Eight for Eight: A Literary Reader for Passover

April 10, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 1 8 min read

Passover — or Pesach in Hebrew — celebrates the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery as recounted in Exodus.  Exodus is the prequel to countless other flights for survival.  Enslaved Jews fled Egypt, centuries later they returned, and later still (mid-20th century), they fled Egypt again, for example.

With entwined subtexts of persecution and forced emigration, the Passover story feels less like ancient history and more like current affairs.   The new White House is hellbent to expel immigrants and deny refugees and Muslims entrance into the country.  The president suggests a spike in bomb threats to Jewish institutions, along with desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, are “false flags.”  In case — like me — you were unfamiliar with that term, it implies covert operations that a target group carries out against itself to make itself appear a target.  The facts, unfortunately, speak for themselves.  “Hate groups rise for the second consecutive year as Trump electrifies radical right,” reads an alarming headline from the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It is against this backdrop that “Eight for Eight” is reprised — it first ran at The Millions in 2015.

The primacy of the written word is central to Judaism, in part due to the constant, urgent need to abandon possessions and escape.  Books are portable and words are tough to murder.  Education is highly valued as a commodity that can’t be expropriated.  What follows is a literary sampling inspired by Pesach: eight books for the eight nights of the holiday, choices that amplify Passover themes and honor writing itself.  For across eons and continents, the written word has fostered communication and learning in the Jewish community, enabling Jewish culture not only to survive but to evolve.

First Night:  Monday, April 10
Reading:  “Exodus,” The Bible

cover“Exodus” is Passover’s origin story.  Readers are no doubt familiar with it.  Here are a few key phrases to jog the memory:  the Israelites’ lives are “bitter with hard service in mortar and brick;” death of the Hebrew firstborn son, Moses, in the bulrushes; God in the burning bush; “Let my people go;” Pharaoh’s hardened heart; nine horrific plagues; the Lord “passes over” the Israelites to spare them the terrible 10th plague—death of the Egyptian firstborn son; the Israelites flee; Pharaoh’s army follows; Moses parts the Red Sea and closes it behind them.  That’s only the beginning.  The remaining 25 chapters of Exodus cover years of wandering in the desert replete with manna, the Ten Commandments (twice), and much more.  But before the Israelites start their wandering, Moses instructs them to “Remember this day, in which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place; there shall be no leavened bread be eaten.” (Exodus 13: 3). Thus Passover.

Second Night:  Tuesday, April 11
Reading:  People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

coverTo observe this commandment, Jews gather at Seder to retell the Exodus story, recorded in a book called the Haggadah. (And yes, eat, but that comes later.) The Sarajevo Haggadah forms the hub of Geraldine Brooks’s novel.  Created in medieval Spain, it’s “a famous rarity, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript.”  The manuscript surfaces in 1996 war-ravaged Sarajevo, saved by a Muslim librarian.  The novel explores several periods of Jewish history woven from fragments of detritus discovered in the manuscript: Sarajevo 1940, featuring a hunted Bosnian Jew; fin de siècle Vienna; 1609 Venice and the Catholic Inquisitor.  There’s a story about the manuscript’s illustrator set in 1480 Seville.  And one about its scribe, who completed his work in Tarragona in 1492, just as the Jews were expelled from Spain at King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s behest.  Despite having launched Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella’s triumphant consolidation of power proved not only catastrophic for Jews, but also for centuries of Muslim civilization on the Iberian Peninsula.

Third Night:  Wednesday, April 12
Reading:  Maimonides, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel

coverWithin that Iberian Muslim culture in 1135 Cordoba, was born Moses Maimonides.  As told by a renowned 20th-century scholar, Maimonides’s life unfolds like a novel:  the prodigal son, risk-filled peregrinations to escape mayhem, family tragedy, and a world-class intellect.  Maimonides’s family was forced to flee Cordoba in 1148 as the centuries-old Jewish community was “totally destroyed by the Berbers.” They arrived in Fez, Morocco, in 1157.  Although the Jewish community had had to go underground in Fez, Maimonides’s precocious intellectual journey shows a constant flow of ideas from Arab colleagues.  “The Jews followed the precept:  ‘Migrate to a place of study’; the Arabs:  ‘Whosoever journeys toward knowledge, his road to paradise will be made easier by God.’”  Already engaged in a far-flung scholarly correspondence, Maimonides had addressed the problem of forced religious conversions when, in 1163, the family had to flee Fez following the murder of a scholar-friend for failure to convert.  They sailed for Palestine and stayed outside Jerusalem because the conquering Crusaders had “celebrated their victory with a dreadful slaughter [of Jews] in the square of the Temple.”  Failing to find the intellectual life he sought due to the “degeneracy of the immigrants, who were mostly driven not by religious enthusiasm but by pleasure and profit, infuriat[ing] even the Christian pilgrims,” Maimonides sailed for Egypt.  Within a few short years, his father died and his beloved brother David, a trader who had supported his scholarship, was shipwrecked off India.  “No avowal of love and devotion can explain a grief such as overwhelmed Maimonides.” This was his greatest loss, and one with which he struggled for the rest of his life.  Finally settled in Egypt, Maimonides became a physician to support himself, produced astonishing, pioneering scholarship, was appointed Nagid (leader) of the Egyptian Jewish community, and became physician to Egyptian royalty.  He died in 1204.

Fourth Night:  Thursday, April 13
Reading:  Jews and Words, by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger

cover“Sorry Maimonides,” the celebrated novelist and his historian daughter declare in their short, enlightening book.  Citing a line of vocal biblical heroines, they take Maimonides to task for suggesting women stay silenced at home.  Like many American Jews, these authors are secular.  Why this book?  Because “ours is not a bloodline but a textline.”  Literacy, at least among Jewish males, has been a constant in a constantly disrupted history.  Since ancient times, every boy was expected to go to school from three to 13; “study was unconditional, independent of class, pedigree, and means.” Moses was the first great teacher, “mythically and textually” launching Jewish scholarship on Mount Sinai (see Exodus, above).  The ideal Jewish student is one who “judiciously critiques” his teacher, offering a “fresh and better interpretation.”  Disagreement “is the name of the game” in a fractious written tradition.  “We Jews are notoriously unable to agree on anything that begins with the words ‘we Jews.’”  Taking the reader on a provocative, whirlwind tour, including a fascinating chapter on Jewish concepts of time, the authors note, “Jewish culture’s…inbuilt tension between the innovative and the sacrosanct — crisscrossing the oral and written — has survived to this day.”  They reference Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and the Marx Brothers, because they “were etched by something intimately and textually Jewish.”  This book makes too many trenchant connections and observations to summarize here.  “We nonbelievers remain Jews by reading,” will have to suffice.

Fifth Night:  Friday, April 14
Reading:  The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, by Lucette Lagnado

coverExpelled from Egypt again, this time in the mid-1950s.  This memoir captures a flourishing Jewish community in which the author’s father, the man in the white sharkskin suit, prospered and thrived in a cosmopolitan city, home to inhabitants from around the world.  Lagnado’s memoir is compelling not just for the richness of her own family’s story, but for the thousands of unwritten stories that stand behind hers.  It is the tale of a rooted extended family, forced to flee nation and home, abandoning all.  The terrifying closure of basic rights under a hostile government and the accompanying fall from prosperity.  The flight across the globe, first to Paris and then America, a country that even if founded by immigrants, can be harsh and strange.

Sixth Night:  Saturday, April 15
Reading:  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass

coverImmigration isn’t America’s only founding principle.  Like Pharaoh’s Egypt, America, too, was founded on human bondage.  Slavery’s legacy, everywhere with us today, has birthed a uniquely American literature of loss, suffering, and injustice.  To read it is a life’s work; Frederick Douglass’s straightforward narrative is required.  Douglass doesn’t know his age or his father’s identity, although he surmises he’s his master’s son.  He doesn’t know his mother either, because they were separated at birth, as was the practice in the “part of Maryland” from which he ran away.  “For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child.”  Douglass hews to a sharply observed reality, delivering graphic descriptions of slave beatings and whippings; intimate details of the dysfunction in his masters’ families; the deranged cruelty of overseers; and the relentlessness of endless, inhumane, uncompensated labor.  “I have been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness.  It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake.  Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.”  Douglass is as eloquent as he is blunt, sharing specifics that cannot be denied.

Seventh Night:  Sunday, April 16
Reading:  The Story of a Life, by Aharon Appelfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter

coverSo too, with Aharon Appelfeld’s excruciating memoir.   “At what point does my memory begin?” Appelfeld asks.   He is four, on an idyllic vacation in the “moist forests of the Carpathians,” with Mother and Father.  And even younger, watching Mother prepare strawberries with powdered sugar and cream.   He remembers his “spacious house” and the smell of starch when the maid changes the drapes.  And his teenage diary, “a mosaic of words in German, Yiddish, Hebrew, and even Ruthenian,” along with his inability “to connect words into sentences [because] the words were the suppressed cries of a fourteen-year-old youth who’d lost all the languages he had spoken…” Appelfeld’s memoir is that mosaic as well.  It is composed of vividly rendered vignettes that are tenuously connected in ways that may only fully make sense to him.  1938 was a bad year (Appelfeld was six), when “it became clear that we were trapped” and Grandfather moved in to die.  Mother was murdered at war’s outset.  “I didn’t see her die, but I did hear her one and only scream.” Then Appelfeld is 10 and alone in the forest, sporadically sheltered by a kind prostitute and others who decline to question his origins, until he is 13 and the war is over.  Like thousands before him, Appelfeld is history’s victim, an involuntary emigrant from both his birthplace and his past.  But not from his memory.   Sometimes “the dampness of shoes or a sudden noise is enough to take me back into the middle of the war, and then it seems…it never really ended, but that it has continued without my knowledge.  And now that I am fully aware of it, I realize that there’s been no let up since it began.”

Eighth Night:  Monday, April 17
Reading:  The Last of the Just, by André Schwarz-Bart, translated from the French by Stephen Becker

coverSometimes forced emigration is not emigration at all, but death.  This iconic novel frames Europe’s history of anti-Semitic violence within an ancient legend:  “The world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed Vov, indistinguishable from simple mortals…into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.”  In this book, Ernie Levy is the last Lamed Vov.  The story opens with Ernie’s 12th-century ancestor, the Rabbi Yom Tov Levy of York, slitting the throats of his flock to prevent bloodthirsty Englishmen from victoriously doing so.  It traces Ernie’s lineage through medieval French atrocities, the 300 Jews burned for the “daily quota” in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition, murder under the Portuguese Inquisition, and several more centuries of involuntary migrations and killings in a “history overstocked with martyrs.”   Ernie is born “puny” in Stillenstadt, Germany, but with the “inimitable grace of a bird.”  When Nazis storm the synagogue in which his family and neighbors have taken refuge, cursing and beating up old women, little Ernie stands up to them, recognized by his elder as the “the lamb of suffering; he is our scapegoat,” maimed the next morning with a “splendid stigma.”  Ernie fulfills his destiny, protecting children and comforting the afflicted.  His family escapes to France, where he falls in love and marries.  But France is no refuge. “A few freight trains, a few engineers, a few chemists vanquished that ancient scapegoat, the Jew of Poland….[T]he ancient procession of stake and fagot ended in the crematorium.”  In a final emigration, Ernie and his wife, Golda, are deported from Drancy, “one of many drains inserted into Europe’s passive flanks…for the herd being led to the slaughter.”  Ernie soothes Golda and the terrified children on the train to Auschwitz.  He recites that “old love poem, unfurled in the gas chamber” the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”  In the flash that precedes his annihilation, Ernie “happily” remembers the legend of gentle Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, who, “wrapped in the scrolls of the Torah, was flung upon the pyre by the Romans for having taught the Law.”  His pupils ask him what he sees within the flames.  The Rabbi’s answer: “‘I see the parchment burning, the letters are taking wing.’…‘Ah, yes, surely the letters are taking wing.’”

's debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming September 2022. Martha is a frequent contributor to NPR Books and to The Millions. Please visit her at marthaannetoll.com and tweet to her @Marthaannetoll.

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