Cecil B. DeMille, Charlton Heston, Diaspora, Exodus, family, films, Jews, Judaism, Moses, Passover, Pesach, Seder, The Ten Commandments
Beginning Friday evening, Jewish people around the world will gather to retell the story of the Exodus. Extraordinary! Modern-day Jews, religious or not, continue to fulfill the ancient, biblical commandment “And you will tell your son (sic: children) on that day saying….” The story of the Jewish Exodus in the 6th century BCE following the destruction of the Second Temple joins Jewish people worldwide to shared origins, binding us to Jewish culture, traditions, and one another. As a storyteller, I have always been fascinated by the magnetism of this saga as a vehicle offering both connection and inclusion.
Is the story true? Some believe every word while others consider the story a metaphor. I find its greatest value as offering a framework within which the concept of faith and deliverance are renewed annually, both individually and as part of a people. Retelling the story keeps a chain of inheritance alive, sustaining Jews living both in Israel, and the Diaspora (dispersion/scattering) that marked the initial exile of the Jewish people. Since then, Jews have been expelled from other regions of the globe. Spain during the Inquisition. Pogroms and other political actions where they were pushed from homes established over centuries. And the Holocaust — the penultimate expulsion.
The word Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) refers to the “Passing Over” or “Po-say-ach” of the Angel of Death who was sent to strike down the firstborn sons of Egypt in a final show of strength by the god of the Hebrew people. The last of the ten plagues visited upon Pharaoh and his people, the ancient tale relates how God instructed Moses to have his people place lamb’s blood upon their doorposts as a sign to the Angel of Death to “pass over” their households, sparing Jewish children.
The story of the Exodus is one of passion and drama, brought to the screen by Cecile B. DeMille in his epic film, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Who can forget Charlton Heston as Moses, standing upon a boulder above terrified slaves who suspended common sense because Moses assured them that God would protect them as they crossed the emptied bed of the Red Sea, parted for their escape. The image of Moses standing with arms spread wide before terrified Hebrew slaves fleeing Pharaoh’s pursuing chariots in a mad dash to freedom is embedded in our psyche.
Yet, Passover Seders (the traditional pre-Passover dinner, where the story of the Exodus is retold) are themselves steeped in the generational memories of individual families. In GOLANSKI’S TREASURES, Max shares what occurred during one particular Seder celebrated by his family in Poland in the late 1920’s. So as not to spoil Max’s tale, let me share instead my own family’s Seder traditions.
As a family raised in the Conservative tradition we celebrated two nights with two Seders. One was with my mother’s family, and the other with my father’s. My mother’s family gathered at a lovely Jewish country club in Chicago hosted by her sister. Long tables accommodated the large family of aunts, uncles and cousins. Seated opposite a cousin who blessedly did not like boiled egg whites, ours was a symbiotic relationship, for I didn’t like the yolks. When the traditional boiled eggs were passed, we would quickly remove the yolks from the whites, and make a clandestine exchange of boiled egg pieces beneath the table according to preference.
My father’s side of the family would gather for a Seder at my grandparent’s house. Another large, extended family, we had an “adult’s table,” with satellite seating for the children. When I finally reached the age marking my matriculation to the “adult’s table,” my grandmother passed away. Several years went by during which my mother prepared wonderful Seders for our immediate family at home. When my father’s sister decided to once again bring the entire family together my excitement at joining the “adult’s table” was quickly extinguished. Other cousins near my age had also advanced, so we simply sat at a newer version of “kiddy tables.”
At some point, my father’s older brother and older sister and their (now adult) children left the larger gathering for Seders with their own children (and grandchildren). The baton was passed to my father to officiate. While nobody could hold a butcher’s carving knife to Dad in the kitchen (did I mention that my Grandpa Ross was a kosher butcher?), Seder leadership fed into Dad’s propensity for telling L-O-N-G versions of any story. Each year our Seders became increasingly lengthy. To keep ourselves amused, the cousins (by then young adults) established a betting pool. The one closest to calling the exact time it took Dad to finish won the pot. At Dad’s last Seder before he died, I won. Of course, several cousins complained it was fixed, and as Dad took no offense upon learning of our friendly betting, I suspect he had become aware of our shenanigans and maybe even overheard my wager. I’ll never know.
I’d love to hear favorite stories of memories from other people’s Seders, so please feel free to comment on this post and share them. Don’t forget to check the GOLANSKI’S KITCHEN page on this blog for a new recipe!
May your matzoh balls be fluffy, your brisket moist and tender, and the four glasses of kosher wine acceptable even to connoisseurs. Warmly, Sue
(Please check out a wonderful post regarding the significance of retelling the Passover story of the Exodus by Dasee Berkowitz in the JTA blog of the American Jewish Congress listed under LINKS – JTA.)