Thursday, April 13, 2006

Happy Passover - "They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Now Let's Eat"

=> The Basic Scenario:
(From a Purim website.)
On Purim Jews celebrate how Queen Esther saved the Jews of Persia from annihilation. [JW: Actually, Mordechai was the brains behind the operation, so she didn't exactly do it herself ... but why quibble?] With costumes (tachbosot), noisemakers (raashanim), food baskets (mishloach manot), hamantashen cookies (oznay haman), a festive meal (seudat purim), and carnivals, Purim is a favorite Jewish holiday for children and adults. [....]
(From Purim Food and Recipes)
According to one Jewish joke, the theme of all Jewish holidays is: "They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let's eat!"

=> The song:

This message was turned into a Passover song by the group What I Like About Jew. The lyrics are at the end of this post, and you can hear a performance of the song (not the best I've heard, but the best available on YouTube) here:

Other versions here & here.

--Jeff Weintraub

[Below is a response to Eugene Matusov, who sent around a transcript of "They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Let's Eat" after its creators were interviewed on NPR.) --Jeff Weintraub]

Hi Eugene,

Right. I heard these guys on NPR. They're good ... and this song is terrific.
Actually, the Passover story is one of the few Jewish holiday scenarios where they didn't try to annihilate us--just enslave us. (OK, maybe the situation at the Red Sea was ambiguous.) But this song captures the basic point ... and, along the way, provides some hilarious and perceptive insight into the underlying world-pictures of American secular-to-Conservative Jewish consciousness.

Chag sameach,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. re Passover & the Basic Scenario:  My esteemed friend and former teacher Allan Silver points out that Pharaoh did try to kill all the male children--which, in a patriarchal culture, would have annihilated us as a people. On the other hand, Allan also points out, correctly, that not all Jewish holidays fit the model of existential threat and miraculous survival (for which, I guess, Purim and Tisha B'Av provide the purest examples, though not the only ones). Among other exceptions, there is the Sabbath--which for genuinely observant Jews (like Allan), is in some ways the most central holy day. OK, OK ... but why nitpick? I think the basic point remains correct.

Still around, despite everything,
Further P.S. For those to whom the word "apikoros" is unfamiliar, it is an old term that originated during Hellenistic times (probably an adaptation of "Epicurus") to designate a Jew who is seduced away from Jewish learning and belief by the appeal of non-Jewish intellectual culture and philosophy. (In that era, of course, the cosmopolitan intellectual world that exerted this attraction was above all that of Hellenistic Greek culture.)

Allan Silver once admonished me gently that, strictly speaking, it is incorrect for me to consider myself an apikoros. An apikoros is someone who already has a Jewish (religious) education and then abandons or downplays Jewish learning and beliefs. Instead, he felt obliged to point out, I would have to be considered an am-ha'aretz (literally, a peasant) since, by rabbinical standards, I don't have any substantial Jewish learning to begin with. I'm afraid it would be hard for me to deny that there is some logic to this position.

(I understand that there is also a special category for people who were enslaved or kidnapped by pirates as children, so they never had an opportunity to get a serious religious education. And I gather that the Lubavitcher Rebbe took the position that under the conditions of contemporary modernity this category could be extended, semi-metaphorically, to include most secular Jews. This would mean that at least we're not peasants ... just disadvantaged.)

As another esteemed former teacher of mine, Daniel Bell, once put it in "Reflections on Jewish Identity" (1961):
A persistent fear worried Jews of the early Diasporas and of Hellenistic times: the fear that a child of theirs might grow up to be an am-haaretz--a peasant, ignorant of Torah; or, even worse, an apikoros--a sophisticated unbeliever. A similar crisis of identity is a hallmark of our own modernity.
'They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let's Eat)'

Artist: What I Like About Jew
Composers: Sean Altman and Rob Tannenbaum
CD Title:Unorthodox
Label: Big Sean Music and Tbaum Music

They Tried To Kill Us (We Survived, Let's Eat)
(words & music by Sean Altman & Rob Tannenbaum)

We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt
The year was 1492
Hitler had just invaded Poland
Madonna had just become a Jew
Moses was found on the Potomac
Then he marched with Martin Luther King
He came back to free us from our bondage
'Cause S&M has never been our thing

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
So they chase us to the border
There's a parting of the water
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

Then the Pharaoh, who looked like Yul Bruyner
Heard the Jews were trying to escape
Charlton Heston came right down from the mountain
He said, "Pharaoh, you're a damn dirty ape"
The menorah was almost out of oil
Farrakhan was planning Kristalnacht
The gefilte fish was nearing extinction
It looked like Moses and his flock were fehrkakt

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
And we knew how to resist
'Cause we'd rented Schindler's List
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

The 10 Egyptian plagues
1. Blood
2. Locusts
3. Boils
4. Dandruff
5. Acne
6. Backne
7. Piles
8. Cataracts
9. Sciatica
10. Sickle cell anemia

We fled on foot, there was no time to tarry
Leavening the bread would take too long
All we had was egg foo yung and matzoh
While battling the fearsome Viet Cong
And so tonight, we gather to remember
The ancient Hebrews who paid the price
We have a Seder, every year in December
To commemorate our savior, Jesus Christ

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
So we never did succumb to the annual pogrom
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
So come on, blow the shofar
'Cause they haven't nailed us so far
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat