Culture

In defense of “Go Down Moses” at the seder

The discussion of whether singing “Go Down Moses” at the seder is appropriation seems to be missing some important historical context.

How did the song become popularized? How did it make its way to the seder table? Which Haggadot incorporated it?

I’d love to see real research on this, but I’d be willing to bet that that it owes a lot to Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson seems to have first recorded it in 1945  and it’s included on his 1958 album “Live at Carnegie Hall.” That album also included “Old Man River,” but also “Joe Hill” and “Chassidic Melody.”

Paul Robeson exemplified the connection between left-wing political activism and the civil rights movement — as well as the heavy involvement of Jews in both endeavors.

It’s not a coincidence that the founder of Asch Records, which collated American folk music of various sorts, was the son of Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch. Nor that Woody Guthrie married the daughter of a Yiddish poet and ended up writing Chanukah songs. (This is the milieu that a very young Robert Zimmerman entered when he became Bob Dylan, before he forswore being the Voice of his Generation circa 1965).

When I went to a JCC sleepaway camp in the midwest in the early 70s, the camp song book was full of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and, yes, Paul Robeson.

My guess is that “Go Down Moses” made its way to the seder in the 1970s via kids who learned the song at camp. At least, that’s probably how it made its way to my family’s seders.

It’s easy to criticize the lazy trope of “Heschel and MLK so Jews aren’t racist,” but an alliance between Black activists and Jews was real, from Rosenwald to the drafting of Civil Rights bills at the offices of the Reform movement during the Johnson Administration — with the very Jewish American Communist Party playing a not insignificant role in between.

Anti-semitism never spilled as much blood in America as did anti-Catholicism, but it wasn’t the Catholic hierarchy trying to undermine the notion of the State of Georgia being a state that privileged white voters.

Have I been at seders where discussions of Black freedom took a racist turn? Why yes I have.

The “breakdown” of the Black-Jewish alliance partially reflected the end of shared interests in ending discrimination, particularly when questions of affirmative action and reparations came up. It also reflected real racism among American Jews that was more than just the flip side of a still insufficiently discussed sense of Jewish superiority. I nominate Martin Peretz as the poster child for this trend.

The actual Exodus from Egypt was most likely a myth. But it is a myth that has taken a life of its own, that has empowered other peoples to survive until they could claim their own redemption. Singing “Go Down Moses” is a reminder that, contra singing “Hatikvah,” it’s not only Jewish hopes and prayers that matter in God’s plan.

Finally, it seems to me that singing “Go Down Moses” at the seder exemplifies the message of the 1619 Project: American history is Black history, and Black history is American history. “Go Down Moses” is an American song, and as American Jews, it is part of our heritage.

4 thoughts on “In defense of “Go Down Moses” at the seder

  1. I don’t love the starting point of “I’d love to see research on this, but without doing the research I’m going to talk about what I think the research probably says without knowing if I’m right.” But more importantly, how the song ended up at seders in decades past is not a defense of white Jews singing the song in the contemporary moment, in our context, especially when there’s been a significant number of Black Jews telling us why they don’t think we should.

    Our haggadah once assumed we had the pesach sacrifice to serve as a reminder. That eventually got replaced by a shank bone. In many homes, that’s replaced by a chicken neck or a beet or any number of other symbols. Whatever it is that you think singing “Go Down Moses” symbolizes doesn’t need to exit the seder just because you stop singing the song. If the symbol is no longer serving its purpose, then figure out a new symbol or simply have the conversation around the seder table.

    1. Thanks; this piece contains relevant and useful historical reference points. One thing I think it misses, though, is the quite reasonable difference between how Black people in America so often react to cultural appropriation and how Jewish people in America so often react to it. The defining characteristic of anti-Black oppression is exploitation, so it’s quite natural and rational for Black people to operate with strong resistance to cultural appropriation. Many Black people will not see harmony and comradeship in record owners distributing Black folk music being Jewish, since, to put it lightly, Black people have not earned the bulk of the money made from their artistic endeavors in this country, much as they have earned but a fraction of the due wages for their physical labor.

      The defining characteristic of anti-Jewish oppression in this country is scapegoating, which involves isolating Jews, holding us out to dry, leaving us unprotected. But financial exploitation has not been a feature of our oppression; Jews have even been allowed to earn disproportionately more than other people, as the picture of Jewish success is actually useful to the white supremacist ruling class, a modest investment toward our utility as scapegoats. It’s natural and rational, then, that many Jews don’t get too nervous about cultural appropriation, but feel proud, relieved, or excited when groups or individual non-Jews with whom we wish to be allied (for some, that is the state or mainstream culture, for others, it’s oppressed people) use our cultural productions: it makes us feel less vulnerable to being discarded.

      So, while I think you’re adding some important elements to the conversation, I think you’re leaving out some other, critical ones.

  2. What David and Aryeh said.

    Also:

    The actual Exodus from Egypt was most likely a myth. But it is a myth that has taken a life of its own, that has empowered other peoples to survive until they could claim their own redemption. Singing “Go Down Moses” is a reminder that, contra singing “Hatikvah,” it’s not only Jewish hopes and prayers that matter in God’s plan.

    I simultaneously agree and feel uncomfortable agreeing with this statement. Going off of David’s point on utility of symbols within a symbolic religious process that no longer hold the same value: If folks we respect and want to support tell us that those symbols hurt them perhaps we should retire those symbols in favor of something else that helps us fulfill the obligation to remember this aspect of our process. Put less like a lawyer: If something hurts our friends, it isn’t worth the value we get from it.

    We can remember the process and connection without using this piece of history, I think.

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