Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Passover is a spring festival of liberation. It involves retelling, and in small ways re-enacting and re-experiencing the bitterness of slavery and the joys of liberation. Jews do this retelling and so forth during a ritual meal called a Seder. My novel contains multiple Passover images because the images of the festival are so fertile, so rich with metaphorical potential. Also because my novel has to do with an exodus of sorts--the departure of the Jews from Detroit, Le Detroit (its French name), meaning the Strait, a narrow place. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt (the land where the Jews were enslaved) also means "a narrow place." Discovering this overlap as I researched my novel is what I call a metaphorical gift.
     Passover has just ended for this year, and every year, I gain new insights from the Seder and the Haggadah, the book from which we read during the Seder. One new insight this year was that in addition to slavery and liberation, the Passover story brings up issues of reconciliation and forgiveness. Why? Because once we become liberated, how are we to view our former-enslaver? With hate? With a desire for revenge? If we cannot find a way to forgive the enslaver, don't we continue to be enslaved to him? But how do we find a way to forgive such dehumanizing and brutality? Can anyone be expected to do so?
     At one of my readings (at the Detroit Public Library), an African-American woman in the audience explained something that happened to many black people who came up north to Detroit to work in the factories. In the south, she explained, many had been taught that they were never to look into the face of a white person. When they got to the north, where things were looser, many of these new northerners felt an enormous rage. Rather than feeling that life had improved for them, they felt overwhelmed by all the oppression and humiliation they'd experienced. I cannot blame them for these feelings even if I fear that rage, and even if they have transferred the rage to all white people, even though not every white person was their literal enslaver. I myself many times have made similar errors of overgeneralization.
     Which leads to the second new insight or thought-experiment I encountered this year during Passover: A family who attended the Seder told of an unusual dilemma. The next morning, they were picking up an exchange student at the airport who was going to stay with them for a short time and who would thus attend the second Seder with them the following night. The dilemma-ish aspect was that the exchange student--16 years old--was Egyptian. What did he know about Passover? What, if anything, would he feel at the Seder as the story unfolded of the Egyptian enslavers and their brutality? What, if anything, would he think when he heard about the revenge visited on the Egyptians via the plagues and the drowning in the Red Sea. True, the Haggadah notes that the joy of liberation is diminished by the suffering of the Egyptians. True, the whole thing happened circa 3,000 years ago. I was quite certain that no one at the table would look at him in rage as their former enslaver. But how would he feel? How would you feel in a similar situation? Seated at a table hearing a story about "your people" and their evil ways, when you were the sole representative of "those people" at the table? 


Jim Poznak said...

One importance of the Passover story is as a reminder that slavery is not a quaint event from the olden days but rather, it still exists.

A problem with the Passover story, and with any similar "birth of a people" story, is what might get lost in the retelling, namely, that no one now living was involved in those long ago events.

rasirds@cox.net said...

Being the only person in the situation you describe obviously would create a very uncomfortable feeling for that personvver. However, in this circumstance the host has an obligation to explain that that sole guest is not responsible for what happened thousands of years ago. Frankly, however, this is still a bad situation. The host should probably have arranged for the guest not to be present or have done the Mitzvah (good deed) of omitting that portion of the service which would have caused the discomfort.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks, Jim. I appreciate you bringing to people's attention the fact that slavery exists in many forms and places. Here we have an interesting tension between what happened long ago (or might even be mythical)and realities of current life. What keeps the old stories alive is that they do still have relevance. But, true, the individuals who lived those events are no longer alive. Even if they were, how would we feel about them? Could we sit at the Seder table with pharaoh?

And thanks to you, too, rasirds. Your response is very practical. The situation our friends were in was so unusual. I did joke that they could say "Philadelphia" instead of "Egypt" every time it came up in the service. I'll have to check in with them and find out what happened.