Tag Archives: Passover

Salon: “Let my people go”

28 Mar

Israeli PM Netanyahu weekly cabinet meeting

“What makes this year’s Passover Seders unlike any others is that a majority of American Jews have been forced to face the fact that Palestinians today are asking Jews what Moses asked Pharaoh: “Let my people go.”  The Israeli elections, and subsequent support for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s open racism and obstinate refusal to help create a Palestinian state, is not playing well with many younger Jews, and they will be challenging their elders to rethink their blind support for Israeli policies.”

Read whole article: “Let the Palestinian people go”: What younger Jews will be asking of Israel at Passover Seder this year

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

What is January 6th? (Reposted from 2014)

9 Jan

This is a question, or comes as part of misguided well-wishing, that I get at this time of the year when people find out I’m Orthodox.  “Your Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Epiphany?  What’s Epiphany?”  “That’s right!  Three Kings’ Day?!”  “But Russian Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Is that what they call ‘little Christmas’?”  And the thing is that this is one of those questions that people aren’t really interested in hearing the entire answer to because it’s so complicated, and you see their eyes start glazing over just as you’ve started to explain, so I usually mumble “uh-huh” or something and change the topic.  So let this post be my official statement on the issue that people can refer to when they want to know what the deal is, or on those nights when the Ambien isn’t working.

Once upon a time, Julius Caesar created a calendar.  Well, even if it wasn’t Caesar himself but his astronomers, it was known as the Julian calendar and it was what the entire Christian world used until the sixteenth century.  That’s when Western astronomers — during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII — who were smarter than Caesar’s astronomers, realized that the calendar we were all using was off, vis-à-vis certain fixed astronomical events like solstices and equinoxes, and especially the all-important Vernal Equinox* by which the date of Easter is calculated: that it had drifted back some ten days over the centuries, meaning the day that was actually March 20th, let’s say, had slipped back to the day we were calling March 10th at the time.  So they came up with a new calendar that was more accurate, called Gregorian, like the Pope.  They just skipped the errant ten days.  And one fine evening of March 10th, let’s say, Christians the world over went to bed and when they woke up it wasn’t March 11th but March 21st.  With me so far?

After some fuss, Western Christians accepted the new calendar.  The hyper-traditional Russian Orthodox Church and the rest of the Orthodox Churches, which were mostly part of Muslim states at the time, kept the Old/Julian Calendar, till the early twentieth-century when the Greek and Romanian churches adopted the New/Gregorian Calendar, while the other ones (and the monastic communities of Mount Athos) continued and continue using the Julian Calendar.  One of several critical points: since the sixteenth-century change the discrepancy has grown so that the Julian Calendar is now thirteen days behind the astronomically correct Gregorian Calendar.

So, Christmas?  Well, Russians celebrate Christmas on what the West calls January 7th.  Mind you, their church calendars say December 25th when ours say January 7th, so they don’t really celebrate it on January 7th.  It’s just January 7th to us.  Though, actually, if you ask a Serb or a Russian when, for example, St. Nicholas’ Day is, they’ll say December 19th — meaning on our current, modern Gregorian calendar — though on their church books it’s still December 6th, when the West and Greeks and Romanians celebrate it.  The key point is that on the Old/Julian Calendar everything is thirteen days later.

gregory xiiiPope Gregory XIII (click)

I generally find this calendar difference to be a nuisance, one of the negatives of the decentralized structure of the Orthodox Church, mostly because you get vacation at all the wrong times and have to ask for days off, but also because, despite the often scathing condescension I feel for most of Western Christianity, I am an oecumenist at heart.  And it’s unpleasant to celebrate Christmas on a different day than other Orthodox Christians or even Easter on a different date than the West.  On the other hand, sometimes it’s nice.  It’s nice to celebrate Easter without the cheap plastic crap of Easter Bunnies and parades all around.  And it’s nice to get to drop into church in early January when the late December craziness of Christmas in this country — no matter how hard one has tried to stay out of it — has made it impossible for you to even light a simple candle for the holiday. Convenient, in a sense, as well; if I can’t get to a Greek church on August 15th, for example, for the Dormition of the Virgin, (or here) I can always go to a Russian one on August 28th.  But generally, I think it’s the dumbest kind of traditionalism to stick to the Old Calendar.  I mean, even if we’re so literal-minded as to think that we know when Christ was born — or even so literal-minded as to think He actually existed — we now know, scientifically, that the day we were calling December 25th is not December 25th.  So what’s the problem?  Russians, of course, make off like bandits with this deal.  Communism made New Year the most important holiday of the year, but even then everyone still celebrated Old New Year on January 13th.  Now festivities in post-communist Russia start around Western Christmas, go through New Year’s, celebrate Russian Christmas proper on January 7th, and still celebrate Old New Year on January 13th — a month of more than the usual everybody-being-plastered.

Easter?  Oh, Easter.  Why do Greeks celebrate Christmas with the West but Easter with other Orthodox Churches?  Again, a result of the decentralized structure of Orthodoxy.  The Greek Church switched to the Gregorian calendar for everything else, but, due to the fundamental centrality of Easter and the Easter cycle (Lent-Easter-Pentecost) to the faith (something the West has quite seriously lost sight of), it was decided that Greeks and Romanians would continue to calculate the date of Easter according to the Julian Calendar in order to stay in step with the others and maintain Orthodox solidarity.

“But what about January 6th then??!!” you ask, desperately seeking Christian truth.  January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  I repeat: January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  The Богоявление in Church Slavonic, Bogojavljenje — The “God Revelation,” literally, or also colloquially called Jordaninden in some South Slav languages: “Jordan Day.”  Er, like the river, right?  That’s right.  It’s the day Jesus Christ was baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist and the beginning of Christ’s ministry.  But this happened when Christ was 30.  He was baptized on January 6th, thus the Twelve Days of Christmas, but it was January 6th thirty years later; it’s purely coincidental that they come so close to each other, but understandable that Christian observance would lump them together into one holiday season.**  But Epiphany is not a holiday thematically related to Christmas or Christ’s birth; it’s not part of the first few weeks of His life.  It’s also purely coincidental that Epiphany comes twelve days after Christmas and that the Old and New Calendars diverge by thirteen days.  But that’s the reason people have heard of something about January 6th and think “Russian Christmas” is January 6th.  It’s not.  It’s the 7th.  January 6th is Russian Christmas Eve.  And that means Russian Epiphany is…..?  Have you been paying attention?  Very good.  January 19th.  Thirteen days later.  Though, again, Russian and Serbian and Bulgarian Churches are celebrating it on what — for them — is January 6th.

The Epiphany is one of the Great Feasts of the Church and of great theological significance, which is really why I get so worked up about this issue.  It’s not just the day Christ was baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist.  At the moment of His baptism, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father was heard saying: Οὗτός ἐστιν υἱός μου ἀγαπητός, ἐν εὐδόκησα.” “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Thus, it’s the first time that the Trinity was revealed to mankind in all three of its forms at once.  That’s what Epiphany, or Theophany, as it’s also known, (Επιφάνεια or Θεοφάνεια) mean: the “showing” or “revelation” of God — in all His forms.  It was also my father’s nameday (“Fotios,” like “photo” for light — the day is often colloquially known as “The Lights” in Greek) and an important holiday in his village.

Baptism_(Kirillo-Belozersk)Russian icon of the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus Christ (click)

And the Three Kings?  Three Kings’ Day is an abomination whose prohibition I will begin to work towards as soon as I am elected to the College of Cardinals.  Honestly, sorry to be so churlish and ruin the fun of hundreds of millions of little Hispanic kids, but I genuinely find the observance to be more than mildly offensive.  I don’t care that it doesn’t make any sense textually – that the gospels are clear that within days of His birth Mary and Joseph had whisked Christ off to safety in Egypt and that they weren’t sitting around in the cold for almost two weeks waiting for these “kings” to come.  (Though it’s cool that these “kings” were likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran — searching for something they had heard would happen towards the West around the Winter Solstice — Yalda).  I just think it’s the Catholic Church at its cheapest, most propagandistic worst to let a holiday of such theological importance degenerate into a by-product of Franciscan Christ-Child piety (like most of Christmas in the West anyway) and to officially condone this sentimental tripe about frankincense and myrrh, while the real meaning of the holiday is completely forgotten, as if believers are incapable of understanding the real theology behind the day.  It’s the Catholic Church at its Grand Inquisitor worst, actually — and there I’m with Dostoyevsky: give ’em a show and a nice little parade and keep their loyalty and submission; they’re too stupid to get the deep stuff anyway and you’ll only risk confusing them and then, enraged, they’ll turn on you: “Ecco homo….Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος.”  It’s one of the many ways that Rome still seems to be incapable of finding a way between the most ruthless authoritarianism and the cheapest populism.  Though that, of course, was exactly Dostoyevsky’s point: that the two work hand-in-hand.

Which is why, aside from its incredible power as a scene in and of itself, I find the segment from Twelve Years a Slave I posted at top to be immensely gratifying; a slave at least knew that “John” and “baptism in the Jordan” had something to do with “Three” — and not three kings


In seaside parts of Greece, the “blessing of the waters” is performed, where the priest throws a cross into the sea and young men dive in to retrieve it.

A few years ago, the Turkish government permitted Greeks in İstanbul to perform the rite again, though for the Patriarch to do so at the Fanari on the Golden Horn, they generally have to call out Turkish commandos to protect the participants from the Çarşamba*** crazies from up the hill.

Oh, and just to add to the confusion, early Christians actually did celebrate the Nativity of Christ on January 6th, but the Church moved it to the 25th of December at some point so they could get a piece of the Saturnalia and Mithra-Birthday celebration market.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com


* Easter is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox, thus, the first Sunday after the first Full Moon, 14-15 of Nissan — the first night of Passover — in the Jewish Calendar…I think.  In short, the first Sunday after the first night of Passover, one more indication that the New calendar is the more correct way to calculate and number things.

** On the Old Julian Calendar Easter often came so early that Carnival began in late January, thus Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, was considered the beginning of Carnival — one long wintery festival season from Christmas to Ash Wednesday.  This is why Shakespeare’s play, which has nothing to do with the Epiphany, was called “Twelfth Night” — because it was a comedy commissioned for the beginning of Carnival.  For some reason, in the more Slavic, — yes, I said it: S-L-A-V-I-C — parts of northwestern Greece, like Lerin or Kostur, serious Carnival time is early January, and includes elements much like what we know of the Roman Saturnalia, and not the pre-Lenten season that it is elsewhere.  And he have evidence that the Byzantines celebrated a similar, Roman-Saturnalia-derived extended festive time throughout the winter.

Oh…  But what’s Carnival?  And Lent?  Ash Wednesday?  Oooofff….other posts…

*** Çarşamba is a hyper-religious — yes, I’ll just call it fundamentalist — mahalla, up the hill from the Fanari, the once entirely Greek neighborhood on the northern shore of the Old City where the Patriarchate is located.  It’s the only part of İstanbul I — and not a few İstanbullus themselves — genuinely feel uncomfortable being in or walking through, and occasional bits of fun like Molotovs tossed into the Patriarchate’s compound usually come from these lovely black-clad, bearded neighbors of ours.

A Zissen Pesach y Pesaj Alegre to everyone…

15 Apr

…or just Καλό Πάσχα, “Kalo Pascha,” as the Jews of Jiannena would say.

Passover in Ioannina Bechoropoulos & Attas Family 1933

The Bechoropoulos and Attas families celeberating Passover in Jiannena in 1933 (click)

Special thanks again to Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos and the Kehila kedosha Janena community in New York City for providing the photo.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com



12 Apr

From Foer’s Haaggadah:

“At the beginning of the first Palestinian uprising, the Israeli army built an open-air prison called Ketziot, near the border with Egypt.  The prison, which was meant to warehouse Palestinians arrested in Gaza and the West Bank, sat a few miles from Kadesh Barnea, where Moses defied God.  Moses was punished for his transgression when God denied him entrance to the Promised Land.  The prison at Ketziot held, at various times, as many as six thousand Palestinians, from the lowliest rock-throwers to the leaders of the uprising.  Three hundred or so Israeli soldiers made up the staff.  The food, for prisoners and soldiers alike, was kosher, because the Israeli army is a kosher army.  So at Passover, the prisoners ate only matzah, just as the soldiers did.  One Passover day, a leader of the prisoners, a terrorist [mmmmm…sic?] who had murdered a Jew several years earlier, summoned a soldier to the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the compound.  He explained politely, with a good deal of hesitation, that the Palestinian prisoners didn’t actually like the taste of matzah.  The soldier said, “We don’t like it either” and explained the notion of the bread of affliction.  “But we’re the afflicted!” the prisoner cried out….  The conversation went nowhere, as these sorts of conversations tend to do.  And yet the soldier learned something from the encounter.”


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“He got up walking like a natural man…”

7 Apr

Today, the day before Palm Sunday (Orthodox Easter is April 28th this year) is known as the Saturday of Lazarus in the Orthodox Church, the day that commemorates Christ’s raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead, prefiguring his own Resurrection.

The Resurrection of Lazarus, Guercino

And here’s Aretha Franklin’s incomparable rendition of the old gospel song: “Mary Don’t You Weep,” which commemorates the story of Lazarus and the Passover story as well.  Below are the lyrics (“If you hadda been here, my brother woudna died…” always kills me) and the history of this spiritual which dates from before the Civil War, as its moving conflation of the two tales of redemption would indicate:


(Choir) Oh oh mary (x8)
(Soloist) Mmm don’t moan
Listen Mary

(Choir) Oh Mary don’t you weep
Oh Martha don’t you moan
Oh Mary don’t you weep
(Soloist) Tell your sister to don’t moan
(Choir) Oh Martha don’t you moan

(Soloist) Pharaohs Army
(Choir) Pharaohs army
(Soloist) All of them men got drowned in the sea one day
(Choir) Drown in the Red Sea
(Soloist) Yes they did

(Soloist) Now if I could
(Choir) If I could
(Soloist) If I could I surly would
(Choir) Surely would
(Soloist) I’d stand right up on the rock
(Choir) Stand on the rock
(Soloist) I’d stand right where moses stood
(Choir) Moses stood
(Soloist) Yes I would

(Soloist) Pharaohs army
(Choir) Pharaohs army
(Soloist) I know you know that story of
how they got drowned in the sea one day, oh yeah
(Choir) Drown in the Red Sea

(Soloist Lazarus Story Ad-lib)

We gonna review the story of two sisters
Called mary and martha
They had a brother
Named Lazarus
One day while Jesus was away
Their dear ol’ brother died, yeah yeah
Well now Mary went running to Jesus
She said, “Master,
My sweet lord!”
“Oh if you had’ve been here my brother wouldn’t have died!”
Oh yes she did.
Jesus said, “come on and show me, show
me where you, show me where you buried
him, show me where you laid him down!”
And when he got there, Jesus said,
“For the benefit of you who don’t believe,
Who don’t believe in me this evening!
I’m gone call this creature, oh yes I am!
He said “Lazarus, Mmm Lazarus,
Hear my Hear my voice! Lazarus!
Oh yeah!”
He got up walking like a natural man,
oh yes he did! Jesus said,
“Now now now,
Mary, Mary don’t you weep!”
Mmm Oh mary don’t you weep
Go on home and don’t you and your sister moan. Don’t moan.
Tell martha not to moan

(Choir) Pharaohs army
(Soloist) Because you see Pharaohs army,
(Choir) Drown in the red sea
(Soloist) they got drowned in the Red Sea

(Soloist) Oh Mary don’t weep
(Choir) Oh Mary don’t you weep (x3)
(Soloist) Mary dont weep
(Choir) Oh Mary don’t you weep
(Soloist) Mary don’t weep
(Together) Tell Martha don’t you moan


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

A Zissen Pesach y Pesaj Alegre to everyone

6 Apr

One of the sweetest gifts this Passover has brought us is the New American Haggadah, translated by Nathan Englander and edited by Jonathan Safran Foer.  Foer is the author of Everything is Illuminated,  http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Is-Illuminated-A-Novel/dp/0060529709/ref=pd_sim_sbs_b_1  a beautiful book made into a moving film, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a book and film both of which I perhaps unfairly ignored because I’m highly allergic to any kind of 9/11 sentimentality.  More on Foer here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Safran_Foer

His Haggadah is smart, both reverent and ironic, skeptical and thought-provoking, often funny: everything we want from a good Jewish text.  It’s also an absolutely beautiful edition, though at twenty bucks each might be a bit pricey if you actually wanted to use it at a large family seder: http://www.amazon.com/American-Haggadah-Jonathan-Safran-Foer/dp/0316069868/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333823352&sr=1-1

He lays out his reasons for writing it in a recent New York Times piece: “Why a Haggadah?”:

“Though it means “the telling,” the Haggadah does not merely tell a story: it is our book of living memory. It is not enough to retell the story: we must make the most radical leap of empathy into it. “In every generation a person is obligated to view himself as if he were the one who went out of Egypt,” the Haggadah tells us. This leap has always been a daunting challenge, but is fraught for my generation in a way that it wasn’t for the desperate assimilators of earlier generations — for now, in addition to a lack of education and knowledge of Jewish learning, there is the also the taint of collective complacency.”

But the piece’s money quote has got to be this says-it-all conversation with his six-year-old son:

A few nights ago, after hearing about the death of Moses for the umpteenth time — how he took his last breaths overlooking a promised land that he would never enter — my son leaned his still wet head against my shoulder.

“Is something wrong?” I asked, closing the book.

He shook his head.

“Are you sure?”

Without looking up, he asked if Moses was a real person.

“I don’t know,” I told him, “but we’re related to him.”

Read the whole Times piece; it’s cool.  I couldn’t get a link to work.

I wish everyone the saving passing over of all evil and that whatever freedom you’re looking for, in whatever form you need, may it be granted to you.


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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