When We Were Slaves.
Our Rabbi stood on top of a table, surveying us with his piercing gaze. He wore leather sandals, faded blue jeans, a short-sleeve dress shirt that showed the muscles in his chest and arms. His wife, barely older than we were, watched from the side, bouncing their first baby boy.
"Who am I to my parents?" he boomed. "Who am I to my teachers? Who am I to my friends? Who am I to my body? Who am I to my God?"
We wrote down the questions without any answers. We were not supposed to know the answers yet. We were there to find the answers.
Was I there to find answers? I was open to the possibility of answers. By some miracle, I had managed to propel myself halfway across the world to a land of oceans and palm trees. I was open to anything, to the point of derangement.
On the bus back to Jerusalem, I found it hard to talk to the other girls. I was overwhelmed with sensory impressions--mountain, rock, trees, sand.
During the day, we learned in the Beit Midrash, the vast library at the heart of our school, where Hebrew texts crowded the walls from ceiling to floor. These books were heavy, formal, with thin pages and tiny print arranged in elaborate designs. They contained the name of God. If they fell, we would kiss them. If they broke, we would bury them. After a couple of weeks, I never wanted to look at them again. I told the principal I was working on a book of poems, so I couldn't come to class in the afternoons. It wasn't like we were getting grades.
In the afternoon, I rode buses from one end of the city to the other. I roamed the streets. I handled merchandise. I smiled at strangers. I ate everything. I felt like I was floating through space, my head high up in the atmosphere, my feet never contacting the ground. In the oldest, holiest parts of the city, the Western Wall and narrow Armenian markets, the tourists were everywhere, the residents dressed in black and the sheer quantity of peddled ceremonial crafts, in silver and painted wood, could have buried me alive. The stone of these streets was slippery and sloped, and as I walked, I had visions of an earthquake, the old stones shaking, the white buildings tumbling down on my head.
The shuk was my holy place. In the shuk, I bought my first mango, my first avocado. I gobbled pastries oozing with honey and sipped carrot juice creamy as velvet, orange as a jewel. From the market, the road led straight to the newer parts of the city, to a cafe off Ben Yehuda Street where I drank my first cappuccino, which was served in a shallow white cup on a matching plate with a silver spoon. First, I stirred sugar into the foam. Then I dipped my finger into the foam. "You like cream?" said the waiter, standing over my shoulder, causing me to jump in my seat, to rattle the cappuccino, to make a spill. "You like this cream?" he said again in a low voice, standing so close the backs of his thighs were touching the back of my chair. My heart pounded. I could not turn to look at him. "Could you get me a napkin?" I said.
I found another cafe, where the black tea was served in glass mugs with crushed mint leaves floating inside. When you poured milk into the tea, the milk billowed like a cloud, like two oceans colliding. This cafe, as it happened, was a hangout spot for Anglos--English-speaking immigrants--and I appreciated that I could understand their overheard conversations. One day, a writing group sat at the table beside me. The group leader read prompts and the group members wrote in their journals in response to the prompts. Some wrote furiously, others wrote meticulously, and there was one woman who didn't write anything at all, just gripped her pen and stared at the page like it would require some Herculean effort to pull the words out of her body. After each prompt, the leader would ask for volunteers to share what they'd written, and then she would respond to what they read. The group members seemed to drink in her words. They blossomed like flowers. One woman, with a red silk scarf tied around her neck, read a passage about riding a bus through Jerusalem. The bus was a bus she rode every day, and she never felt good on a bus, but on that day, she had an especially bad feeling. They were on the long stretch from Katamon into downtown, and she wanted to scream with all of her body, to force the driver to stop right that second, right where they were, but this sort of thing had happened to her before--she did not say how many time--and she knew that the driver would not let you off until the official stop and he would yell at you for asking, and the other passengers would overhear and some would yell and others would panic and by the time you got off, the whole bus would be a cacophony of frantic noise and you would feel so frightened and hopeless that you would have to stagger to the nearest bench and sit there for a long time.
After she finished, there was a tense, knowing silence. An older woman shook her head, clucked her tongue. "I haven't ridden a bus in a month," she said, "but I have errands I've been putting off. I can't keep it up for much longer."
On buses, the old Israeli women were always yelling at me. I was too slow, I was in the way. One time, an especially ancient woman hit me in the head with her purse because my grocery bags tumbled into the aisle. There were girls in my school who didn't ride buses--either because they were scared or because their parents had forbidden it. When these girls ventured out of the school, they traveled in taxis, but they didn't leave very often.
The older woman noticed me. "What about you?" she said. "How did you get here?"
I put down my tea. I didn't know what to say. I told them that I was American, a seminary girl, only here for a year. They were familiar with seminary girls. They wanted to know about my impressions of Israel and how I was liking it here, how I was handling "the situation." When I had arrived in the country a couple of months earlier, "the situation" was essentially stable, but by the end of September that fragile peace had exploded into the Second Intifada. They all felt bad for me that I had chosen such a bad year to come to Israel.
"I'm all right," I said. "I'm doing fine."
"Are you scared?" they said.
"No," I said, but it was obvious they didn't believe me, and I couldn't admit to the truth, how effectively I'd been wearing my obliviousness like a cloak, walking the streets and sipping date smoothies and pretending this was a country of palm trees and men in dark sunglasses selling rainbow-colored sarongs. I told them that I mostly kept close to my school. I stayed safe.
"In this conversation," said the writing group leader, "the terrorists are winning. We cannot let them control our lives."
"Amen," I said.
I made a friend, a contrary girl with a strong Roman profile and blond hair to her waist who was going to Princeton in the fall. We traveled together, to the beaches of Netanya, the beaches of Tel Aviv, up north to Haifa and then back to Netanya, which was our favorite because of the seedy--but not overly seedy, or at least we didn't think so, but we were probably just naive--Russian part of town, where we rented a room in a hostel because it was very cheap and somewhat clean. No matter how many times we stayed there, we could not get over the fact that the hostel was so cheap.
In the spring, we traveled to the home of a teacher for Passover. Ayelet and I were both fixated on this particular teacher, a tiny narrow-hipped woman with a pointy chin, like a perfect triangle, who wore head scarves in the fall and scrunchy velvet hats in the winter to meet the requirement to cover her hair as a married woman. The first week of school, she gave a stirring, idiosyncratic lecture about Adam and Eve and why Jews could not believe in original sin. Ayelet and I referred to this lecture often. The teacher, Miriam Eisner, had three young children, the fewest children of any of our teachers, and yet we were bothered by the existence of Miriam Eisner's children. We couldn't picture her in a domestic life--she seemed entirely devoted to the life of the mind--and we would speculate on how it was even possible, how her tiny body could have ever supported one pregnancy, let alone three. We were vindicated when it came out in a class about biblical birth customs that she'd been put on bed rest for the last several months of each pregnancy, that she had to deliver those babies by C-section.
We assumed there would be a lot of competition over who would get to stay with Miriam Eisner for Passover, but it turned out that a number of the girls had decided to go back to America for the holiday and the others didn't want to travel to her home in the settlement of Ephrat because the winding, mountainous road was supposed to be dangerous. Terrorists positioned themselves in the shadows and threw rocks large enough to shatter windshields, to kill, though no one had yet been killed in this way. Most of our teachers lived in this settlement. They travelled this road twice a day. Some of them, the male ones, carried guns. They'd be writing on the chalkboard and then they'd take off their jackets and you'd see the dark gleam of metal. Why do you have a gun in class? we'd say, in this class full of American girls, and they would blink in surprise. They'd been drafted into the military at a tender, formative age. They served in the reserves for two months a year. They always had a gun.
For the seder, Miriam wanted us to prepare in advance. We were supposed to invent a character from the time of the Passover story, a character who had once been a slave but would soon be free.
We agreed enthusiastically, complimenting the assignment, and then we forgot all about it until we arrived on her doorstep. "You're late!" she said brightly and perhaps a little insanely. Her apron was stained, hair frizzing along the edges of her head scarf. In the cramped entryway, Ayelet and I were too big, with our big bodies and our big backpacks. "The kids are working on their Passover characters," Miriam said, pointing to three sweaty-looking kids seated around the piled-upon kitchen table. The older boy was writing in a notebook and the two girls were coloring pictures, and I was inclined to feel kindly toward them, with their curly hair and pointy Miriam Eisner chins, until one girl stole the other girl's crayon and then the other girl knocked the crayons onto the floor and they both started shrieking, and the shrieking reached a fever pitch, and Miriam looked like she wanted to run out of the house, as fast and as far as she could, but instead she went up to them and kneeled down to their level and started speaking in a very calm and quiet voice, except that her voice wasn't actually calm at all. "Stop it or you won't be able to come to the seder," she said, "and then you'll miss hearing the nice stories that the girls are going to tell you."
"Shit," I said in our tiny upstairs bedroom, which had been swiped from one of her children, forcing them to bunk with each other. The sun was pouring in through the large windows, the heat trapped, like in a greenhouse.
"We'll make something up." Ayelet closed the thick, industrial blinds. We sat on the stone floor, our backs against one of the twin-size beds. The darkness helped a little, providing the illusion of coolness, of being in a cave, but this was a hot and airless cave. Sweat collected between our thighs, on the smalls of our back. We talked and talked. We racked our brains. We ignored the sounds from downstairs of children yelling and Miriam Eisner yelling. We wondered if there was any way to escape and decided it was too late. After too much time had passed, we trudged downstairs with terrible stories we'd crafted about a shepherd and a concubine. "You can't actually be a concubine," I whispered to Ayelet.
We found Miriam in the kitchen, stirring a dressing of mayonnaise and pineapple juice for a salad made out of cubed chicken breast and pineapple chunks. The salad was for her kids' lunch, an extra meal she had to prepare in the midst of all of her other Passover cooking. It looked like something weird one of our moms would have made in the eighties, but when she offered the bowl to us we accepted because we were hungry. We were always hungry. Really, we'd lost the ability to distinguish whether we were hungry, and that was why we were fat. While she cooked, we ate at the kitchen table, and the food was bland and sad and uniformly sweet, but the more we ate of it, the more it grew on us, and we kept eating until we'd eaten too much, eaten most of her kids' lunch, but by the time we realized it was too late, and rather than face up to what we'd done, we sneaked out to the yard behind the house and sat in the dry earth and tickled our feet with the coarse desert grass. We stared at the patchy hills in the distance and talked about how we should not have come, how we should have done the seder by ourselves, the same way we'd lit Hanukkah candles by ourselves on a trip to Netanya. Maybe it would have been more meaningful that way. Did we care if the seder was meaningful? This was something we were figuring out.
We tried to think of a plan for how to get back to Jerusalem when the holiday was over. To get here, we'd ridden the bus, but the bus was scary. We did not want to ride it again.
"We could hitchhike," said Ayelet.
"Wouldn't that be worse?"
When we finally came back in, we found that the house was quiet and the seder table was set. "Shit," I said. The shower was running and muffled voices were coming from the upstairs bedrooms. We both wanted showers very badly but didn't want to ask for a turn. Stowed away in Ayelet's suitcase was a present we'd bought for the family, an elaborate tzedakah box, made of silver and wood, that we'd found in a shop in downtown Jerusalem. We spent a long time in the shop, obsessively comparing items, before deciding definitively that this was the only one we liked. When we brought it up the cash register, it cost a lot more than we'd anticipated, but the pushy shop owner, a man with a blue shirt buttoned over a large belly, was already wrapping it up in tissue paper and we didn't feel like we had any choice but to buy it, so we bought it, but as soon as we were out of the store we felt like idiots because of course we didn't have to buy it. Midafternoon sun beat down on our heads as we hovered outside that store for a while, but we knew there was no way that man was going to accept a return, and there would undoubtedly be a scene if we pushed, so after a couple of minutes we left, and we felt bad about the tzedakah box, which seemed to burn with our naivety and shame, but we didn't have anything else to do with it, so we brought it along to Miriam's house but we couldn't give it to her because wouldn't she think it was strange that we were giving her something so expensive? And why would we want to give her something so expensive?
Instead, it appeared that we'd come empty-handed.
We dressed in the only too-casual clothes that still fit us and waited until all of the family members were downstairs before making our awkward entrance. We'd heard stories of other girls getting set up with wealthy Jerusalem families at seders that were so full they wouldn't even notice two extra seminary girls. There would be flower arrangements and servants and many courses and delicacies to savor. But we had chosen our teacher, because we loved her, though the way we were acting did not look a lot like love.
For the seder, Miriam had tied on a purple head-scarf shot with silver. She stared at us like we were insects, like we were anything but her favorite students, like she had no idea who or what we were, and then she introduced us to her husband, who was hairy and oversized as a primate and therefore very appealing us.
First, we went around the table and told about our characters. The kids' stories were simple. "When I was a slave in Egypt," they said and told about how they had to work all day and beg for food and how they couldn't keep any pets. "But now I am free." Miriam's character was a mother of eight who yearned to study and her husband's was a plucky boy their son's age.
It was so hot in the house. All the windows were open and the ceiling fan was churning hard but it could not move the air, which stayed heavy and still but also carried voices, singing, the sounds of other people's seders in other people's houses.
"I am Achmed," I said, "and I am a herder of sheep." I talked about the freedom I felt in the hills, the sweet but temporary relief from the oppression of slavery. I'd read somewhere that shepherds invented astronomy, all those long lonely hours lying on their backs and looking up at the sky. I didn't know if this was true, but I very much wanted it to be true. When I was done speaking, Ayelet gave her spiel about working as a servant in the home of an Egyptian master. She had to scrub floors and empty chamber pots. Tactfully, she made no illusion to her other "duties" for the Egyptian master, but Miriam Eisner seemed to suspect the incorrect subtext. Her expression was pained, but if she thought we were making fun of her assignment, she was wrong. A shepherd, a concubine. We were being terribly earnest. What we were expressing were our inmost hopes and desires.
"Are these really our tears?" Miriam's older daughter paused in the process of dipping her celery stick in the salt water. "Like, we're really eating our bodies?"
"Not exactly," I said. "They're the tears of the slaves in Egypt." I was pleased with myself for being quick to respond, for engaging with her.
"And on Seder night," said Miriam Eisner, "we are the slaves in Egypt. So yes, these are our tears."
"Once we were slaves," we said, and as the story progressed, we talked about what it meant to each of us as individuals to be slaves, how we suffered and how we coped, and we found that we--that our characters--had had so much to say, and I understood why Miriam needed to buy in, to dig deep, and there was a part of me that wished Ayelet wasn't there, that I could be here on my own with none of my peers to see, that I could participate without irony, with my full heart and mind.
After the spilling of wine for the plagues, we acted out the escape from Egypt. We stood on our feet and marched around the table, holding our imagined burdens, both physical and metaphysical. In school, Miriam had taught us about the spiritual and psychological ideas behind the Passover story, concepts of humility and letting go of the things that enslaved us, of identifying our own personal Egypt and what it might mean for us to be free men. We went around once. We went around twice. We sang songs. We chanted prayers. By the time we sat down, I felt lighter, transformed. I as if a burden had been lifted, though I can't say what burden I'd been carrying around, and I felt keenly aware of the desert around us, a place in the wilderness where people had traveled past danger and settled, where they set out to make their lives with a passionate conviction that was complicated and subject to moral questioning, but mostly unlike anything I'd seen as a child.
"That was beautiful," I said.
"It's our family tradition," said Miriam.
"You grew up doing this?"
"No," said Miriam. "I've made this our family tradition."
We made sandwiches out of matzah and romaine lettuce. In my mouth, the sandwich was dry and unpleasant, but meaningfully so. The bread of affliction. The kids spit theirs out after a couple of bites but we adults all munched resolutely until our portions were gone and our hunger with it, but there was so much more food to eat, the entire Passover meal. Ayelet and I got up to help serve the food. "Can we help you?" we said and Miriam blinked. "Now you want to help?" she said.
My cheeks flushed with shame. Any other seminary girls would have cooked and cleaned and babysat and performed other domestic tasks, because they'd been trained to be good people but also because this was practice for them, for the lives they yearned to inhabit one day soon. Ayelet and I had no interest in domestic tasks. This was why we were friends. Miriam Eisner clearly had no interest in domestic tasks, either, but there was no choice for her because she had a family. Watching her ladle soup into paper bowls and set ice cubes floating in that soup, watering the soup down to tastelessness, I felt protective of my freedom and determined to luxuriate in it for as long as I could.
"They threw rocks at us," I said. "On the bus. On the way here. I knew it might happen. I was ready. But it was scarier than I thought it would be."
I thought they were gunshots. The rocks hit all different parts of the bus, the windows and the windshield and the body but not the roof. There were maybe twenty rocks, I'm not sure. When it happened, Ayelet turned white. I couldn't speak. All I could think about were the nice American girls, home safe in America for Passover. We were Americans, not Israelis. We didn't live here. We didn't have to be here. I was thinking that if we died, it would have been preventable. It would be our own fault.
Now, I thought of Miriam Eisner, driving her little car back and forth every day. The rocks must be so much scarier in a car.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that," she said, and her reaction was not what I'd hoped for, she did not seem renewed in caring about us or liking us, so I tried again. I told her about the two men who'd tried to follow us down a beach in Netanya. At first, we didn't pay them much notice. Ayelet went to buy a popsicle and while she was gone, the men started calling to me, trying to get me to talk to them, and then one of the men approached me on my towel, introduced himself as Mufasa, asked me if I was friends with any boys from Israel, and offered me Coke poured from a plastic one-liter bottle into a plastic cup. The Coke looked hot and flat and unappealing, and that was the reason why I refused it. I did not even think of all the other reasons to refuse.
Ayelet returned with her popsicle. We packed up our stuff. The men offered us a ride. They followed us all the way to the bus station. We were terrified they would try to get on the bus.
This story had the intended effect. Miriam Eisner was shaken by it, but really what she was shaken by was our recklessness, and right away I felt sorry I'd told it to her. As a way of making amends, Ayelet went up to our room and brought down the tzedakah box. "We bought you a tzedakah box," she said.
Miriam unwrapped it. It gleamed, more beautiful and elaborate in its craftsmanship than we'd remembered. She was momentarily stunned, too stunned to thank us. Clearly, she had no idea what to make of us, and to be honest, we had no idea what to make of ourselves, either.
We returned to the table. We ate the meal. Ayelet and I both made an effort to practice moderation but still we piled our plates, we ate too much. As a final offering, before the last songs, I told the story of my mother's first seder.
My mother was not born into Judaism. She found it in college. The way she tells the story, she was always searching, uncomfortable with the religion of her youth, the basic stories and tenets. Her first Passover, in the process of conversion but not a convert yet, she spent alone in her dorm room. She had everything she needed, at least in a physical sense. She had a beautiful and expensive Hagaddah with gold along the edges and richly-colored illustrations and a good translation into English. She spent a lot of money on the Hagaddah because she understood that it was the most important artifact of the seder, that it was all about the liturgy, the words and the stories and the praise. To that effect, the Hagaddah is a strange document--arbitrary, obtuse, perverse, difficult to truly penetrate or make sense of--but at that time, she appreciated the mystery, the sense that this would not come easily. She had the Kiddush cup and the seder plate and the cover for the matzah. She had the foods, the celery and horseradish and salt water, and because she was still a little hazy on what you were allowed to eat on Passover, those foods would make up the bulk of her seder meal, along with macarons for desert. At the appointed time, she set herself up at the desk in her dorm and lit the candles--candles which she was not legally allowed to have in her dorm room--and then she began her seder, and the way she tells the story, she cried the whole time, not because she was lonely or sad, but because there was so much meaning, because every word was so meaningful to her.
"That's beautiful," said Miriam.
"What she didn't realize," I said, and I hadn't planned to say this part, but I felt like I had to say it, "was that that first seder would be the most meaningful seder of her life, that it would not get any better than that. In the future, she would have seders with her husband, seders with her in-laws, seders with her children, but that first seder would always be the high point. It was the only seder she would ever observe by herself."
No one said anything, and after the songs, Ayelet and I went upstairs. We undressed in silence and got into bed. Out of the darkness came her voice: "Why did you say that?" she said.