Pesach is coming. The supermarket shelves are filling up with Kosher for Passover products. Yet again, I forgot to stock up on my breakfast cereal before Purim, and now it’s too late; they’ve stopped bringing in hametz. The streets are aflutter with Pesach-related posters:
Hard-working yeshiva bocher will help you remove hametz from your apartment.
Inspiring rabbi will help you remove Mitzraim, Egypt from your soul.
It’s not surprising that a poster about Egypt caught my eye. A few years ago, I wrote a book called Longing for Egypt.
In chapter one, ‘The Heart Enticed,’ I suggested that, alongside the inspiring story of liberation from a persecuting enemy that’s emphasized in the Haggadah, there’s the story we don’t tell at Pesach. It’s the story of Israelites who, but for leaving Egypt and coming to the Promised Land, would have assimilated. Egypt wasn’t all persecution, then, or at least not always. There were good things too, and, had it been an option, some Israelites would have chosen to stay in Egypt.
If that sounds shocking, it shouldn’t. There’s always been an intricate relationship between persecution and assimilation. How many Viennese Jews remained nostalgic — in spite of everything — for certain aspects of life in pre-war Vienna: the music, art, salons, coffee mit shlag, strudel, Sachertorte? I’m thinking about Trudi, a family friend who was thrilled when the Neue Galerie, a museum of German and Austrian art, opened on New York’s Upper East Side. She goes several times a week for a taste of what she left behind when she escaped from 1930s Vienna.
It’s tempting to tell a story in which Diaspora life is all threat and persecution, especially when it ends in catastrophe. But that’s usually only half the story.
Take Egypt. The Torah itself expresses mixed feelings. When the going got tough in Canaan, Abraham went to Egypt. Sarah chose an Egyptian woman to bear the child she couldn’t have. Egypt is likened to a vegetable garden — the Garden of Eden no less. Fertile women in a fertile land. No wonder the Israelites clamoured to go back. No wonder the rabbis called Joseph’s righteous for rejecting Potiphar’s wife. It was all so tempting! You can’t be a Tzaddik for resisting what you don’t want.
Has time taken off its clothes of trembling
and decked itself out in riches,
and has earth put on fine-spun linen
and set its beds in gold brocade?
All the fields of the Nile are checkered,
as though the bloom of Goshen
were woven straps of a breastplate,
and lush oases dark-hued yarn,
and Raamses and Pithom laminated goldleaf.
Girls on the riverbank, a bevy of fawns,
Linger, their wrists heavy with bangles —
anklets clipping their gait.
The heart enticed
forgets its age, remembers boys or girls
in the garden of Eden, in Egypt, along the Pishon,
running on the green to the river’s edge;
the wheat is emerald tinged with red,
and robed in needlework;
it sways to the whim of the sea breeze,
as though bowing in thanks to the Lord …
Claudia Roden, who has single-handedly contributed more than anyone else, ever, to the cause of Jewish food, had this to say about Egypt in her introduction to The Book of Jewish Food:
Every cuisine tells a story. Jewish food tells the story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds. It lives in people’s minds and has been kept alive because of what it evokes and represents. My own world disappeared forty years ago, but it has remained powerful in my imagination. When you are cut off from your past, that past takes a stronger hold on your emotions. I was born in Zamalek, a district of Cairo with palm trees, pretty villas and gardens with bougainvillaea, scented jasmine and brilliant red flowers called ‘flamboyants’. On the map it looks like a cocoon clinging to the banks of the Nile. For the first 15 years of my life it was the cocoon from which I never ventured unaccompanied. I lived in an apartment building with my parents, my two brothers, Ellis and Zaki; and our Yugoslav-Italian nanny, Maria Koron. Awad, the cook, who came from Lower Egypt, lived on the roof terrace, where servants had rooms. From the windows we could see the Nile and feluccas (sailing boat) gliding by. The sounds were the muezzin’s call and the shouts of street vendors. It was a world full of people. It ended in 1956 after Suez, as a result of Egypt’s war with Israel. My father died in 1993 at the age of 94, a few months after my mother. They had spent the last years holding hands, switching from one radio station to another listening to the world’s events, and talking passionately about their life in Egypt. They lived near me in London, and I was the audience for their constant dramatized re-enactments of the stories of all the people they had known. These stories were capable of endless change as new interpretations were explored. At 16 Woodstock Road, it seemed that we had never left Cairo.
Former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef z”l, a man so revered that an estimated 850,000 people attended his funeral in Jerusalem, lived as a young rabbi in Cairo. There he heard Umm Kulthum, revered as Egypt’s greatest diva; it’s estimated that more people went to her funeral than to Nasser’s. Her concerts could last for eight hours and her Thursday evening weekly radio broadcasts reportedly shut down the entire country.
According to David Menahem, a remarkable young rabbi and paytan (singer of liturgical songs) who used to sing in Rav Ovadia Yosef’s home, Rav Ovadia attributed to Um Kulthum his relatively moderate approach to kol isha, the prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice in public. When it comes to women in the public sphere in Israel today, we desperately need moderation like his.
We desperately need, too, rabbis like David Menahem, of Iraqi descent, and the Moroccan-born Hayim Louk, who speak lovingly of what was once a rich and fruitful interaction between Jewish and Arabic music in the Middle East and North Africa. Mindless nostalgia won’t help us, but nor will rewriting history in the other direction.
Which brings me back to spiritual liberation. According to surveys, almost all Israeli Jews attend a Seder. Passover is the Jewish festival that non-observant Diaspora Jews are most likely to celebrate. As well as keeping us together in these relatively good times, the Exodus from Egypt has been a model of hope for Jews at serious risk of being erased physically and spiritually from the face of the earth. It’s been a model of hope for others too, notably slaves in the American south who identified their slave owner with Pharaoh.
What we’re celebrating at Pesach — whether as historical reality, spiritual direction, or psychological disposition — is something that happened to us, not something we did ourselves. The ancient Israelites didn’t get together to organize an uprising; God appointed a reluctant leader and took them out Himself. That idea of being rescued is tremendous kick-starter, which is surely part of the Exodus story’s universal appeal. Who doesn’t want to be saved from their problems by a strong arm and an outstretched hand?
But after that it’s up to us. That’s when the sheer complexity of it all kicks in. When we become aware of the myriad strands that constitute our identities. When we remember that the melons and cucumbers we ate in Egypt really did taste good. When we acknowledge that we can’t, and shouldn’t want to, leave everything behind.
So I’m cautious about ‘taking Mitzraim out of the Jew,’ about attaching the label ‘Egypt’ to what we don’t like and trying purge it. I prefer to focus instead on what it was that made God decide to rescue us in the first place. We were brought out not as an end in itself, but for a purpose: to build a just society in the Promised Land. As far as God is concerned: Dayenu. If He had only brought us out of Egypt, that would have been enough. But when it comes to us, it’s emphatically not enough that we agreed to leave. That’s precisely where our story — our endless challenge to fit together the pieces of the puzzle, to somehow, miraculously, make it all work — begins.
Poster advertising the new exhibition at the Israel Museum: Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story