the east, between 224 and 651 when it finally fell to the Islamic invasion.

The Islamic Caliphate not only absorbed the entire Sasanian Empire, it quickly expanded to cover roughly the same territory as the old Achaemenid Empire and then some. 

Despite the conquest, under the Umayyad Caliphate there was little pressure put upon the local populations to abandon their traditional religions so long as they were monotheistic, their activities did not disrupt or insult Islam, and adherents paid a taxjizya which was leveled on non-Muslims living in the realm.  Over time, however, the tax grew repressive and barriers to advancement in the Caliphate encouraged many, especially among the elite and in the major cities, to convert.  After the beginning of the Crusades there was a general backlash against all religious minorities and more oppressive steps were taken, including local rioting and massacres were allowed to transpire by authorities.

During the Caliphate the Zoroastrians had adopted a stance of non-prostilazation to convince their overloads that unlike Christians they would not try to covert Muslims.  Only those born into the religion were accepted as members.  In the long run, as pressure continued on their populations, this custom, along with a traditionally low birth rate, and continued abandonment of the faith for Islam, contributed to a steady decline in numbers over the ages until only a tiny minority remained in the old Iranian and Afghan strongholds.

After a period of particularly brutal repression many adherents fled to India where they established communities on the southern west coast beginning in the 9th Century.  That community today represents the largest concentration of Zoroastrians in the world.  Known locally as the Parsis, less than 70,000 were counted in the 2001 Indian census, mostly concentrated around Mumbai

Modern Zoroastrian priests perform the Afrinagar ceremony.  They wear masks so that their sputum will not accidentally corrupt the pure flame of sacred fire in it's chalice-like cauldron. 

Their long isolation from their ancestral roots has resulted in customs that are sometimes at variance with traditional Zoroastrianism and mirror the Hindu communities in which they dwell.  This includes a modification of the ban on accepting those not born into the religion by accepting the children of marriages to non-Zoroastrians.  That has not, however, prevented a general population decline, hastened by emigration to the United States and Canada where there are now small communities.

Pressure in the traditional heartland has only worse. The Shi’a in Iran and the Taliban Sunni in Afghanistan, as well as Islamists in the southern Caucuses have been equally zealous in their persecutions making many refugees who have to disguise their identitiesHard numbers in these circumstances are hard to come by.  Less than 200,000 are thought to be scattered over a broad region overlapping several borders.

Today, probably fewer than one million Zoroastrians are left world-wide to celebrate their Master’s birthday.


Saturday, March 27, 2021

Murfin Verse on the Hope and Heartbreak of Passover

The Passover Seder and its symbolic foods like matzo--unlevened bread--recount the Exodus from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land of the Jews.

Tonight at sundown Passover or Pesach began when Jews around the world gather around  ritual tables to remember and give thanks for the events that lead to the ultimate freedom of the Hebrew people and a Promise Land of their own.  That came at a terrible price for their oppressors—a pain that they thank God for inflicting.  It is an uplifting night, a hopeful night, but also a terrible one.

The story of Passover and the Exodus from Egypt is a saga of freedom that not only gave comfort and hope to Jews through centuries of persecution but inspired others who were enslaved and oppressed.  Blacks held in bondage in America in particular used images from the tale in their coded worship and song in which the Promise Land was freedom itself.  In his the speech on the eve of his assassination Martin Luther King evoked Moses when he declared:

I’ve been to the mountaintop…Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Lambs blood on the lintel--a sign to God's avenging angels to pass over the homes of Jews as the first born sons of Egypt are slain.

The traditions of the Passover feast are outlined in the Hebrew scripture making them among the most ancient of continually observed religious celebrations in the world.  On the first night families gather for a Seder meal, the ingredients of which are prescribed and highly symbolic in re-telling the story.  A service is read from the Haggadah and is in the form of questions asked by the eldest son of the father. 

The form of the Seder meal shared today, however, dates to the early years of the Diaspora after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, not in the early years of the First Century BCE when Jewish religious life still centered on the Temple and the priests attending it.  But some sort of family meal before or after Temple rites was shared.

The Last Supper was depicted as a Seder meal early in Christian iconography.

Christians believe that the Last Super was a Seder meal, linking the two observances.  In recent years some Christians have taken to celebrating Seder meals to connect to the Jewish roots of their faith.  This is a development that is embraced as a bridge to cultural understanding by some, and as an abomination by traditional Jews.  Many Reform and Conservative congregations in the U.S. invite non-Jews to attend special Seder meals.  I once got to open the door for Elijah.

This year the first full day of Passover coincides with Palm Sunday which Christians celebrate as the entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem to prepare to celebrate the holy ritual.

Back in 2012 the Passover and Easter coincided. It was also a Blue Moon, the second full moon of the month, symbolic of how relatively rare that coincidence is.

On that same night I hosted a benefit evening of song and poetry with bluesman Andy Cohen at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry (now Tree of Life UU Congregation,  Naturally, I committed poetry for the occasion.   I have edited the poem and replaced a verse from the original.

A modern family Passover Seder by Adelle John.

Brief Haggadah for Passover/Good Friday

For Social Gospel in Words and Music

April 6, 2012


The child always asks…

            What makes this night different

            from all other nights?


You have to think hard.


Somewhere children are always

being massacred for some

accident of birth

            or for mere convenience sake.


Somewhere slaves are plotting their escape

            and Pharaohs hitch their war chariots

            to pursue them. 


Somewhere the fearful faithful

            kneel at the feet of a dying master,

            a maybe Messiah

            who frightened an Empire.


What makes this night different?

            Nothing, son, except that

            you asked the right question.

            Now, what are we going

            to do about it?


—Patrick Murfin

The Plague of Locusts was just one of the punishing catastrophes visited on the Egyptians in Exodus.  The disasters we face today are even more chilling.

In 2016 the first night of Passover fell on Earth Day. At a time when the realities and projections for global ecological catastrophe have never been greater moved me to wonder—What if?

Passover/Earth Day

April 23, 2016


What if there were no Passover?

            What if no sacrificial blood

            smeared on the lintel

            offered any protection?


What if there were no Us and Them?

            What if the Pharaoh’s son

            and our sons fell alike

            from the same dark curse?


What if the Dark Angels were not Yahweh’s?

            What if they were our creation,

            evoked by our carelessness

            and fed by our greed?


What if there were nowhere to flee?

            What if no haven or Promise Land

            lay waiting even after wandering

            because we have laid waste to it too?


What if there were no Milk and Honey?

            What if our goats all starved,

            we killed the bees

            and parched the earth bare?


What if there were no Seder tables to lay?

            What if there were no progeny

            to ask what makes this night different,

            no generations ever again?


What if this is no mere nightmare?


—Patrick Murfin           

But Passover has always had a dark side, almost forgotten, glossed over, or muttered under the breath—the fate of all of those Egyptian children.  It is easy to do, especially if you envision only the sons of Pharaoh and his court—a just punishment for a king who had ordered the slaughter of Jewish babes when he got wind of a rumor that a liberator would be born among them.  But death was visited not just on the elite, but upon all Egypt and families of every class and caste.  And that sounds, to modern ears, a bit harsh.

At Seder meals Jews acknowledge this in singing Dayenu:

Verse 3:

            If He had destroyed their idols,        

            and had not smitten their first-born   

            — Dayenu, it would have sufficed!              

Verse 4:

            If He had smitten their first-born,                 

and had not given us their wealth                  

— Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

All of this got me wondering…do the lives of one set of innocents have to be the price for the freedom and safety of another people?  Are the babes and children of Dresden, Hiroshima, or some dusty village on the Afghan frontier God’s just collateral damage for our noble freedom?  Do Palestinian dead buy a just safety for a people nearly exterminated by others?

Uncomfortable questions, and undoubtedly ones some would wish un-asked.

Seven years ago Passover coincided not with a Blue Moon, but with a Blood Moon, a rare total eclipse under just the right atmospheric conditions that make the Moon darkened by the Earth’s umbra seem to turn red.


The death of the Egyptian first born struck all classes and castes. 

Blood Moon/Egyptian Passover

April 15/2014


Was there a Blood Moon

that terrible night

long, long ago?


Khonsu, Disk of the Moon

            was eaten,

            turning the color

            of old blood.

The wails of the women

            leapt from house to house,

            hovel to tent,

            it is said even to

            the palaces themselves.

The curses of the men

            bearing the limp bodies

            of their sons

            into the dark air

            damning the Moon

                        the Jews,

                                    Pharaoh himself.


What quarrel between bondsmen,

            the mighty and their Priests

            belongs to them, not us.

We are the farmers,

            fishers of the River      

                        and the seas,

            the shepherds, the weavers,

            the folk who cast pots,

            the brewers of beer,

            the molders of simple brick

                        from mud and dung,

            the house slaves

                        and wet nurses,

            the prostitutes…

What care we for those palaces,

            those temples,

                        those monuments,

those damnable tombs,

                        or the slaves who build them!


No Jews dug our wells,

            laid course of simple brick

            for our homes,

            piled a single stone on stone

            on our graves

            to save our dead

            from the jackals.


Yet they called down on us

            the frogs,

            spoiled our grain

            with locust,

            stoned our kids and lambs

            to death by hail,

            our flesh that erupted

            in festering boils.


And now our very sons!


What harm did they do you,

            you Jews?


If your  damn God

            is so powerful

            why did you not call him

            to just wipe out Pharaoh,

                        the Priests,

                                    the Generals in their chariots,

                                                and all their minions

            who have had their sandals

            on our necks

            since time began?


Such a God would be

worth worshiping!

Your freedom—and ours—

would be one!


—Patrick Murfin