Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


I asked the guests at our Passover seder (seder means “order” — the order of ritual and discussion at the family passover celebration) to bring a story about being trapped and released — personal, mythical, fictional, historical, it did not matter. I picked that theme because the seder is about the story of the Jews being captives in Egypt and then escaping to freedom. Speaking of history and evidence, there is no historical evidence that the Jewish people were captives in Egypt. But the seder has a way around that — the rule is that everyone who comes is to feel “as if” you had been a slave and then found freedom. The key is the experience, the “as if” connection — not the matter of whether the passover story is an actual historical memory of the Jewish people, or, whether, as some scholars suggest, the whole story was invented when the Jews were, in fact, captured people in Babylon after the fall of the first temple — an invented past used to help people through a time of actual exile.

Our guests brought many interesting stories — of being a gay teenager from a fundamentalist Alabama family and arriving in New York City; of the linen we were eating on, which my mother brought from Europe even as Hitler took over, and the China which Marina’s grandparents bought when they arrived here, in the very last year (1924) when Jews could freely enter, after having beein “illegal aliens” in Europe for years. One guest told the story from a Hindu point of view — the idea of non-attachment, that we are trapped in desire, but can find freedom in the effort to be both in the world of life, love, and freed from its insistent demands. And then yet another gave the story a spin that I particularly liked.

He told the story of Nelson Mandela — Mandela was the head of the armed wing of the ANC, and was imprisoned. He was trapped on Robbins Island. But as he was in his cell, he became free — because he developed a new understanding of his captors. He freed himself, and thus, later his nation. His prison was not a prison, it was a classroom — it was the opportunity to free himself, to free his mind, to free his vision of the future for his nation. So maybe that is another way to see the Passover story — almost as it it took place entirely in Moses’s mind — his own private anger, his own private attachment to rage at the Egyptians, his own private unwillingness to let go, to leave, to be free.