In college, David Abusch-Magder (then David Abusch) decided to take a class in African dance. Over the years he had watched every semester as the class was often held outside. People seemed to be having fun and the movement was so easy and fluid.
His experience comes to mind each year at Passover when we read in the Haggadah (Passover prayer book) that there are four children, the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one that cannot even ask. My husband David, of the aforementioned story, who is now a Jewish educator, often teaches about these differences to help remind us about the different types of learners we need to be able to reach to be successful in Jewish education.
But it is more than that. My husband was, by his senior year, a confident and accomplished student. He was the epitome of the wise child, eager to ask, engage in discussion and to explore new terrain. His achievements in both Jewish studies and physics highlighted both his intellectual flexibility and capacity.
As it turned out he stunk at African dance and gratefully relied on a generous pass/fail system to make it through a class he had undertaken precisely because it would be a break from the stress and strain of the rest of his studies.
The four children of Passover exist not as static solitary characters but are exist as parts of our unified self. Before arriving on campus, David, like the one who did not know how ask, had no idea that the University offered such a class. As a senior, David the wise physicist became David the simple African dancer. In different areas of knowledge or competence, we may move between being the wise, the wicked, the simple or the child who does not know how to ask.
At Be’chol Lashon we work on inclusion in the Jewish community. No one in the Jewish community is against inclusion. And yet, because of the range of ways to include, there are different approaches depending on the individuals being addressed. So It is not surprising that people who are wise about one form of inclusion, are not necessarily so about our area of focus, racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community.
Working to raise awareness about the vast richness of the diversity in the Jewish community, we connect with many wonderful well-meaning people. But each of those people is at their own place in the journey of understanding and celebrating diversity. Knowledge and experience with one area of inclusion does not guarantee success in another area, any more than knowledge of physics guaranteed success in dance.
Some in our community, like the wicked child, may look around their sanctuary and see only ‘white’ faces and easily pronounce that issues of race have nothing to do with the Jewish community. We eschew the Passover Hagaddah’s vision of breaking the teeth of the wicked child. Instead, as we work to build cultural competence and understanding of Jews as a multi-cultural people, we see individuals, institutions and communities as building their own skills and in need of support in a journey to raise self-awareness. Talking about race and understanding the complexities of identity comes, as does the Passover story, through discussion and education.
None of us is born an expert on all that exists in the world. Our tradition teaches us that instead of arrogance about that which we know, we should be aware of that there is always that which we don’t know we know. It teaches us that simple questions are reasonable questions and that we all have a less than positive approach some of the time. So let us take the four children of Passover as a model to move our own understanding of race and ethnicity, so that next year we ask wiser questions and have a more informed vision of Jewish life.