How Passover Made Me a Writer
The two big spring holidays are in the books now, Easter and Passover, both of which, in their own way, are meant to usher in spring. This year I had the honor of attending a Seder (the Passover service; the word means “order,” though some Seders, depending on how much wine the participants drink, can be quite disorderly) at a friend’s house, with his friends and family. As well as eating mountains of food, the guests read from the Haggadah (the word means “the telling”), which is essentially the Exodus story, plus all sorts of other edifying anecdotes about the Flight from Egypt. It’s a story, oddly enough, without characters: there is no Moses, even if he is among the greatest liberators to have tread upon the earth. There is Pharaoh, playing his usual thankless role. The main character is the Almighty – though of course he is never seen.
Quite early on in the service, we come upon this sentence: “And whoever enlarges upon the tale of the outgoing from Egypt, that one merits praise.”
This is only one of the several key indications that Passover can make you into a writer. There is a story – Exodus – that is one of the greatest on earth, but if you believe in it, you don’t sit by passively and take it all in. If you are a good believer, despite the fact that you are no longer living in the age of miracles, you add to that story, you embellish and embroider and interpret, and that way you will deserve praise.
If that isn’t an invitation to being a writer, I don’t know what is.
Then there’s the issue of the language itself. The words of the Haggadah have that King James swing, as compelling as a gospel tune and reaching back to the very beginning of the English language. Recently, a duo of Jewish American writers – Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer – decided that the old time religion wasn’t good enough. They created the New American Haggadah, to my mind a sad example of revisionism, the Jewish equivalent of Good News for Modern Man, in itself a bowdlerization of King James. And it’s strange, because those guys are good novelists, and I’d recommend their books any day.
But let us continue through the telling. It’s not all sweet. There is this line: “…in every generation there are those who rise against us to annihilate us.” When I was a boy, with a child’s sense of conformity, and wanting to fit in, I was certainly in no hurry to belong to a people whom everyone wanted to destroy.
Later, as I got older and stronger, I learned to see the advantages of being part of that group. For instance, take this piece of advice that comes from the service: “In every generation, one ought to regard himself as though he had personally come out of Egypt.”
That’s the key to the celebration: identification. You were there, you really did flee Egypt, you crossed the Red Sea dry-shod with Pharaoh’s army chasing you, you benefited from miracles the likes of which no one has seen since. The service invites you to engage in an act of identification with people and situations that are centuries old. The capacity to do that is at the heart of writing: you take on new experiences and a new voice from a place and time very distant from yours. And you believe in it, with all the fervor of creation.
Then there’s one more riddle from the very beginning of the Seder. We read these words: “This year we are slaves; next year we shall be freemen.” People have been expressing this wish ever since the world began. And it is spoken every year; every year we yearn to escape slavery, whatever form it takes, and, logically, that deliverance never comes, because it’s always scheduled for next year. Hence the need for such a celebration: next year we will be free – I promise you!
[A note about the text and the illustration: my Haggadah was a gift from the General Israel Orphans’ Home for Girls, situated at the time at 250 East Broadway, New York 2, NY. The unattributed illustrations come from that same edition, copyright 1954 by Shulsinger Brothers Linotyping and Publishing Company, also in Manhattan. Thank you, guys!]