Sunday, April 8, 2007

Go Down Moses

So, I think I put my foot in it at a seder this week. But this will take a bit of explanation...

My dad's a folkie. I grew listening to Pete Seeger, Phil Och and the Kingston Trio. In our extended family, we alternate who leads the seder. Whenever my father leads it, he always pulls out his guitar and leads us in a heartfelt rendition of the African-American spiritual "Go Down, Moses." My father's connection, and mine, to the song is a deep one. The song's connection with the history of slavery in the US helps draw out one of the primary themes of the seder: that the story isn't complete yet. Next year may there be no slaves. Next year may we be in Jerusalem. Next year may the messiah have come. It echoes the Jewish focus on social justice and Tikun Olam (reparing the broken world). And this connection isn't unique to my family. While "Go Down, Moses" is certainly not a traditional passover tune with the pedigree of songs such as Adir Hu, Elyihau Hanavi, or Chad Gadya, it is popular with American Conservative and Reform Jews and has been recorded by Jewish musicians many times (for example, see Alan Eder's recording on the Craig 'n Co "Celebrate Passover" album or the Klezmatics version on "Brother Moses Smote the Water").

But until this week I'd only sung it with family and friends. This week I lead a singing of it at a seder at my cousins house. She had invited some of her friends, two lovely Christian families that were very dear to her and her daughter. Two families of mixed ethnicities.

Until this week it never occurred to me what an African American might think of my adopting (co-opting?) an African American song during a Jewish ritual. And it never occurred to me what an African American might think about my heartfelt comments about how the story of Exodus is not over. And it didn't occur to me until the song was done and I was in the middle of the comments.

And I don't know what they thought. Nobody said anything during the seder or gave me any funny looks. My wife wasn't feeling well so we scrammed pretty quickly after the seder was over. Maybe they took what I said in the spirit it was meant. I hope so. Maybe they took it as some form of condescension or patronization. I hope not. It wasn't meant that way.

Like I said, I guess I put my foot in it.

In case anyone isn't familiar with "Go Down Moses", here's Paul Robeson's version:

Paul Robeson sings Go Down Moses

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