Passover versus Concert: Choosing Identities
Issue   |   Wed, 04/06/2016 - 00:48

Why is the night of April 22 different from any other night? On this Friday night, Jews around the world will gather to celebrate the first night of Passover, a holiday commemorating the biblical story of Moses freeing the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. We do this at an event called a Seder: a ceremonial meal during which we recount the story of the exodus, celebrate our shared heritage and pray that next year, “all those in bondage will be free.” Although Talmudic scholars might debate the exact ranking, the first night of Passover is undoubtedly one of the holiest nights of the Jewish calendar.
This year, April 22 is also the date of Amherst’s spring concert. One of the most highly anticipated social events of the year, spring concert is a truly shared experience — other than perhaps Homecoming, there is no other event attended by such a high proportion of the Amherst student body. Sober or wasted, raging in the mosh pit or just there for the music — spring concert offers something for everyone.

While Campus Activities Board (CAB) kept the student body in a fevered state of anticipation over the identity of this year’s performer, it was kind enough to give Jewish students advanced notice that they will need to choose between their religious and Amherst identities. Come the 22nd, Jewish students like myself will be forced to decide between spending the night celebrating Passover with family and friends, their minds inevitably straying to the dance floor, and swaying to the beat of some artist while fighting off rising guilt over forsaking their faith and heritage. It’s a decision that no one wants to make, and, on a campus that boasts of its inclusivity and respect for varying identities, one that no one should have to make.
I wish that I could say that this was an isolated incident, that Amherst has never before made it difficult for me to be both a student and a Jew. But that is not true. Every year, when the Jewish New Year approaches, I have to email my professors asking their permission to skip a day of class in order to attend High Holiday services. In addition, athletic events are frequently planned on Yom Kippur. My boyfriend recalls being on the sideline of an ultimate Frisbee tournament and debating whether drinking pickle juice was a justifiable exception to the 24-hour fast. Admittedly, this is one of the unavoidable tensions that arise from religious students attending a secular college. It would be impossible for Amherst to fully accommodate the religious practices of every student, and professors and coaches are generally very understanding of students’ varying religious obligations.

But holding spring concert on the first night of Passover is not just another example of this everyday give-and-take; rather, it is the result of blatant institutional ignorance. My understanding of the situation is that nobody — no one in CAB, Student Activities Office or even the higher-ranking administration was at all aware of this conflict until after this year’s artists had signed the performance contract, at which point it was too late for anything to be done. When complaints surfaced, the administration offered their most genuine apologies, maintained that, regrettably, their hands were tied, and generously offered to fund a Seder for the Amherst community. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of the administration’s penitence, throwing money at the problem in hopes that Jewish students will quiet down and enjoy their school-funded ethnic celebration, it simply isn’t enough. Frankly, this approach is in some ways insulting, as it assumes that the difficult choice between attending a Seder and going to spring concert would be easy if only the Seder were nice enough.

Every year, the first night of Passover falls between the last week in March and the last week in April — the same time frame for potential spring concert dates. To me, it is absolutely baffling and unacceptable that not a single person bothered to crosscheck the dates before cementing spring concert into the calendar. It is not as if CAB cast far and wide to find an artist who could perform on any other day in April and came up short; rather, the situation in which we Jewish students find ourselves now was completely avoidable if even one individual had thought to look up the date of the holiday that a substantial minority of the campus population observes. To Jewish students, and, indirectly, to students belonging to other religious and ethnic minorities across campus, this action sends the message that our beliefs are not even worthy of consideration.

I am not writing this piece to condemn the members of CAB, who I know work very hard to put on a tremendous spring concert, or even to ask that the administration reschedule the concert — it seems fairly clear that it is genuinely too late to do so. But I have had enough of this flagrant institutional apathy and lack of attention to non-Christian cultural practices. Because if we’re being honest, this conflict would never have occurred if, for example, CAB had mistakenly attempted to plan Spring Carnival for Easter Sunday. At least half a dozen administrators would have recognized the error the moment they opened the email.

So to the administration, to CAB and really to anyone planning a community-wide event, I don’t think that it is too much to ask that you make an effort to remain cognizant of the dates of significant religious and cultural holidays. If this is possible, then maybe next year we will all be free to both practice our religion and to enjoy spring concert.

Ben Fife (not verified) says:
Wed, 04/06/2016 - 22:31

Great piece. I think this is not an isolated incident, but rather a small example of a much bigger problem that permeates this college. Anti-semitism is a real problem both on this campus that is often ignored and I still can't figure out why. In passing, I will regularly hear people say something along the lines of, "Your such a Jew," when someone is being cheap and everyone seems to think this is acceptable. If the same insensitive jokes were made about another religion's stereotypes, I am sure the students at Amherst College would not be so quick to brush it off.