Last night, I sat at a seder with old friends and new friends: my rabbi, his wife, their son; a family from the congregation including their two daughters, one of whom has been in my creative writing sessions this school year; an opera singer and her husband, she a Sephardic Jew and he a self-described Lutheran boy from Kansas City; and another congregant member. We used cards (The Kitchen Haggadah Game) to go through the seder–it was a little disorganized, but the type of chaos that could work–and throughout it, there were questions posed, including a few that have stuck with me.
What is spiritual slavery?
What is the promised land to me? Does it exist? Is it a physical place or a spiritual place? Is it something I can work to achieve or is it out of our control?
Were the Israelites emotionally ready to leave Egypt? How does emotional readiness change the story? Does emotional readiness matter? Who controls emotional readiness?
The story of Passover, which is the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and toward Canaan, the land that would become Israel, became an accidental frame story in parts of Benno’s storyline in The Girl with the Red Balloon and I’ve spent the three years since I wrote that part wrestling with Pesach in new ways. Previously I’d come to Pesach as a free person, thinking about freedom and liberty and justice from the point of, what can I do now for people who are not free? Which is a really important piece of the puzzle.
But I hadn’t thought of what it would have been like to celebrate Passover as a not-free person. As someone in slavery. As someone in prison. As someone who was captured or held against their will. As someone in a concentration camp. As someone in a place where they couldn’t freely practice their religion.
As our card game would have said, #privilege.
I pushed at some of these questions in TGWTRB. Benno’s reaction to Dayenu and his feelings about Israel touch on the Promised Land idea. How Benno leaves the camp, and who he leaves behind and his feelings about that touch on the idea of emotional readiness, and who steers that. And there’s a character in Benno’s storyline who is either Moses or Elijah, and each time I read it, I change my mind about which they are. And of course, there are literal exoduses in this book. There’s resistance in this book. All types of it. And the women in this book are the hearts of it, just as the women of the Exodus story are the hearts of it.
But I’ve been thinking about how I would tell that story now, writing it in 2017 instead of 2014. Under the political circumstances in which we live. I think it’d be much more overtly political. I think I’d probably expand Benno’s story to be an equal storyline in the book. I think I’d have thought more heavily on these themes, sank into them a little more.
I was worried in 2014 when I wrote Benno’s storyline that it was too Jewish. That non-Jewish readers wouldn’t want to read something this Jewish. And to be honest, I’m still worried about that. I think the book’s highly accessible for non-Jewish readers, but I think there’s a very Jewish angle to it and lens through which to read it. I think I would have been less afraid of that lens if I was writing it now. Less afraid, because I am more defiant now than I was three years ago. The world’s made me so.
I want room for those stories. The ones that are coming up right now about what it’s like to be afraid to practice faith but finding strength through stories and tradition. I want those stories, the ones where resistance through faith is a way of creating space, of finding a way out of spiritual slavery, of creating emotional readiness, of finding a promised land.
I want those stories: the Jewish ones, the Muslim ones, the Hindu ones, the Native American ones, the First Nations ones.
We need stories of those faiths, by people of those faiths, more than ever.
I drafted this post before White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments today from the White House Press Room where he denied Hitler gassing his own people, and in his subsequent clarifications and retractions, insinuated that Hitler hadn’t gassed innocent people. This language is that of Holocaust denial, and I’m horrified, though not shocked, at this language from this White House. That this was done while the White House continues to use the tragedy of Syrian victims of a chemical weapons attack as a smoke screen to avoid political pressure on Russia is even more abhorrent. I urge readers to call their representatives and ask for diplomatic action on Syria, and to publicly condemn Sean Spicer’s lies about Hitler. My desire for more stories of faith by persecuted faiths in the West, like Judaism and Islam, is stronger than ever.