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A reverse Exodus
The Passover story tells of the Jews'
liberation from Egypt, so why is a nice Jewish boy going back -- during
Passover to boot. Josh Kram tells of his journey in the wrong direction.
April 22, 2005
"The Hebrews were enslaved for more than 400 years in Egypt, and during
the holiday that remembers the Exodus from Egypt, you're going
back!?" I was studying in Israel at the Hebrew University at the time.
My roommate and a rabbi-to-be believed my decision to go to Egypt during
the Passover holiday was a huge mistake. The arguments vacillated
between the philosophical, ("the meaning of self-inflicted return to
slavery") and the silly, ("Watch out, they may try and shackle you. I
hear the pyramids need some work.") I thought, however, "What better a
way to remember the Exodus than to re-live it?" The 19th century
Kabbalist Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, "The Exodus from Egypt occurs
in every human being, in every era, in every year and even on every
day." As I boarded the bus and headed south from Jerusalem, literally,
Rabbi Nachman was right. I just hoped it wouldn't take 40 years to get
back; I had class on Sunday.
The last day of class before break, my all-knowing professor of Israeli
Foreign Policy asked his students, "Is anyone going to Egypt?" A few
hands popped up. I thought he was going to describe a significant moment
in history or advise us on a site to visit, but he placed his hand on
his chin and with a thoughtful gaze warned, "Be careful of what you eat
and drink. Egyptian food will kill you."
Despite being in Egypt during Passover, I remained on the chametz-free
meal plan. Understand, this was tricky, given that there are not many
Passover-friendly options in the land of the Pharaohs. I brought all the
food from Israel that I would need for five days. From matzah and dried
fruit to canned tuna fish and cakes, I lugged an entire suitcase full of
food from Jerusalem to Luxor. Everyone from my travel mates to a bunch
of giggly German tourists thought this was just plain ridiculous, but by
week's end, I was in tip-top shape while my cohorts were stuck with
stomach parasites for the next three months.
With the story of the Exodus fresh in my mind and the taste of matzah
fresh on my tongue, spending those few days in Egypt made the connection
between past and present ever more poignant and the story more real.
At the Egyptian Museum in the center of Cairo, my travel mates and I
found the charcoaled remains of Ramses II, who according to scholars is
the Pharaoh of the Passover story. As a Jew, it was surreal
standing before the guy who more than 3,000 years earlier was the
antagonist in the most significant story of the Jewish people. Today,
Jews are an active, vibrant, and dynamic presence in the world while the
remnants of Ramses' kingdom are in glass cases.
In Giza, a guide mentioned that one pyramid required 30 years and
100,000 slaves to build. Fifty thousand slaves perished under the
extreme intensity of the sun and heat, and another fifty thousand were
killed after the pyramid was completed in order to keep the means of
construction a secret. While the slaves of the pyramids probably were
not Hebrews, I couldn't help but wonder how many Jews suffered and died
at the hands of the ancient Egyptians to build similar structures across
One morning in Cairo, the manager at our hotel excitedly told us that we
were fortunate to be visiting during a national Egyptian holiday. The
holiday, "The Feast of Sinai," or "Sinai Liberation Day," commemorates
Egypt "taking back" the Sinai Peninsula from Israel in 1982. The waiter
didn't mention anything about the Camp David Accords or the peace treaty
that Egypt President Anwar Sadat signed with Israeli Prime Minister
Menacham Begin trading peace for Sinai. I was particularly interested in
this national twisting of history. With this story was barely twenty
years old, I wondered how the telling of a story might change over
thousands of years.
That evening, as cannons fired in celebration, my friends and I mused
over how connected in ancient and modern history are the fates of the
Jews and Egyptians. During a holiday that Jews have been celebrating for
thousands of years marking our victory over the Egyptians, the Egyptians
celebrate a very different "victory" over the Jews just two decades old.
At the end of the week with one piece of matzah left to spare, I crossed
the border into Israel singing Passover songs to the Egyptian border
guards -- "Dayeinu," (I had enough!) and "Let My People Go!" While
completing customs forms and showing passports was certainly not nearly
as dramatic as our ancestors crossing the Red Sea, my own Exodus was a
fresh and vivid lesson in the story of Passover.
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