Ron Avi Astor: Poetry Reflects “Pesach” Guided by Culture and Resilience

UCLA Education professor of social welfare shares perspectives on this year's Passover holiday, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare at UCLA’s Department of Education and holder of the, has co-written the 2019 book, “Stepping Over: Pesach – A Collection of Poems Over Lifetimes,” with his son, Dr. Roee Locke Astor, a resident physician at UC San Diego. 

Professor Astor, who also holds the Marjorie Crump Chair Professorship in Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, shares with Ampersand his musings over this year’s Passover holiday, the parallels between the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic and Biblical plagues, and how facing adversity with the strength of a unifying culture can save a people.

Ampersand: How does the tradition of Passover resonate today, particularly with what the whole world is experiencing with the pandemic?

Ron Avi Astor: I think for many of us, it’s about freedom, it’s about oppression. This social isolation, the virus… really sheds a very bright light on all the social inequities in our society, starting with the health care system, who gets served and who doesn’t, and what kind of physicians they have… who has access to the internet and access to computers – that determines if you get food or medical care, or if you get a better education or not during this time.

Jewish history has so many of its holidays and rituals centered on the concepts of oppression and freedom. We’re talking about a mental collective memory of thousands of years of cycles of oppression, freedom – expulsion, thriving, people wanting to wipe you out, succeeding, not making it, reinventing yourself.  

By having this longview, we see that things go in cycles and with every generation we need to be prepared to take a stand on oppression and freedom. Our singing, our Passover Seder, the food, our whole culture on all the other holidays, is built around these ideas. 

For me personally as a culturally-aware Jew, I think it these stories and traditions can have personal meaning and impact. For example, on one hand, hearing these stories year after year could cause a more lachrymose view of the world and even personal depression. On the other hand, it helps when I get depressed about the state of our world to know that you’re part of the larger cultural vision, a much bigger historical cultural trajectory, and that it’s not just you – many generations have and are dealing with these real issues. This structural oppression has been there and it’s still out there.

So, from a Passover perspective, we initially start the Seder thinking concretely of freedom in terms of others oppressing us, like the Pharaoh oppressing the Jewish people. But we are made aware and also discuss that there are generational, institutional, and systematic issues of racism, discrimination, and inequality.  

In my family this Passover, we’re going to spend more time looking at these issues. Because now that everybody is stuck in their house, in fear of the virus, or dealing with sick family members and friends, those structural differences are actually have caused certain people to die and certain people to live, based on whether they have food, can get to the hospital, have access to information, will be educated or not, or have societal supports around them. This is a type of oppression we can rectify in our society if we have the will to do so. 

This virus really shines a light on what we have here, which is like another Passover plague and makes us rethink the structural kinds of inequalities – not just what we say or do personally  to individuals from different cultures, identities, nationalities, religions, gender or race , but how we build  or envision our society, in equal or unequal ways.

&: In the midst of an academic career, how did you come to begin writing poetry?

Astor: I was writing it my whole life—pretty much from elementary school on. When we started compiling the book in 2018, I realized my son was also writing [poetry]. We have very different writing and poetic styles. He’s a medical physician at UCSD. Right now, he’s a resident, working with many types of patients including homeless patients, those suspected and identified with the COVID-19 virus, and patients with both psychiatric and physical conditions. My daughter is teaching kindergarten right now online, and doing an amazing job in creating a sense of community, care, support, in addition to teaching academics.  She is dealing day-to-day with the effects of schools closing and moving online fully. My other son lives in Chicago working for Uber Freight. Funny how important it is now that we are aware of the supply chain during the virus period, especially for food, medical equipment, and other essentials that the trucking community [supplies], often without others noticing. 

When we compiled the book, I was specifically thinking of Passover. When you think about what we’re doing in our lives, we’re on some kind of trajectory through time, almost in a path-like way. Step after step after step on path of sorts. Pesach means, “walking forward.” Or taking a step forward.  It also means, “to pass over something.” 

The people were on this path. They first walked from Israel to  Egypt because they were starving. Then in Egypt, when Joseph died and the new Pharaoh “knew not Joseph,” they were blamed for economic downturns and forced into slavery through a kind of sharecropping taxation process. After hundreds of years and many generations in slavery, with the help of Moses and [after] some plagues, they walked toward freedom, which meant wandering in the desert for 40 years. But they were wandering in the desert in freedom. 

In some ways, the final plague is similar to what we are feeling as a world. We are all isolated now. They also were not allowed to leave their home, they had to put [a sign, “pesach”] over their doorposts. The idea was that the Angel of Death would “pass over” if you stayed inside and self-isolated. The last plague, the death of the firstborn – perhaps could have been a plague of sorts or a pandemic, that has some similarities to what is happening now. 

So, [my] poetry comes from a place of connecting with the larger story culture, with images that connect to both Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions, but also to our personal journeys here on earth. My son and myself walk this path together. We are both ardent believers in science, education, we’re secular. We’re not religious in an orthodox sense, but we’re very connected strongly with our culture and our historical background, and that got expressed through poetry.

Our whole history has been like that. It’s been a walking path, going forward, having death and atrocities going over us, or impacting us. And the story also has redemption and resilience, and shows a vision of how we overcome it in the end. So, in the final analysis, the survival and rebirth of culture and humankind is uplifting. 

For us, this holiday carries a theme that summarizes a lot of our cultural stories. Passover captures so much of thousands of years of history. I think the reason we like the holiday of Passover in modern times is that it shares a universal message that connects with the history and stories of oppression experienced by other cultures and groups. 

In that sense our history is not unique.  Many cultures and ethnic groups have historically and currently deal with oppression – particularly slavery, racism, and xenophobia, since that is a core piece of the Passover story. This is relatable to our current times, our own generation, and things that are happening to us as a culture now. It’s a call for action to confront the injustices in our generation and liberate all those we can. A very empowering message. 

Professor Astor has recently been honored with the Distinguished Research Award from the the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Read about his internationally-recognized research on suicide in California high schools here.