Every year at Passover I get to thinking that this season is the most peculiarly Jewish time of the year. Rosh Hashanah? Others have new year celebrations. Yom Kippur? Many faiths have forgiveness rituals. The sometimes-overshadowed Tu BiShvat? These days everyone is talking about planting trees. It may be the only thing on which President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agree. Mr. Trudeau has spoken of planting two billion trees in Canada. Never outdone on ideology or dendrology (the study of trees), Mr. Trump wants a trillion trees.
But in our faith the term Tree of Life has special meaning, and, since the 2018 massacre at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues in Pittsburgh, only three blocks from my home, the phrase has special power. But we remember that it is a reference to the metaphor describing Judaism’s most sacred text, the Torah, as a tree of life, or, in Hebrew, Etz hayyim:
It is a tree of life to all who hold fast to it; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.
All the ways that life has treated Jews have not been ways of pleasantness, to be sure, and all the paths Jews have taken have not always had the blessings of peace. Passover reminds us of that. It reminds us that life under tyrants is unbearable, that liberation is not easy, that one of the surpassing values of life is freedom, and that the quest for freedom – noble and ennobling – is a vital element of the human story. It is also the Jewish story.
The Passover story is well-known, well-loved, and as the thousands of Seders across the land attest, well-observed. I have heard the Moses story more than 60 times, and each time it is fresh, vital, relevant. But I have heard the 40-years-in-the-wilderness story more than 60 times, too, and each time it is riveting, sobering, and chilling.
And while I think of Passover as peculiarly Jewish, I also think of it as peculiarly American – or, because I am living in Canada for a year, peculiarly North American.
At the heart of Passover is the notion of freedom, and at the heart of the American creed is freedom. That is what the rebels of 1776 sought, it is what the Civil War was about. It also was the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement. As I was writing this I listened to the African-American spiritual ‘’O Freedom,’’ with its haunting line: “And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave.’’ It is the reprise line of American blacks, and it is a dozen-word summary of the Passover story.
I have been a journalist for a half-century and have cited, lived by, and profited by the First Amendment. I did my undergraduate and graduate work in history and just completed 16 years as executive editor of a great American newspaper. But only after the tragedy at Tree of Life did I understand the First Amendment fully.
In popular culture, the First Amendment is how reporters press their rights to cover stories, to critique the government, to criticize its leaders, to ask irritating questions of their social betters. And though we journalists oftentimes think otherwise, the First Amendment isn’t only about our craft. We share the First Amendment with freedom of religion.
Memo to rabbis across the country: We live in, and by, the same amendment.
That roared into my consciousness in the days following the shooting at Tree of Life, when rabbis poured into town, when vigils filled the streets and brave vows of tolerance filled the air, when Squirrel Hill buried its dead. It became clear to me that the work we did as journalists and the grieving we did as part of our community was the living expression of perhaps the most important paragraph in all of American life, and that the congruence of the freedom of religion with the freedom of the press were at the heart of what we were experiencing after the most devastating anti-Semitic attack in American history.
At the end of that week of remorse and remembrance it became clear to me that the freedom to worship and the freedom to think, write and publish were inextricably linked in a way none of us considered before.
I write a nationally syndicated column and this week my typing fingers lingered over a remarkable but forgotten fact, that Theodore Roosevelt – in retirement from the presidency, about to launch a fateful and disastrous third-party candidacy for a third term in the White House – gave a stirring speech on the very last day of Passover in the year 1912. This is what he said:
“This great republic will fall if we permit great masses of our public citizens to be ground under the heel of oppressors. We are fighting today precisely as Lincoln did 52 years ago. We are fighting for a freedom of our oppressed working class.’’
In May 1909, William Howard Taft had become the first president to address a synagogue during regular Shabbat services. The president who abrogated a treaty with Russia in protest of the czar’s treatment of Jews – the chief executive who held meetings with Sears chairman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and with the renowned Orthodox Rabbi Eliezer Silver—spoke of deploring “all narrowness and bigotry’’ and saluted the Jewish people for their determination to “live up to the highest standard of citizenship and patriotism.”
Three years later, speaking less than two miles from where Taft had delivered his oration to what he called the Jewish “church,’’ Roosevelt tied Passover to freedom even as he tied Passover to Abraham Lincoln – an implicit connection between Passover and the American passage, drawn by a man born into a Presbyterian family, a regular churchgoer as a young man who had a profession of faith at age 16, a teacher in a mission Sunday school and a man who, at the death of his father, copied a hymn into his diary and said that “nothing but my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ could have carried me through this, my terrible time of trial and sorrow.”
And yet Roosevelt was not entirely unfamiliar with Jews, or with Jewish life. Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf of Philadelphia’s Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel was a leader of the National Relief Commission in the Spanish-American War of 1898. As a special field commissioner in Cuba, he became friends with Colonel Roosevelt and held services for the handful of Jews in the Rough Riders cavalry that TR commanded. So close did the two remain that when the former president died in 1919, Rabbi Krauskopf commissioned a stained glass window – connecting TR with the prophet Elijah – in Roosevelt’s honor that is in the synagogue’s entrance today.
Even so, the former president’s speech in what to him was the utterly foreign world of a synagogue was an attack on the wealth gap of the early 20th century. It was a speech about human rights. It was a speech about social justice. It was a speech that was given in Pittsburgh, where Reform Judaism was shaped, and where Jews were gunned down at prayer. One more thing, as forgotten as the speech he delivered that day: It was a speech he gave at Tree of Life.
David M. Shribman, who received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his writing on American political culture, teaches at McGill University in Montreal. He was executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 16 years and led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life massacre that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.