“You’re my Egyptian,” she says.
It’s Easter. Sunday night. I just plucked her from the bathtub. She lies in my lap facing upwards, struggling and complaining that that towel isn’t big enough. What she is really complaining about was that soon it will be time to get in bed and turn out the lights, an event she fiercely resists. The bright lights of the bathroom shine on her moist skin, so pale and pink, a faint map of blue beneath its surface. She’s really a person now, the growth constantly bursting upward, but she also fits in my lap and can we wrapped in a towel. This tender thought is countered by her squirming, which threatens to become a whine.
Then suddenly she stops struggling and looks at me intently. “You’re my Egyptian,” she says, quietly, almost slyly.
“I’m your Egyptian?”
“And what are you to me?”
It had been an unusual Passover. My mother, unable to make the trip to New Orleans, attended via video conference. We invited no other guests. Passover, for me, more than any other holiday, is the time in the year when Jewishness is most acutely expressed, but in the past it has been expressed by people closer to the source–my grandfather, who grew up Orthodox in Germany, and my mother, who grew up on a Kibbutz.
Evangeline had helped me shop for the meal at Langenstein’s, where Uptown’s old guard, unseduced by Whole Foods, does their shopping. I worried they would be out of lamb shanks. But they responded to my request by handing over a giant bloody limb that weighed a couple of pounds. Evangeline examined it matter of factly. We took it home, along with boxes of Matzo, apples, honey, Parsley, and a bottle of horse radish, about which Evangeline was concerned. She kept about the bitter herbs. She wanted to know if she could skip them. I kept saying, “No, you have to eat the bitter herbs!”
I thought, maybe the gift of Passover is that for one day Jewish fathers can pretend to be hard cases to their daughters.
At home we went the kitchen and made Matzo ball soup together. She rolled the balls in her little hands. After she finished each ball I lifted her up so she could drop them into the pot. Then I threw the bloody limb on the grill where I promptly forgot about it until it burnt to a crisp. It added to the atmosphere of the table, I decided.
I had warned Evangeline that passover was hell on kids. I didn’t use that exact language, though. I said, “You are going to suffer terribly.” I belong to the school of thought that believes in overstating the agony, so it’s not so bad in reality.
Everything was ready. The table was set. Lovely late afternoon light poured into the room. I got my mother on the computer screen. She was dressed up, with dangling earrings, lipstick. A bouquet of daffodils on a white table cloth beside her. What mostly registered was her presence, her voice, and by extension an awareness on my part of her own perception of the tableau on her computer screen, which I could not help but imagine even as I sat in its midst. (There is an Old Testament, Passoverish atmosphere to the very word: Midst.)
The baby’s head and eyes moved quickly in my computer’s direction when my mother first spoke, which was nice. So much of what is wonderful about babies is what they have not learned to suppress: surprise, excitement, the unabashed twitch of pleasure at recognizing a voice. Still, it was strange to have a computer sitting at the head of our table. A face, a familiar room behind it, and that little table with the white table cloth on which a vase of daffodils sat, which sent a shudder through me which I quickly suppressed. The sense of ceremony imparted by that small display of table cloth and flowers was something I was so glad my children could be exposed to, that I wanted them to absorb; it contained a whole ethos, an almost overbearing love, and an essence of ceremony we had undertaken.
We struggled through the Haggadah. We rushed. The baby on my lap. I asked my wife Elizabeth to read parts, and my mother, too. These were the Beller editions, which my mother had brought down from New York the previous year. Like a script heavily annotated by a director, her handwriting was evident all over the place, crossing out or re-writing phrases or whole passages. “When even the Pharaoh’s own first born son was stricken in the final plague,” had been revised to read, “After the affliction of the 10 plagues.”
We had barely underway when Evangeline began asking if it was time to look for the Afikoman. I told her it was already hidden and that looking for it came later in the Seder. She then began to express her displeasure about how long it was taking. Translated into the vernacular of a five year old, this meant repeatedly yelling “I’m starving!”
Elizabeth allowed snacks on Matzo but otherwise took a hard line. Every now and then, as a last resort, she said, “I see a pair of ears.”
This had an immediate effect. Evangeline snapped into a mode of good behavior.
My wife, not Jewish, really goes in for Easter. One of the positive side effects of this holiday is that the Easter Bunny is a kind of Santa Clause–you better not pout, you better not cry. The Easter bunny is watching you, like Big Brother in pink. Whenever things start go off the rails with Evangeline in the week or two leading up to the big day my wife says things like, “I see a pair of ears,” or “You just lost eggs!”
“Oh! OK, OK!” Evangeline says, snapping into into line, chastened. “Do you think I can get them back?”
So it came to be that order was enforced at our passover table by the the Easter Bunny.
Our Haggadah is highly annotated, by my mother, to remove references to “The Chosen People,” and also the plagues. In fact to the extent she was physically present it was through the handwriting in the book I held. It took me a long time to grasp the profundity and also the simplicity of the of the central theme: We were slaves. Whether because of my mother’s softening – what is Passover without the plagues? – or because it’s difficult to be a modern American and grasp what being a slave – not feeling like one but being one – might actually be like, I do not know. Now that I have it figured out, I approach the this central fact with incredulity. We were slaves! It seems so profound.
As I have written elsewhere, the meaning of “We” is complicated if you are an atheist and Jewish.
The high point of our Passover Seder, for me, was when the whole the table was quiet as we all ate the soup. It lasted for five minutes. We are never, ever, that quiet. Even the baby was nibbling intently on a matzo ball in my lap. It was a strange and remarkable interlude witnessed by the face on the screen, present, watchful, but not here.
Then it was Easter morning, and first thing in the morning Evangeline was lead down to a display of baskets, dolls, eggs. Total delight. Chocolate explosion. Then Evangeline got to watch her Sunday movie and Elizabeth, who had been up late preparing, took a nap. I was on duty with the baby.
We took a walk. A perfect blue sky. Down the street at the Catholic church the lawn was festooned with colored plastic eggs. We stood in the nicely dressed crowd, me in gym shorts and flapping white shirt, baby in my arms wearing a shirt and a diaper, barefoot. Cheerful heathens taking in the local color.
A familiar face approached, the parent of a boy in Evangeline’s class. We had a nice chat.
“I’m a bad Catholic,” she said.
“Aren’t you all?” I said.
She said that since she has a son she doesn’t want to involve him too much in the Church. I asked why a boy more than a girl. Her pragmatic answer—They tend to abuse boys more often. But on this day let’s not talk about that.”
Later that night, wrapped in a towel, Evangeline made her declaration that I am her Egyptian. A Pharaoh. And she is my Jew. She had been going to the JCC but the Jewish angle was incidental to the education, for me. I had been amused when she returned home with an art project and when I asked what it was she answered impatiently, as if it were obvious, “Daddy! It’s a Torah!”
“Do you know,” I said, as I put her down to stand before me, her own little nativity scene under the bright bathroom light, “that you are Jewish?”
She was pensive for a moment, then brightened. “I didn’t know when Ms. Jean asked.”
“Ms. Jean asked if you were Jewish?” Ms. Jean is her ballet teacher.
“And what did you say?”
“I said, ‘I don’t know.'” She acted out the moment with force, her not knowing, the shrug, her palms turns upward. I could see the act of announcing she didn’t know, not exactly sad about it but aware there was a gap in knowledge about herself that needed to be filled. I found this quite touching.
“Now you know,” I said. “But why was she asking you that?”
“I think it means you can get treats.” A beat. Then: “Is mommy Jewish?”
“No. She’s a Christian. And that means you are also Christian.”
I felt this was probably not the right way to discuss this but something had to be said. So I muddled along.
“But I’m Jewish?” she asked.
Avadim Hayinu. We were slaves.
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