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The last Seder in Egypt

April 10, 2012

Tags: Passover, Egypt, Seder, Nile

SEDER NIGHT in Egypt, 1957

The preparations for Passover went on for days as they had done for years in our large echoing house in Cairo. Carpets were marched out to the lawn outside the dining room window and beaten with flat bamboo beaters to eliminate the last crumb. My aunt Helen wielded her cane and her stentorian tones, berated the butcher, raided the store cupboard to make our traditional family haroseth, pounding nuts relentlessly into powder with mortar and pestle. We scoured our upstairs nursery rooms, emptying every closet, dusting every book and toy, knowing our rooms would have to pass our mother's eagle-eyed inspection.

The cook and his kitchen moved to the basement kitchen, used only for the week of Passover, and the Passover dishes emerged from hiding to grace a beautiful table groaning with ornaments and flowers, candles flickering in branched silver candlesticks on a richly embroidered white cloth.

Haggadoth waited at each place setting and wine glasses glittered, filled with the ruby glow of the first cup of wine of the evening. Family and guests came into the dining room, chatting and laughing, rustling festive clothes as we took our places at the table. We children looked to the head of the table, where my father, the blue velvet kippah that my mother had embroidered, on his head, moved to open the Haggadah he had been using since his boyhood.

Making sure that we were all comfortably settled in our seats, my father took his place at the head of the long table, crystal glimmering and dancing under the chandeliers; the roasted shoulder of lamb gleaming, the bitter herbs, the brown hamin eggs, everything in its accustomed place.

His expression serious, my father waited for the chatter to die down, lifted his glass, and began reciting the order of the service that we always sang to the tune of the Egyptian national anthem.

Then, it was time for the manishtana, the traditional questions asked by the youngest person at the table. My sister Susan, nine years old, began to read. A sudden silence fell as the words sank in. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” she asked. Why, indeed.

We all knew the answer. Immobile, we registered the irony clamped down like a dark shadow in the large room, as everyone reflected on this particular night, this particular seder we were celebrating in Egypt, anticipating our own imminent exodus.

Not only were we commemorating the night when Pharoah expelled the Jews from Egypt and sent them into the desert. For us, as for other Jews still in Egypt, this would be the last seder in the land of our ancestors. This was the last seder we would ever celebrate in the house my grandfather built.

We, too, must prepare for Exodus. This night, we celebrated the freedom of our ancestors from the tyranny of slavery, knowing that we ourselves were about to be dispossessed and exiled by a modern tyrant, once again ridding Egypt of its Jews. There would be no manna in this desert, just the need to reinvent ourselves once again, in new worlds.

No-one said a word. The chilling moment slid past. We drank wine, we read the story we all knew so well, we sang the songs we had always sung. The seder continued.

Next year, we would be scattered around the world. This night was different from all other nights. This seder was different from all seders past, and to come. Egypt was our past and our present, but it would not be our future.

Next year, it would continue somewhere else........

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