A Small Anthology for Pesach


By David Curzon

Published April 18, 2003, issue of April 18, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In the great modern exodus of Russian Jews from the Soviet Union during the 1980s, many of those who came to New York worked for a while as taxi drivers, as other immigrants have done before and since. On a day during this exodus I started a conversation with my Russian taxi driver by saying, “I’m Jewish, are you?” He replied, with a strong accent but in good English, “Yes, wonderful to say it with no anxiety.” He asked me what I did. “Well, I write poetry.” He became so exited he turned fully around, so that the eyes of his Slavic soul were looking directly at me in the back seat, as the cab sped at 50 miles an hour along 42nd Street. “Recite one of your poems for me!” “Sure, if you’ll turn around and watch where we’re going.” I recited this poem:

At the Sea of Reeds

It is said:

In each generation we exodus from Egypt,

reach the Sea of Reeds, look back in fear,

and protest to whoever led us there:

Why bring us to this desert just to die!

We’ll kill ourselves by drowning in the sea!

We’ll return to slavery and escape annihilation!

We’ll fight the forces of enslavement unaided!

We’ll shout, frighten them with noise!

But that generation — so goes another midrash —

stopped their complaint against circumstance

and entered those waters up to their toes,

up to their ankles, up to their knees

up to their lips, up to their nostrils,

and only then did the miracle occur.

The taxi driver was enthusiastic, and I was grateful for his enthusiasm — and for still being alive.

* * *

John Milton, in “Paradise Lost” (Book 12, lines 173 to 190), repeats the list of plagues with a weight of tone from his dense Latinate syntax, his mixture of end-stopped and enjambed meanings, and his word choice, as in his use and placement of the words “unshed,” “intrusion” and “emboss”:

But first the lawless tyrant, who denies

To know their God, or message to regard,

Must be compelled by signs and judgments dire:

To blood unshed the rivers must be turned;

Frogs, lice, and flies must all his palace fill

With loathed intrusion, and fill all the land;

His cattle must of rot and murrain die;

Botches and blains must all his flesh emboss,

And all his people; thunder mixed with hail,

Hail mixed with fire, must rend the Egyptian sky,

And wheel on the earth, devouring where it rolls;

What it devours not, herb, or fruit, or grain,

A darksome cloud of locusts swarming down

Must eat, and on the ground leave nothing green;

Darkness must overshadow all his bounds

Palpable darkness, and blot out three days;

Last, with one midnight-stroke, all the first-born

Of Egypt must lie dead.

* * *

I suppose the greatest midrash on the Exodus is George Frideric Handel’s choral work “Israel in Egypt.” No darshan could compete with Handel’s setting of Exodus 2:23, “And the children of Israel sighed by reason of their bondage,” with its ravishing drawn-out sighs of both voice and orchestra. The furious violins of the setting for the plague of flies, and the hopping rhythm for the frogs, give us interludes of wit in the great drama as William Shakespeare does. Then, after the setting of “He smote all the first-born of Egypt” (Exodus 12:29) comes the setting of “But as for His people”; the music critic Donald Francis Tovey comments that “One of the most perfect transitions, both in mood and harmony, in all music is that effected by the first chords of this wonderful chorus.” If I had to pick one setting as the most inspired I would choose, “He sent a thick darkness” (Exodus 10:22), which gives us the musical equivalent of the text’s “darkness which may be felt.” But we don’t have to pick and choose, we can listen to the whole masterpiece over and over again.

* * *

“The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” is one of Henry Wadsforth Longfellow’s greatest poems. The second stanza contains a stunning metaphoric use of the exodus theme:

The trees are white with dust, that o’er their sleep

Wave their broad curtains in the southwind’s breath,

While underneath these leafy tents they keep

The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.

The 10th stanza shows what for me was a surprising knowledge of the Seder service and makes good metaphoric use of its particulars:

All their lives long, with the unleavened bread

And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,

The wasting famine of the heart they fed,

And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.

* * *

William Blake is passionate, dramatic and bold in his use of imagery from the Exodus to state his belief that “Israel’s paths” take us where reason cannot, to the other shore of an impassable sea:

Mock on, mock on Voltaire, Rousseau:

Mock on, mock on: ’tis all in vain!

You blow the sand against the wind,

And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a Gem

Reflected in the beams divine;

Blown back they blind the mocking Eye,

But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The atoms of Democritus

And Newton’s particles of light

Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,

Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward and the author of “Midrashim” (Cross-cultural Communications, 1991), in which the poem “At the Sea of Reeds” was originally published.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.