No matter what Seder table you plan to join this week, there are three things you can expect to do a lot of: eat, drink, and sing. And just like every gathering has its own unique menu, there are also innumerable combinations of songs that help us to connect to the Passover story, to our tradition, and to the people we are sitting with for what can sometimes be a very long night.
So building from the Jewschool playlist tradition I started for the last Chagim, I offer below a way to connect to the themes of Passover and the Seder in 2016 America through the lens of songs that do not come from the tradition but very much resonate with it. These rap, punk, metal, indie rock and Chimurenga (Zimbabwean “struggle” music) songs echo Passover less in melody and language than “Chad Gad Ya” or “Dayenu,” but they hit close to home because of what they teach us about how the essential elements of the story continues to matter to our world.
You can find the full playlist on YouTube here.
Opening Reflection/Kadesh: “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” by Public Enemy. It seems inevitable that many Seders will turn to an election discussion at some point, where the question of racial tension will no doubt emerge. Whether through the lens of clashes at Trump rallies, the Black Lives Matter movement, a relative who just read the New Jim Crow, or the way we are revisiting the impact of the Clinton Era crime bill, the experience of African-Americans is at the heart of any reflection on the United States and slavery. How best to bring that to the Seder table?
To my mind, there will never be a more powerful or impactful MC than Chuck D, and it takes a voice like his to focus attention at the start of a Seder. This anchor track from Public Enemy’s 1988 masterpiece It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back recounts the experience of a young black man who goes to jail for refusing to register for military service. In the course of organizing an escape, he says of imprisonment: “You have to realize/What is a form of slavery organized/Under a swarm of devils/Straight up – word’em up on the level/The reasons are several/Most of them federal.” Speaking truth to power is what the Passover story tells us and how we continue to sanctify God’s name.
Carpas: “Recursive Girl” by F’ed Up. Soon after settling in to the Seder comes the moment when we dip parsley into salt water, reflecting on the tears cried during slavery in Egypt. Few songs capture the experience of tasting tears of heartache better than this one by Toronto hardcore band F’ed Up. Their 2011 concept album David Comes to Life tracks the arc of a relationship between two factory workers and has some of the most literate lyricism you’ll find in. The band’s three driving guitars will give you energy to keep going through the Seder, and these words capture the spirit of the salt you are tasting: “Hold the bitter taste in my mouth/I don’t want to forget, don’t want to spit it out/The pain can only last for so long/A sweetness lingers after it’s gone.
Magid: “Creeping Death” by Metallica. This song from the groundbreaking 1984 album Ride the Lightning, where the band found its form and began to transform the world of metal music, is more or less a mini-Magid, or retelling of the Passover story. Not every detail in the song is quite as it reads in the Haggadah, but it covers most of the story’s key details, from the burning bush to the final plague. And you even get a great head-banging call-and-response chorus midway through the song that will have your older relatives shaking their heads.
Matzah: “New Slaves” by Kanye West. The ultimate symbol of the Passover meal, and of the Jewish people’s time in slavery, is matzah. Kanye West’s song from the Yeezus album covers the gamut of symbolism for racism and the analogues of slavery in America. From his reflections on “broke n****” racism” where store owners expect any young black man to steal to the sorrows of his mother’s experience, Kanye takes us on a journey through the meaning of these symbols of racism today.
Reflecting back to the opening reflections we found in Public Enemy’s “Black Steel,” Kanye looks at the privatized prison system as the ultimate form of slavery: “Meanwhile the DEA/Teamed up with the CCA/They tryna lock n****s up/They tryna make new slaves/See that’s that privately owned prisons/Get your piece today.” The song admittedly devolves at times with language and themes, and Kanye himself can be a problematic figure, so be careful if you have this on around your younger cousins, but it will make an impact on anyone who gets below those distractions.
Maror: “I Might Need You to Kill” by The Thermals. The journey of the Seder is principally a redemptive one, where the Jewish people escape oppression for a long journey that eventually takes them to the Land of Israel. But that escape also includes a lot of death, whether the Egyptians who die in the Sea of Reeds chasing the Jewish people, or those who die in future battles. We learn in the Talmud that God chastised the angels for celebrating and singing in the wake of the death of the chasing Egyptians, and Portland punk band The Thermals captured that starkly on their incredible 2006 album The Body, The Blood, the Machine focusing on the many faces of religion. The bitter herbs we eat at the Seder go well with these lines: “I might need you to lead/And part the sea so we can cross/If they follow us still/I might need you to kill.
Corech/Hillel Sandwich: “Sniper at the Gates of Heaven” by The Black Angels. In addition to the fact that it is hard not to include in this playlist a song from an album called Passover, this Texas psychedelic rock band gives us the perfect accompaniment for the moment in the Seder where we combine the bitter herbs with the sweetness of Charoset. These lyrics in particular capture the moment of combining sorrow and pain with the essence of happier times: “Is there any way out, you better find one/Where do you go, down down the book says/When there’s no one here in this world of truth/Who knows first hand, so just wake up wake up wake up.
Nirtzah/Conclusion: “Ndave Kuendo (I am Now Leaving)” by Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited. As the Seder ends and we think about the charge to use the lessons of the Passover story to bring about change, it is important to turn our attention to other parts of the world dominated by oppression and struggle. Few countries face starker conditions in 2016 than Zimbabwe, and the voice of Thomas Mapfumo, who now lives in exile in Oregon, has been a clarion call of truth for decades, embodied in a musical style called Chimurenga, or struggle. This is one of his hallmark tracks and shows the depths of the soul that can be required to fight back against evil.
Post-Meal Singing: Now that the Seder has concluded, we need a couple of catchy, sing-along tunes that still capture the evening’s themes. Here are a couple of indie rock options, from two bands that write some of the most infectious guitar and drum hooks around:
“How a Resurrection Really Feels” by the Hold Steady. This song ends the band’s 2005 religion-infused Separation Sunday album, which follows a young “hoodrat” named Hallelujah in and out of bad decisions and redemptive moments. Although centered on Catholicism and a climactic scene during Easter, the struggles of Holly (as the kids called her) are universal and fit perfectly for this point in an evening: “She crashed into the Easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass/She was limping left on broken heels/When she said, “Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?
“Fan the Flames” by Sheer Mag. There have been few catchier or hook-ier indie rock songs in recent years (well, besides other songs by Sheer Mag) than this tune about, of all things, gentrification. As the band contemplates the exorbitant rent they are paying for a shoddy apartment, they find cause for celebration and the will to fight back. There can be few better tunes to accompany the end of a Seder, when we may be a bit tired and over-fed, but need that extra fire to inspire us to end our modern day forms of slavery and oppression. As captivating lead singer Christina Halladay, who herself embodies what it means to challenge stereotypes and the system, belts out: “You’ve got to fan the flames/You’ve got to stand up and break the chains/Make a plan and demand what the damage pays/Fan the flames.”
May your Seder and Passover celebration push you to fan the flames to be a force for good in the world until next year.