Diverse crowd shares cultural pride,traditions at Marin

During the time of the Holocaust, an Indian tribe in Central America faced a fate similar to that of the Jews.

In only a matter of weeks 30,000 from the Lenca tribe were systematically slaughtered.

“We were killed based on our facial features and our language,” Lenca tribe member David Escobar said Monday, following the multicultural seder at the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael.

Taking part in a seder — held during Passover to mark Jewish oppression and liberation from slavery in Egypt — made perfect sense to Escobar and his life partner, Marva Robles, a Native American whose tribe also lost many during the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee on the Cheyenne River reservation.

“It reminded us of our cultural survival,” said Escobar, his long black hair neatly tied back. Much like the Jews, “we have kept our traditions close to our heart. That’s why we’re still here today.”

Escobar shared this pride in his heritage by beating on a drum and chanting a tribal prayer for the more than 100 Marin community members of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds in attendance. The three-hour seder, called “A Celebration of the Struggle for Freedom,” was co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the JCC and underwritten by the Marin Community Foundation. The community’s first such seder was held last year.

To acknowledge those who are currently struggling for freedom, the evening kicked off with a moment of silence for people living amid the violence in the Middle East.

During the evening, Rachel Biale, JCC director of community education, walked the group through the seder, explaining such traditions as the dipping of the greens and the blessing over the matzah.

“Because this is multicultural, and therefore multicolor, we have other vegetables, not just green ones, on the table,” noted Biale, pointing to plates of broccoli and red and yellow peppers.

Buddhist and Asian prayers, a song in American Sign Language, African-American poetry and Hispanic music also colored the ceremony, marking unity between the many cultural groups that, like the Jews, have fought, and still fight, oppression or discrimination.

“The themes of Passover are universal — so many communities can relate,” explained Judy Penso, Marin regional director of the JCRC.

Marlene Jones, one of the leaders of the ceremonial dinner, described to the group how she came to terms with her African-American heritage.

“I was not aware of my identity as an African girl — I knew I was different, but I couldn’t put together why,” she said. “Then during graduate school I learned of the atrocities African-Americans endured, the oppression, the colonialism. I finally got a real sense of my identity and as a result, I became free.”

Joanne Saxe, meanwhile, described how her mother, a Holocaust survivor, obtained a visa to the United States — but only with the help of a sympathetic non-Jewish woman.

Cecilia Zamora paid tribute to Cesar Chavez, whom she compared to Martin Luther King Jr. in his fight for the rights of farm workers and laborers.

The stories of oppression and liberation could go on and on, Penso later explained. She called the seder “a vehicle for communication” for the diverse communities of Marin County.

“There’s something about breaking bread with different ethnic, racial and religious communities — it really is a bonding experience,” she said.

Those at the seder did indeed bond. During the evening people seated at long tables eagerly introduced themselves to one another and engaged in lively chatter.

Jews participated in the singing of non-Jewish songs like “Amazing Grace” and “This Little Light of Mine” without hesitation.

Non-Jews performed Hebrew prayers and loudly sang “Dayenu.” Most even ate the gefilte fish.

“This is a very warm and accepting atmosphere of racial diversity,” said Buddhist Vinh Lau, a Novato resident. A Vietnam refugee, Lau said he was most moved by the readings and songs about freedom.

“Four generations of my family fought to escape from oppression in Vietnam. All my life was spent fighting for freedom.

“In coming to this type of event, I know I’m not alone.”

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