Friday, April 22, 2016

Passover, Prince, and Immortality

By Scott Penner (Flickr: Prince) via Wikimedia Commons
We lost another immortal yesterday. Another icon of my MTV childhood gone far too soon. He joins Bowie in making 2016 a damn hard year for music.

Prince died the day before Passover begins, which strikes me and my weird thought processes as important. I was just telling my rabbi the other day that I consider the Passover seder to be a kind of time travel. During the seder, it is stressed over and over again that each of us Jews were there in Egypt:
We were once the slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and our Eternal G-d brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.
We even tell our questioning children that we do all we do during the seder and during this season "because of what G-d did for me when I came out of Egypt."

We also end each Passover seder by proclaiming "Next year in Jerusalem!" It is our yearly reminder that next year's seder is already linked to this year's and last year's and all that came before. Each seder is a link in a millennium-spanning chain of history, that stretches long before I or my mother or my grandmother or my ancestors-lost-to-history were born, and long after my great-great-great grandchildren will pass away.

Each spring, I become my ancestor who followed Moses out of Egypt, as well as my offspring who will tell my child's child's child what happened in Egypt so long ago. Taking part in the Passover seder each year helps to cement my own immortality by continuing the retelling of this important story.

By Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), via Wikimedia Commons

Prince did not share my faith, and I have no idea if he ever sat down to a Passover seder or even enjoyed a bowl of Bubbie's matzah ball soup. But his life and his music embodied the lessons I take from Passover.

First, Prince has achieved immortality through his art in much the same way that the seder offers immortality to those who retell the story of Passover.

Listening to Purple Rain or 1999 or Raspberry Beret or Little Red Corvette or Nothing Compares 2 U or Let's Go Crazy evokes a time and place in Prince's life and the lives of his fans and the lives of those who come after who discover his genius and the lives of the artists who influenced Prince and the lives of those artists who have been and will be influenced by Prince.

The music and the story it tells is a pebble dropped in the water of history, rippling out into forever, just as the hurry to make portable snacks for a trek through the desert continues to ripple through my own life and the lives of every Jew each spring.

By Center for Jewish History, NYC, via Wikimedia Commons

And then, of course, there was the way that Prince freed himself from expectations in every area of his live.

Passover is a holiday all about claiming freedom. Matzah is both the bitter bread of affliction and the sweet taste of freedom. Enjoying matzah is a way of rubbing the Pharaoh's nose in our liberty. "How you like them apples?" is what each crunchy bite of matzah seems to say, because we may have nothing but flour and water to use to make our food, but damn if that plain food doesn't taste good as we are heading to a new life of sweet freedom.

Prince's refusal to be bounded by the conventions of our society is a similar nose-rubbing. I suspect that he, like David Bowie, had to deal with violent pushback at points in his career because of his unconventional and idiosyncratic fashion, his gender-bending, his unapologetic sexuality, and his refusal to be labeled. But being completely himself despite the constrictive expectations of society must have tasted so incredibly sweet, despite the pushback.

May we all embrace such freedom to be ourselves.


J and I are in the midst of moving stress this Passover. We forgot to RSVP to our synagogue's congregational seder. I have not bought a single box of matzah, nor have I worked to clean out the chametz in our kitchen. We considered just skipping Pesach altogether this year.

But then an immortal died. And I was reminded that it is my job to teach my children that they were there when G-d brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arms and with signs and wonders. Telling the story of our exodus helps to cement my sons' immortality, another link in their chain to history and future, and I can't let them down.

So, we will give LO and BB a seder this year, moving stress be damned. I want them to remember that the freedom of being themselves both tastes sweet and promises a kind of immortality, no matter what kind of violent pushback they may face.

Mourning Prince (and David Bowie all over again) is mourning the death of those who can show us the way. But they will never truly be gone, just as the story of my ancestors' escape from Egypt will never finish being told.

That's because they, too, left us with signs and wonders.


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