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Jerusalem Report: April 24, 2000

Free in Egypt

by Jake Halpern

After graduating from college, and working for a year in a cramped cubicle, I quit my job and moved to Israel two years ago. But before I left, I traveled home to Buffalo, to spend Passover at my father's house. A lifelong civil-rights scholar and activist, he always managed to illuminate our Seders by intertwining the traditional service with excerpts from Fredrick Douglass, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel. It was a celebration of freedom, and unlike many other religious holidays, it stirred me. As this seder drew to a close, we uttered the customary promise, "Next year in Jerusalem," and suddenly it really meant something.

But, as it turned out, I did not celebrate Passover in Israel last year. I went to Egypt instead. "It's bad enough that you won't be in Jerusalem, but do you have to go to the land of bondage?" asked an Israeli friend. The answer was yes. I had two weeks vacation, a friend who wanted to sail the Nile, and I couldn't hold myself back. Jerusalem would be there when I returned. As for Passover, I would find a way to mark it, on the road.

What of the promise? I tried not to think about it. But as our bus headed through the night, across the Sinai toward Suez, I yearned to talk about it with my traveling partner, Charles. Still, I stopped myself: He wouldn't understand; he wasn't Jewish. In fact, his family was German - as if the trip weren't sacrilegious enough.

From Cairo we took a 14-hour train south to Aswan, rented a majestic, old, wooden sailboat called a felucca, and set sail. The Nile was enormously wide, and the shore was speckled with minarets. At dusk we could hear them beckoning, echoing each other in fading calls. I quickly lost track of time, and when I finally struggled to determine what the date was, I realized it was the second night of Passover. Late that night I lay awake, and as our boat drifted among the reeds, I thought of Moses, floating northward, lost and alone.

Passover came and went, and I let it go without so much as a word.

We docked in Luxor, and continued by bus to Jordan, ending our trip in Petra. On our last day, we decided to trek to a remote canyon, and kept going until its massive walls became so narrow that they pressed our shoulders on both sides. Finally, in this tight crevice, we stopped to rest.

Charles took out a flask of whiskey and we began to drink. It was the perfect place to celebrate our journey and our friendship. We talked candidly, relating our concerns about the lives to which we were set to return. It seemed silly for me not to even mention Passover. So I broached the subject, and he seemed relieved. "I was wondering," he said. "Did you miss it?"

I smiled. "Yeah, I did."

I had missed Passover, perhaps even mourned for it a little. I told him so, and apologized for assuming that, not being Jewish, he wouldn't understand my predicament. He nodded appreciatively.

"Now it is my turn," he said. "There is something I didn't want to tell you." He paused. "Back home, I have a photograph of my grandfather dressed in full Nazi garb. I'm not sure exactly what he did, but he was definitely a Nazi."

I didn't know what to say, and just stared at him dumbly, feeling strangely guilty that he had to carry around this awful secret. Finally I did the only thing I could do: I shrugged. This didn't change the way I felt about him, and I told him so.

It was time to head home. And as we treaded back out of the canyon, and into the desert expanse, I was struck by the most unexpected feeling of freedom. Was this the Passover spirit - celebrating release not from gentile oppressors, but from the preconceptions and historical baggage of my own faith? I think it was.