Let My People Go

by Ariela Wolfe

The scene takes place at 9:30 p.m. in a suburban dining room. We've been anchored to this lace-bedecked table for over 4 hours, sitting, reading, serving, eating. Debris from tea and dessert linger. The Passover meal sits heavy in our bellies.

My father sits at the head of the table. He has been directing the Seder traffic with unspoken edicts: THE WAY THINGS SHOULD BE. THE WAY IT MUST BE. Now, after the meal, his eyes are glued to the Haggadah. No one else can even locate theirs; no one makes an attempt. He mumbles every word in Hebrew, insisting on omitting nothing. No one there understands Hebrew except my mother.

He recites the blessing. "Lift the fourth cup of wine" he says, then looks around disapprovingly. We all sit there, mute, exhausted or pissed off or both. "Aren't you participating?" he growls in that familiar, disapproving tone. He hasn't noticed that we haven't participated for a while. I look at him and blink wearily. I can almost see that old "there is a correct way to live and you're not doing it" cloud floating around him. I'd better be careful not to breathe it in. In his world, everyone must either feel what he does or pretend to...better to be false and show "respect" than to be real and not a good person/Jew/daughter.

Peter, age 1, has been sleeping in his father's arms for over an hour, his weight heavy in the crook of Bob's elbow. Bob ate his meal on the sly, with his non-dominant hand. Bob, who is not Jewish, has handled this evening with grace, humility and patience, despite the fact that when he married my cousin, Robin, some years ago, my father had refused to attend the wedding ceremony. Interfaith marriages and their dual-religion ceremonies are high on his long list of boycott able acts.

Bob and Robin's other son Jonathan, age 3, is overstimulated and overtired, having asked for seemingly hundreds of miniature cups of red grape juice, usually at the very moment his mother was attempting to talk. Jonathan has received his Affikoman prizes; one is a "Winnie the Pooh" picture book, his current favorite story. the book's cover has 5 electronic buttons, each of which play a different variety of what are advertised as "Bouncy Songs". He is delighted and can't help himself: he must make the music play. Robin, almost infinitely patient, is exhausted by now, having arrived 7 or 8 hours ago with her two young children. She tells Jonathan not to play the music at the Seder table, so he's on the kitchen floor (5 feet away), pressing buttons and playing loud electronic bouncy songs. The Bouncy Songs of Winnie the Pooh. My father continues to mumble rapidly to himself in Hebrew.

Now my chair is pushed out. I'm half sitting, half standing, caught between the "should" and what I need to do. A half hour ago, I had announced that we would be leaving at 9:30 (which was a half hour later than I had planned), whether or not the ceremony was concluded. Some muttered excuses: a long drive, work in the morning, the dog at home. I needed to leave. Now it is time.
My husband stands behind his chair, holding our coats , pleading with his eyes. A similar plea is exchanged between Robin and Bob. We all agree, silently, it's time to go

And there sits my mother: the family matriarch, keeper of the family glue which has long since peeled and cracked, insisting on singing one last song. She explains, "this was your grandmother's favorite" as she has each year. Her need to keep alive a memory which none of us share emerges. Her need to dominate is palpable. She sings with no joy but with an urgency bordering on desperation. Louder and louder, faster she sings in this frozen tableau, everyone frozen except for Jonathan, who whirls and twirls to the competing tune of Winnie the Pooh's bounce. We wait for a pause, but my mother leaves no opening. Even my father has given up singing; he can't keep up, he's drowned out. His only contribution is to correct her Hebrew pronunciation. She ignores his critical ear.

At the end of a stanza, I break the trance. Jumping up, I proclaim "OK, we have to leave now" with an exclamation point. Robin jumps up, too. "Jonathan, let's go potty before we go in the car." The room comes alive with a flurry of preparations for leave-taking. My mother announces to the air," I offered Barbara food to take home, but she doesn't want any".

Push and pull, push and pull. I feel as if I'm rude and bad, but there's no other choice, I just can't stay there anymore. I can't participate anymore. Our good-bye hugs feel abrupt, disconnected, mechanically hard and cold. It's the only way to pry free of the sticky glue, the slow-spreading invisible flypaper glue.

In the car on the way home, I think about the meaning of this ritual, this Passover seder. I know the supposed-to-be meaning: the transmission of history, the passing of tradition to the next generation, the rejoicing at the story of liberation from slavery. I know the meaning experienced by some: family sharing, good food and song, celebration of life and its continuity.
But what meaning have I derived from 46 years of Seders in my family? The story of the Exodus from slavery into freedom has its own twist in my personal history. I flash back to childhood Seders at my grandparents' cramped Brooklyn apartment. A legacy: the children's needs ignored, squelched, my father's father, hunched at the head of the table, eyes glued to his Haggadah, mumbling in Hebrew and oblivious to those around him. No sense of joy or renewal or life. Just fear and a pervasive sigh of "Oy Vey". Staying too late, my mother complaining about her in-laws in the car on the way home, saying to my sister and me, "if I become like them when I'm old, please shoot me." For me, a sense of relief upon exiting into the cool, dark night. Gulping the breathable air.

There's the tradition: Relief upon release from captivity. An experiential re-enactment of the Exodus from Egypt. This was not experienced as festivity, rather as a heavy oppression, sitting like the heavy meal in my gut, bringing my belly pain. I want to sit on the toilet and shit it out. Only a foul smell escapes.

This, ,then, is my meaning, the struggle to make meaning where there is none. This is the struggle to be free. "Egypt" is a place where the children's needs do not exist. The father sits at the head of the table, as is his right, and runs the show. The mother comes to him with a bowl of water and washes his hands. In return, she expects much. In Egypt, there dwells not flexibility, cooperation, communication, mutual respect, adaptation. The doors open only one way. There is only one meaning.

For my parents, Passover means one thing: doing what was done before, passing on the past. In the car, traveling to my home, I create my own meaning: finding my own way, leaving behind the past, liberation. Freedom from Egypt.

Copyright © 1997
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