Easter Sunday circa 1950 on Atlantic City Boardwalk facing Steel Pier. Families from Philadelphia and all over South Jersey came out dressed in their finest.
Jewish Passover and Christian Easter are linked in many ways–just like the two religions themselves. In many languages, the same word describes both holidays. The English word “Passover” is a direct translation of “Pesakh”, the Hebrew word for the holiday. The Old Testament Book of Exodus describes how the Tenth Plague that killed the first born of Egypt “passed over” the houses of the Hebrew slaves. That is because each Hebrew household had sacrificed a lamb “without blemish” and had marked the lintels and doorposts of their houses with its blood.
Our English word “Easter” comes from the Old English word for “sunrise” or “dawn”. It refers to the miracle of the resurrection of “The Lamb of God” being discovered at sunrise or dawn on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion.
However, most European languages use the Hebrew name for Passover as their word for Easter. Easter is Paskha in Greek, Pascua in Spanish, Pasqual in Italian, and Pascal in French. The Last Supper of the New Testament was the Passover Seder described in the Old Testament.
Passover and Easter were my favorite holidays growing up in Atlantic City in the 1950s. During the weeks before these holidays, I and my elementary school classmates carefully emptied our breakfast eggs through a small hole, instead of cracking them open. Then we took them to school where we dyed them to make colorful Easter eggs. Our Easter baskets were made from Quaker Oats cardboard cylinders and colorful construction paper. We of course sang Easter songs and decorated our classrooms and hallways for Easter. Neither I nor any of my Jewish friends or our parents were offended in any way. We all enjoyed being part of this beautiful American holiday together.
Passover in my house began with a week of thorough spring cleaning before the holiday. Beside getting our house ready for the summer, it also removed all bread, deserts and other foods not kosher for the holiday. The actual holiday began with a special family dinner at home called the Seder. It included a service designed over centuries to keep Jewish children interested enough to learn the meaning of the holiday. It was also a family reunion where my grandparents came to visit.
Easter Sunrise Service on Atlantic City Steel Pier circa 1950
But the Easter Sunday that followed was also a special day for us. We all got dressed up and walked on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. There, me and my parents seemed to meet and say hello to almost everyone we knew.
And of course, there was that special Easter Sunday when I was 12 years old. That was the first Easter that I and most of my sixth grade classmates walked up the Boardwalk to the Steel Pier with a date instead of our parents!
That was about when I started paying attention to some of the conversations of the adults who joined us for Passover, especially my grandmother. She often said she was so happy to see how much our family enjoyed both holidays, and how lucky we were to live in America.
Over the years, I earned how her memories of the Passover and Easter holidays were so different from ours. My grandmother came from Kishinev. This was a city in Moldavia, a Romanian-speaking border province of the Russian Empire. The population was a mixture of Romanians, Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews. The Passover and Easter holidays were times of fear and death for my grandmother’s family and the other Jews who lived there.
There was no First Amendment in Russia. Churches there were run by the government, and used to promote its leaders. Before World War One, many Romanians and Ukrainians living in Moldavia were angry at the incompetence and corruption of the Russian government and wanted to break away. Russian government officials often used their churches to get people angry at Jews instead of themselves.
On Easter Sunday in particular, it was common for sermons to be especially hateful towards Jews. It was common for Jews to be beaten, robbed, and sometimes even killed during that time of year. Normally, the Russian police would quickly step in to stop the violence before it got out of hand.
However, during the Easter of 1903, the police in Kishinev, Moldavia did not stop the violence, and it got out of hand. Jews were attacked in the streets and in their homes all day as the police stood by and watched. Dozens of Jews were killed and many were injured. My grandmother, then a small child, survived because her parents left her with a Christian neighbor. That neighbor taught my grandmother to recite enough Christian prayers to convince the mob that my grandmother was Christian.
Popular 1903 Political Cartoon Showing U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt Condemning Russian Czar For His “Cruel Oppression Of The Jews”.
My grandmother said that America’s President Theodore Roosevelt was the only world leader to publicly denounce this massacre. My grandmother’s parents said that if the America was led by such a good man, this must be a good country. They brought their family to America in 1905, two years later.
Years later, Passover and Easter was the time of year when my grandmother would tell us this story. When she did, she would always add what a wonderful country America was, and how lucky we were to live here.
At the Passover dinners, my grandmother also taught me stories of the America she lived in. It was far different from what Hollywood and our schools and colleges tell our young people about that America.
Today our children are taught that the America my grandmother came to was a horrible place. The are told that most of America was in an unfair and oppressive “Gilded Age” of “unfettered capitalism” with “white supremacy” and racism. They are told that only a handful of “robber barons” were obscenely rich, while most Americans lived in poverty.
However, that is not the America my grandmother described. My grandmother described the America of her day as a magical place of boundless opportunity and progress for everyone. In just her lifetime, she saw jet planes, automobiles, buses, and electric trains and subways replace horses and wagons. She saw electric lights and modern appliances replace kerosene lamps and wood and coal stoves. She saw immigrants like her family move from poverty to comfortable, independent middle class lifestyles in ten to fifteen years. She spoke of the magnificent libraries, museums, theaters parks, beaches and Boardwalks open to everyone. And of course my grandmother often talked of how wonderful it was that Easter and Passover were no longer times of fear when Jews would hide. Here, all Americans of all races, religions, and ethnic groups proudly walked together on the Boardwalk, dressed in our finest clothes, and warmly greeting each other.
My grandmother never said America was perfect. She told us of ignorant people and bigotry and discrimination. One of my grandfathers was denied employment as a structural engineer because he was Jewish. However, unlike in the Old Country, his life and property were never threatened, and he was free to overcome bigotry and discrimination. He studied to be a dentist instead, and built a successful practice.
My other grandfather started working in a sweatshop fabric factory. He worked long hours and earned very little. However, after a few years, he and other family members saved enough money to buy a sewing machine and open a very successful tailor shop, something our family could never do in the Old Country.
My grandmother told me there were hotels, restaurants, and country clubs that did not admit Jews. However, she also told of how much more she enjoyed the hotels, restaurants, and country clubs built and owned by Jews to overcome that.
When I got older, I met many others who grew up in that same era. Almost all of them of every race and ethnic group told me similar stories.
My grandmother’s generation is long gone. The last time I heard their stories told was at their funerals. Who will tell their story now? It seems that the folks who run today’s schools, colleges, and Hollywood and TV entertainment industry are determined to make sure our children and grandchildren never hear them.
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