For you, Too, Were Once Slaves in the Land of Egypt

At my house, you know it’s almost Passover because my mother is pissed off, stressed out, and yelling at all of us with her hands elbow-deep in matzah flour. Both ovens are on, matzah ball broth boils in a pot on the stove, its top coming up to about my eye level, and both of our refrigerators are filled with kugels and casseroles and chocolate jelly roll cakes—all of them without flour, and yeast, and other bready goodness.

At my house, you know it’s almost Passover because my grandmother’s old dining room table is turned on a diagonal so that it juts out from the dining room into the open foyer. Chairs line the table awaiting their patrons, a mix and match of fabrics, woods, and cold, colored metal—as mismatched as the people who would later be sitting in them. The table sits under the chandelier that my mother hates, which dangles from a faux-painted hole in the ceiling, blue skies and clouds seeming to hold the chandelier in midair. A long, plastic, reinforced table, bought new two years ago at Costco, runs towards the front door: the door with the frosted glass and cut-out shapes of see-through triangles and swirls surrounded by brown, grained wood. The door my parents had to get special permission from the homeowner’s association to put in it.

The table is thick gray plastic – you could drop a whole stack of Haggadot on it and it wouldn’t buckle. This is very important. Later in the evening, there will be table- slapping, by fists, and my parent’s best silverware jumping up and slamming down. The wine glasses will have been moved onto the foot of the stairs and the front hall table and my grandmother’s old dining room table, where the adults sit.

At my house, you know that it’s almost Passover when my dad slides open the orangey-red wooden doors along the bottom of the big bookshelf in my mother’s study to pull out stack after stack of food-stained Haggadot. We used to have real Haggadot—the kind with covers and shiny pages—but now we have photocopied packets, with song booklets at the back, some pages missing, and the staples contorted and rusted. There are red and yellowy spots where my brother, or I, or the other kids, have spilled sparkling cider. My dad always leads the service from his seat next to my mother. She sits at the head of the table, closest to the dining room doors so that she can slip away to mind the kitchen. My dad sits to her left. This is where they always sit, anytime we have big dinners—at Thanksgiving and at both nights of our Passover Seders.

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I don’t like to think of them changing—they ground my world, keep it even- keeled. Constant. Never not there. She’s half the reason I’m so short. She always tries to get me to help cook, chopping apples, mixing sweet wine, processing food, whisking cakes with egg whites so they rise without flour or yeast. Her cookbook a thick white plastic binder with a deep blue binding, plastic sleeves that house recipes. He always has something to teach, and according to him, I always have something to learn. He knows everything, he’s like Wikipedia—it gets annoying.

Mom and Dad

God willed it and so it was. Moses was conceived, he was born, he was in danger, so his mother floated him down the Nile where the Pharaoh’s daughter found him and decided to call him her own. Moses, named “Mosheh” after water, was watched by his elder sister, Miriam, who brought their mother Jochebed to the princess. Jochebed acting as a nurse of sorts helped to raise her son

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The story of Passover is separated into chunks in our Haggadah. My brother likes to read the chunks, he reads fast, like it’s a joke. He speed-reads the way he does when he competes in debate competitions, fitting the most information into the shortest possible gap of time. His theory: the faster we read, the sooner we eat. He finishes out of breath and the table chuckles. My brother is so funny. They just love it. I roll my eyes.

When I read, I take my time. I let the words pool out and flow into one another like the ebb and flow of a river. I let the beauty of the words wash over the table.

My dad and brother have little things they do every year, like ending the Seder with, “Next year in the land of Israel, and the year after that, a nice cruise.” They begin each section of the Haggadah with my brother sing-songing the title, “Kar-Pas.” He’ll say, his voice going up on the kar then sliding down on the pas. Karpas is the parsley that we dip in salt water to represent the tears of the Israelites. The table chuckles because it is what they have come to expect. Just like they know that when we get to the horseradish, every male under the age of twenty-five will heap the homemade root onto their matzah and bite down. It becomes a competition between our family friends, the Fitch boys—Brian, Kevin, and Tyler—my brother Andrew, and my cousin Sean, seeing who can last the longest before their faces turn red, their eyes tear, and they are forced to spit the lump of grey root back out into their napkins. My father hand-grates the horseradish every year, activating it with vinegar. Just the smell of it, a whiff of it, leaves your sinuses clear and your nose running. I never go near it. When I was three, I’m told, I stuck my whole head into a bowl of it.

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One year Robin brought lengths of rope for us in one of her Longaberger baskets. She taught my best friend, Caitlin, and me how to tie a special knot. I don’t remember the knot anymore. I felt special in her eyes, her almost-daughter. She used to joke about me marrying her youngest son. She had three sons, each with golden hair. Brian and Kevin were identical twins, and when they were younger, they wore sweatshirts with their names spelled across the fronts. I wish they still wore those sweatshirts. Tyler was only a year ahead of me, but he and his brothers were all in the “boys’ club” with my brother playing Nintendo 64 in the basement while Caitlin and I built Barbie villages on my bedroom floor. The boys are all tall—tall and blonde, especially their dad, Ken. When I hug him my head meets his belly button.

The Fitches


At Passover time we eat matzah, large square crackers the size of dinner plates. No flour or yeast—just dry, with perforated holes running in stripes up and down like a giant, golden-brown saltine.

Perfect for cream cheese sandwiches in Ziploc bags, nestled next to ice packs in zippered plastic lunch boxes. Good soaked in egg, like French toast, fried up on a skillet, slathered in maple syrup and cinnamon sugar for breakfast the next morning—matzah brei. Sensational when laid in four broken strips on a foil-covered tray, dolloped with spoonfuls of “concoction”—ketchup, mixed shredded cheeses, and my mom’s special mix of herbs—the best sleep-over breakfast.

Crumble it in matzah ball soup, grind pepper and salt, wait to cool, eat.
Use as a buffer between homemade horseradish and taste buds.
At the beginning of the Seder take the middlemost piece and crack it in half. Your dad passes it to your mom, who does the same and passes it to her mom, and so on and so forth. What remains is the afikomen.

Place the afikomen in its felt cover, light blue with googly eyes and a thick black smile that your twenty-one-year-old brother made at college this year. Hide it. Let the kids find it. Give them prizes. Eat it for desert.

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The story we read from the Haggadah, the story we study in Sunday school, is about the Jewish people. They are treated as slaves and so Moses, one of their own, (who by a trick of luck is a prince as well), comes to their aid. He asks the pharaoh to let his people go. His people. The pharaoh, of course, says no, and so it begins.

God first spoke to Moses through the burning bush after Moses had run away. Moses had killed a guard who’d beaten a Jewish slave. Moses had recently learned of his true lineage. His people changed. He returned to the palace where he had grown up, demanding that the pharaoh let his people go.

There’s a song we used to sing in Sunday school, sitting on the sanctuary floor with the Rabbi’s wife, her guitar slung across her shoulder. We would chant, “Let my people go, let my people go.”

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She used to read to me. She’s old, but not really—I mean she doesn’t seem that way. Her house is filled with glass bowls of coffee candies—caramel with chocolate. The whole place rattles when you take a step. The Winnie the Pooh sheets I always sleep on. The trips to New York to watch Broadway come to life. When I send her my writing, she reads it.

Grandma Marjorie


God and Moses got fed up with the pharaoh and his false promises of freedom, and so they struck him and the land of Egypt with ten horrible plagues. Dam: water turned to blood; Tzefardea: frogs; Kinim: lice; Arov: beasts; Dever: the killing of Egyptian livestock (while leaving the Israelites’ livestock unharmed); Sh’chin: boils; Barad: Hail; Arbeh: locusts; Choshech: darkness; Machat Becherot: death of first-born. The Israelites were told to paint lamb’s blood above their front doors so that God would know to “Pass” over their homes and not kill their firstborns. Hence the name, Passover.

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My father calls out the ten plagues. “Dam,” and we transfer pinky fingers dripping in wine or sparkling cider to the edges of our plates. There, the juice floats down to mix with the haroset, a mix of apples, nuts, sweet wine and the gefilte fish that looks like a tan sponge that you can cut into with the side of your fork. It soaks up the sweet juices of the wine and haroset. “Tzefardea,” he calls out. My brother echoes him with, “frogs.” Our pinkies trail between glass and plate. “Kinim.” “Lice,” our fingers make another trip. It goes on and on, until our wine glasses are drained, and I have to tilt mine to the side. I use my pinky to scrape at the dregs left at the bottom so that, “Machat Becherot,” “Death of the first-born,” gets a spot on the rim of my plate as well.

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If he doesn’t come home this year, it won’t be Passover. He speed-reads and I roll my eyes. He heaps so much horseradish on his gluten-free matzah that he almost stops breathing. He sing-songs section titles, “Karpas.” Each year, he gets slightly more drunk throughout the Seder until his eyes dull out and he smiles and he hugs me and dances with his girlfriend, Caroline, even though there’s no music. If he’s gone, who will echo the English names of the plagues? Or ask for matzah ball soup without the matzah balls?
Andrew


It is said that when the pharaoh finally let the Israelites go, he immediately regretted his decision and sent men chasing after the fleeing Hebrews. It is said that Moses saw them coming and used his staff and the power of God to part the Red Sea. It is said that the Egyptians followed the Hebrews into the water and were drowned. God wept for the people who had died because they too were his creations. God saved the Hebrews and he wept because he’d taken life to do so. He’d disobeyed his own commandment: Thou shalt not kill.

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We do certain things at Passover—go seven days without flour, yeast, bread, and often in my case, birthday cake. We cook special foods, sing special songs, recite special prayers.

It’s my favorite holiday. It’s not like Hanukkah, where we get presents simply because that’s what happens at Christmas, and Jews aren’t ones to be outdone. It’s special. Passover is about the people. About the act of gathering around the table and eating together, singing together, remembering together.

We Jews are strong. I often tell people that Judaism is the one religion that can stand on its own devoid of belief. Judaism is a culture, a community, a way of life, a type of food, and in a way, an ethnicity.

Passover is about culture. It’s about roasted shank bones and parsley dipped in salt water, about hard-boiled eggs sliced open on a plate, and haroset, and horseradish, and caramel chocolate-covered matzah. It’s about the potato kugel my mom makes or the matzah balls she shapes by hand. It’s about the brisket that falls apart as you eat it and the flourless chocolate jellyroll cake with the chocolate espresso mousse filling. But mostly, it’s about her cookbook and the pages within, passed down from generation to generation. It’s about the knowledge that we aren’t the first and we won’t be the last. It’s the people that change, not the traditions.

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“Lizzie, help Devon open the door for Elijah please,” my mother’s voice rings down the table. My seven-year-old cousin, Devon, shakes his head in protest.

“I can do it on my own!” he says, and hops down from his chair. I smile at my mother, shake my head, and then get up anyway. Devon has put salt and pepper in my wine already, and I’m not about to let him knock down the wind chimes that hang on the back of the door or let the cat escape.

“I can do it!” he says, reaching up to twist the handle. It’s locked.
“You might need the key, silly,” I tell him, reaching over to the sidewall and the hook on which the key hangs. I grab it by its plastic Macintosh computer key chain and twist it in the lock.

“There you go,” I tell him. He pulls at the handle and jerks the door open, swinging it inwards. Everyone turns to face the door, waiting for the profit Elijah. Behind Devon’s back I see his father, Brian, reach for the filled wine glass at the center of the table. He shrugs at me, grinning, and tosses it back. After gulping up about three-quarters of the glass, he sets it back down. I guess it’s kind of like eating the milk and cookies kids leave out for Santa—the illusion that Elijah is real, needs to be maintained. My parents never did that for me. No fantasies. Well, except for the tooth fairy, and the Rabbi ruined that for me in the third grade during his Rosh Hashanah, sermon. I think he was worried about all of the mixed marriages and didn’t want to bring up the whole Santa Claus thing, so he butchered the tooth fairy instead.

When Devon sits back down, he motions to the glass. “Elijah came!” my cousin cries. We all smile and nod, go back to the service.

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They started coming not so long ago, that first year Andrew and his girlfriend bought Sock’em boppers—plastic pool-floatie-type gloves that you use to punch each other. They punched me until my hair was spiked with static and I couldn’t breathe and the six-year-old karate-chopped my collegiate brother to defend my honor. Brian and Jackie used to bring their dog, Kenjie, over before Devon was born, and before they started coming for Passover. We never had a dog, so it was special. Kenjie died. Devon calls me Cousin Lizzie. “Cousin Lizzie! Cousin Lizzie!” he yells, then he pours salt and pepper in my wine.

Brian, Jackie, and Devon


The Haggadah’s favorite saying is, “for you, too, were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” It says it over and over again, impressing upon us the importance of helping strangers, for we, too, were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Maybe that is why at Passover we all gather together as one big family, cousins and grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and siblings. We were all once strangers in the land of Egypt, but now we are a family.

There is a page that drags on, saying “Had God Not…Had God Not parted the Red Sea. Had God Not delivered us from slavery. Had God Not given us manna when we were starving in the desert. Had God Not. Had God Not.” It forms a long list that my father practices saying as fast as he can in one long breath, until his face is red and he sucks in air like he’s been choking on words, on history. And for every “Had God Not,” we chant Dayaynu (It would have been enough). It becomes a song sung with vigor. A song that, in a way, just goes on and on. Dayaynu.

By this part of the seder everyone’s a little bit drunk. We’re all obligated by tradition, by God, and by Judaism, to drink four cups of wine.

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They hold hands. Her back hurts her. She walks stooped over. Grey hair cropped close to her head. She wears bright clothing, big jewels. When she died, he gave me a strand of her pearls. He’s still here. What is he without her? I watched him cry at her funeral. He used to lift me up on to his knees and tickle me; pretend to eat my neck. The neck is his favorite part of the turkey at Thanksgiving. They’re not even my real grandparents, they’re my cousin Sean’s. They’re his.

Grandma Iris and Grandpa Gene


When he drives, his chin sits on the wheel. The one time I went into his office, every surface was covered in stacks of newspapers. I wondered if, when he lifted them up, inked words told the headlines of his past. She’s always on a diet but I think she’s always been beautiful. She calls me by my full name Elizabeth Barbara, only because she’s from Boston she says it like Bahbra. I love their daughters, their grandkids. All of them.

Great Aunt Ellen and Great Uncle Don


Friends of my parents. Man and wife. I used to laugh at their Disney names—Don and Mickey—asked why their son, Aaron, wasn’t named Pluto or Goofy. They brought her mother every year, in sweater sets and unsure, shuffling footsteps with homemade gefilte fish and pineapple kugel. This year her chair, across from Grandma Iris’s, is empty, gone. There are only the white bones of the sculpture my mother was given from her apartment. White bones, woven together like clasping hands.

Ann Erlich, Mickey, Don, and Aaron


We have little glasses that are tinted blue and almost the size of shot glasses. Devon drinks his wine from it. He’s seven. He sucks it back, asks for more. His parents tell him no more, that’s it—just that small blue glass. Does he know that when his daddy was seven that was the glass he drank wine out of at the Passover Seder? They ask him. Does he know that his Dad’s mom, Carol Elizabeth, who died before “Cousin Lizzie!” was born, (they look over at me, smile), and after whom she is named, drank from that same glass when she was seven?

Devon drinks sparkling cider for the next three glasses. He, like the rest of us, prefers real red wine to the Manischewitz, which sits mostly untouched—except by Great Aunt Ellen and her sweet tooth—on the buffet cabinet against the dining room wall.

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I met Genna at the pool. Her brother, Michael, did Boy Scouts with my brother. We played pretend. They lived in an old house, white with columns. George Washington walked their land. She was best friends with her neighbor, I was jealous. I thought her attic was haunted. When I slept over I got half of her full sized bed: her Golden Retriever, Ripkin’s, side. He laid between us, slowly pushing me off the bed so that I was facedown, blankets on the floor next to the plastic box with her turtle, Myrtle.

The Spears


The four questions. Every kid’s nightmare. The youngest at the table has to chant them in Hebrew—in front of everyone, with no help. Though, when I falter, my dad usually jumps in. It’s someone else’s job to read the four questions out loud in English. Genna and I sit across the table from each other, hands gripping the edges, eyes narrowed.

“My birthday’s this week,” I hiss. “Yours isn’t till May. I’m older.”

“It’s your house.”

“You’re younger.” It goes on until one of our mothers says, “Why don’t you both do it.” We roll our eyes, complain, and then start at a whisper until everyone else joins in.

Mah nish tanah halylah hazeh micoal hahlayloat…

In English, the four questions, (Why is this night different from all other nights?) roughly translate to:

Why is it that on all other nights we eat both matzah and bread, but on this night we eat only matzah?

The answer: because our ancestors didn’t have time to wait for the bread to rise when they were fleeing slavery in Egypt.

Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?

The answer: because the bitter herbs remind us of the bitterness of slavery, for we were once slaves in the land of Egypt.

Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip our herbs at all, but on this night we dip them twice?

The answer: we dip our parsley in salt water twice to represent the tears of the Israelites when they were slaves, and we mix the bitter herbs or horse radish with the sweet juices of the haroset to try to sweeten the burden of bitterness.

Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting upright or reclining but, on this night we eat reclining?

The answer: because reclining at meals is a symbol of freedom, and at Passover we celebrate the Israelites being freed from slavery.

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She used to poke my belly button, and still does, like a game. Tickles me, listens for the squeal. Gave me books, gives me books, reads my words. He likes cars, motorcycles, anything with an engine. My dad likes knowing how things work, so they talk. That’s good because I never know what to say. Their son. He’s six months older, doesn’t act like it. Lives in a world built on the computer. Steals my phone. Texts my friends. Now he’s my friend.

Aunt Ellen, Uncle Seth, and Cousin Sean


“It’s time to find the afikomen,” my father says, pushing his chair back from the table. Spoons clatter against china as people scrape the last of the espresso-flavored filling from the chocolate jellyroll cake off of their plates. “All kids report to Margaret!” he says, and we get out of our seats and walk around through the kitchen to the head of the table, where my mother sits. My best friend, Caitlin, is smiling with anticipation beside me. Everyone is considered a kid if they’ve ever been a kid at our Passover table. My brother’s girlfriend is the oldest, at twenty-three. She stands next to my brother, peering through the double doors at my mom, her hand entwined with his.

“The rules,” my Dad says, looking across my mom at us. “It’s on the first floor, don’t go in the study, it’s not in there. It’s in plain sight, you don’t need to move anything—got it?”

Devon is rearing to go. He starts a couple times and my dad says, “Wait till I say go,” his eyes drifting between us and Devon, then back again. He raises his eyebrows at us. We get it, let Devon win; he’s only seven after all. “On the count of three…one, two….giraffe!” Devon bounces into the kitchen, turns on his heel and comes giggling back to a stop, next to me.

“Y-hou didn’t say three!” he says, still giggling.

“Ok,” Dad says, looking down at Devon, “One, two…four.” Devon doesn’t fall for it this time. He crosses his arms across his chest and looks up at Dad.

“One, two….three!” Dad says, and we’re off.

Of course Devon isn’t the first to find it—we all stumble across it but leave it in its place, muttering, “Oh well, I don’t suppose it could be on top of the air vent behind the black leather recliner, do you?” in false, quiet voices until Devon gets the hint and crawls behind my mom’s recliner to find the pale blue afikomen cover smiling up at him from on top of the air vent. He grabs it in his fist and races back through the kitchen to my mom and dad screaming, “I got it, I got it! I won.” We all follow behind him, stacking up in the doors once more, smiling down at Devon.

“Great job!” my mom says, and reaches into a plastic shopping bag. My mom always gets little presents for all of us, no matter who wins. My favorite present ever, for looking for the afikomen, was one I got when I was eight or nine. It was a fuzzy pink change-purse keychain that zippered open and had Angelica’s face, from the Rugrats, embroidered on the front.

Mom hands Devon a light-up yoyo and then gives the rest of us our presents. I get a purple click light and go back to my seat. It used to be that, every year—just like when the tooth fairy came—we’d get a golden dollar coin with Sacajawea’s face stamped on the front.

Devon sits in his seat for the rest of the night grinning, clutching his light up yoyo in his right hand, never letting it go. My dad breaks off a piece of the afikomen and sends it down the table for all to share.

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She came when the Fitches came, so I wasn’t the only girl. She had a crush on them all – but who didn’t? We were in awe of those boys. She still remembers the knot Robin taught us. She stopped coming in high school—went on college road trips instead. Got a new best friend. Her name was Libby.

Caitlin


Silence falls as we all flip our booklets to the last few pages of our Haggadot, the song pages. Some of the songs we found on the Internet, others have been passed down in my father’s family for generations. But there is no song like “Hoo Ha.”

“Hoo Ha” was passed down by my Great Grandma Ida’s brother-in-law, Uncle Willie. Great Grandma Ida was famous for her sweet tooth. She always said she had a second stomach for dessert. I read a poem I’d written about her at her funeral. I wrote it on black notebook paper with my Milky Way gel pens. At five feet, she was shorter than I am. She sat on phone books to drive. I always wondered how her feet managed to reach the pedals.

“Hoo Ha” is written in Yiddish—a kind of fusion between Hebrew and German. Maybe sixty years ago, my Great Grandma Ida and Uncle Willie and their whole family sat around the Passover table, speaking Yiddish and English, eating the same foods we eat, and singing “Hoo Ha” the same way we do. The traditions stay the same, but the people change and grow and leave. I wish it could all just stay.

“Hoo Ha” killed our old wooden folding table. It necessitated the new, grey, reinforced plastic Costco monstrosity. We killed a table-- Andrew and Caitlin and Brian and Kevin and Tyler and my cousin Sean and I. We killed it dead.

If we all got together now, with everyone all grown up, and smacked the new table, I bet we could break it, too. Part of me tries to do it every year, knowing that the plastic, molded table won’t fail, not without all of us. But the thing is, I don’t know if all of us will ever be at that same table singing “Hoo Ha” again.

We pile our plates and water glasses and wine glasses onto every available surface—onto the “adult” dining room table, onto the steps, onto the wooden floors, onto the front hall table. We leave our silverware where it is. It’s Mom and Dad’s best silverware, which we call the Passover silver. It was originally Great Grandma Ida’s mother’s silver—even the cutlery has tradition. We leave it there so we can see it jump when it happens; when we do “Hoo Ha.” There is static in the air, a prickling of excitement resting as my father draws in a breath and begins the song, the rest of our voices fill his in, eyes whipping back and forth across the page, entitled “Hoo Ha.”

We begin to sing:

Moni Dobbin Moni Sobbin….HOO HA! On the “HOO HA” our fists slam down onto the table and we watch as the silverware jumps. We keep singing. Chitteh bitteh bim bam ved’ken raid’n ved’ken tsail’n vas, ain ba tie…the song continues on and with each verse we come back to the “HOO HA” and with each “HOO HA,” our fists pound the table harder, until we hear a clatter and then a crash as the metal support bar running long ways underneath our table disengages from the wooden top and smacks to the floor. We killed the table. We smile and keep on singing.