Cotton Balls on the Seder Plate

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By Nechama Liss-Levinson

This year, as I celebrate Passover, I will put some cotton balls on the seder plate. Hopefully, as with so much of the seder, our guests will ask the question “why?”

Each year, when I host a seder, I hope to make the story of our people’s slavery come alive to our guests. I hope that the message of the past will motivate us in the present. Fifty years ago, many American seders had an extra piece of matzah, the “Matzah of Hope,” for the Jews unable to escape religious persecution in the Soviet Union. And for the past 25 years, there has been the addition of an orange on the seder plate, representing the LGBTQ community. More recently, there was the addition of a banana, recalling the favorite fruit of a young refugee child who drowned while escaping on a boat to freedom. And this year, I will add cotton balls.

As we recall our own slavery in Egypt, the cotton balls remind us that slavery is still a plague in today’s world. Currently, millions of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group in China, have been abused, tortured, enslaved and sent to concentration camps. There is a cultural erasure, with Uyghurs unable to pray, marry or bury their dead according to their religious traditions. The Uyghurs face one of the greatest human rights crises in modern times.

China is the world’s largest cotton producer. The Xingiang region of China, home to the Uyghurs, produces 75% of Chinese cotton.

I had never heard of the Uyghurs until I attended a program at my congregation, Adas Israel, on Uyghur genocide. The words “concentration camps” were profoundly unsettling. I immediately understood that the plight of the Uyghurs had uncanny similarities to the plight of European Jewry in the 1930s. As a Jew, I know that to remain silent is to be complicit. The Passover story is a constant reminder that each of us must stand up to tyrants.

In response, Karen Guberman and a became co-chairs of Adas Israel’s Uyghur Crisis Response Team. For the past two years, we have held monthly demonstrations at the Chinese Embassy, demanding an end to the genocide. We have often met to begin our protest at the “Garden of the Righteous,” a spot at Adas Israel that honors the non-Jewish heroes who helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

Our group has worked to raise awareness of the plight of the Uyghurs, having written letters to members of the Biden administration, asking for special visa status for Uyghur refugees, and providing pro bono mental health services to Uyghur refugees through the Uyghur Wellness Initiative. We are always looking for more people from every community to join us in these efforts.

As we get to the part of the seder where we break the middle matzah, “Yachatz,” I will remember the brokenness of this world. I will point to the cotton balls on the seder plate, and we will say:

We were slaves in Egypt
We will not turn away from those who are slaves today
We were redeemed from slavery
We will do our part to help the Uyghurs live in freedom
(Jewish World Watch Uyghur Freedom Seder)

When you buy the cotton balls for the seder plate, make sure they are not from China. They may have been produced by slaves. ■

Nechama Liss-Levinson, PhD., is a psychologist and author, and the co-chair of the Adas Israel D.C. Uyghur Crisis Response Team.

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