And Moses was jealous of his brother Aaron because of his fluidity in speaking
because Moses lisped. And Aaron was jealous of Moses for his position, his magic,
his blindly devoted followers; and Moses coveted Aaron’s Authentic Jewish (Slave)
Experience and envied their older sister Miriam’s lightness and music, and Miriam
was jealous that Aaron was their brother’s right-hand man. For many years she did
not resent Moses because she had been his nurse-maid. Because of the decree that all
baby boys of the Israelites had to be killed, Miriam had woven a basket from
bullrushes she collected and partially dried. She had lain her baby brother down
carefully in it and given him wine to sedate him. She put the cradle into the water
and crept away and watched with the fierceness of an animal mother, a lioness,
perhaps. She saw the daughter of the Pharoah bathe in the river, and discover the
infant, and take it to raise as her own. Because of Miriam’s devotion it was said
that she herself was the mother (she was not).

The adult Moses envied her powers of healing and of course wracked himself with
guilt because how could he find fault with someone who cured the pain, both physical
and invisible?

And the rabbi told us: the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, also means narrow
place. What is your narrow place, the place where you feel tight? We knew the
opposite was buoyancy, it was to be relaxed and open and in the moment and not sunk
into the groove of family roles from our own unhappy histories.

And I knew that I was a not-so-benevolent dictator on Passover, in so many ways, but
I thought that my family of origin, in Texas, could not have a Passover seder
without me. Who would lead the people, who would make the right jokes, who would use
the little purple haggadah from Berkeley and bring and fill Miriam’s cup with water,
a tradition started by feminists? Miriam was given her due as a prophetess beginning
in the 1970s, and Jews began to talk about the well of water that followed her
through the desert. Who would lead the people in song and dance in Miriam’s honor
(or rather, in the shaking of small percussion instruments after the second cup of
wine)? Who will make certain we shout Elvin Hayes! instead of El B’nai in the song
Adir Hu? But the years I did not go to family, they managed fine.

I want to be in charge. I want the old tune of Mah Nishtanah, not that new Israeli
one or that Israeli one. I want to take songs from the old pre-war haggadahs, the
ones with black-and-white illustrations of men in dresses, with the names from my
father’s and grandfather’s generations written in pencil. Those people are all dead
and dead and dead, though Jewish holidays take place in
communal—non-secular—magic—ritual—continual, eternal time.

Would Passover occur without our commemoration of it? Would the forest take note if
the trees did not pray?

Once upon a time there were forest creatures that were Jewish. The Viennese writer
Felix Salten was accused of writing Bambi in Mauscheln, which is German with a
Yiddish inflection. Mauscheln is a noun and verb, no longer known as such. Now it
means, broken, out of order.

Moses and Miriam and Aaron exist in that always-time, that forever green room, where
Zeus and Athena and Cinderella live and wait, unchanging.

We are like children holding dolls upright by their torsos and speaking for them,
moving them hop-hop-hop because it’s too hard to make their stiff legs walk. We are
animating religion that is man-made and rulebound but still open to interpretation.

Our own travails are not written in stone. There is no blood on the door, no need to
get our hands dirty. We read of revolutions and watch, uneasily: will the rebels
learn how to govern? Will the innocents get the power? We don’t know how to turn
sticks into snakes or slaves into free people. We don’t know anything except the
words we heard before, and before and before. ##


midrash: http://www.jewfaq.org/defs/midrash.htm
haggadah, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/haggadah
Elvin Hayes, http://www.nba.com/history/players/hayes_bio.html

TAGS: , , , ,

S.L. Wisenberg is the author of a short story collection, The Sweetheart Is In (Northwestern University Press); an essay collection, Holocaust Girls: History, Memory & Other Obsessions (University of Nebraska Press); and a chronicle, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press). Her poetry has been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Crab Orchard Review, Spoon River Quarterly, Natural Bridge, Contrary and various anthologies. She has a prose poem forthcoming in the Iowa Writers' Workshop 75th Anniversary Anthology.

She is working on a book about the South, tentatively called The Encyclopedia of the Southern Wisenbergs: Tightrope Over the Color Line, which will be made up of small entries about large things such as slavery, prison farms, a hush-hush integration agreement in Houston, Jews and retail, immigration, and the intangibility of history. One entry, "Furniture, rental workers, Houston," was published in Brevity. In summer 2011 she will study, on the taxpayer's dime, the role of place in African-American biography at a National Endowment for the Humanities institute in the Berkshires. She has received other fellowships from the NEH, the Illinois Arts Council, and Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She's also working on a novel; excerpts have been published in Third Coast, TriQuarterly, Seattle Review, Prairie Schooner, and soon, in Fugue. She lists them only because it gives her hope that she will one day finish it, after 20 years.

She co-directs the MA/MFA in Creative Writing program at Northwestern University, and also teaches in the Graham School of General Studies at the University of Chicago. She has collected shopping lists in two continents for two decades and is using some of them to make a shirt for her niece.

9 responses to “Pass Over: the Narrow Place—a midrash of sorts”

  1. jessica says:

    Fabulous. And the “forever green room” is well-catered. No matzoh.

  2. Steve Marsden says:

    S.L. — Thanks so much for this midrash of sorts — always good to hear from you.


  3. jeff says:

    I liked the semi-Midrash….and I love having you at our Passover-Elvin Hayes-hold your breath-who knows 13-let’s hurry and flip to the page and see when we get to eat-services!

  4. Rebecca in Iowa says:

    Re-reading on Night Six I’m getting into the flow of this . . . but am still a bit confused. Are you saying Miriam an not the Mom wove the basket? Big Sister is very important, but what about Mom? I like that you focus on the siblings. Despite the tensions you articulate, I think the trio of sibs acting to some degree as a functional family is what gets us out of Egypt . . . Lots of uncomfortable tight spots in the Jewish family . . . More thoughts later; Laila Tov & Chag Sameach now!

  5. I take the whole story to be a myth. Passover, Easter–all developments based on pagan festivals. So in my midrash I feel I can change the “facts” and have Miriam making the basket. I like what you say about the functional family taking us out of Egypt. We talk so much about dysfunctional families that I’m speechless at the thought of functional.

  6. Chuck in Martinez, CA says:

    Hi Sandi,
    I wish you had been at our Seder to regale us with your wise whimsy and to shine your fine punim at our matzah-laden (and unleavened) table!

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