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My Own Private Haggadah

My father, Natan Sharansky, lived through his own Exodus. The seminal Passover text taught me how to tell his story.

by
Rachel Sharansky Danziger
March 27, 2020
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Vitaly Armand/AFP via Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Vitaly Armand/AFP via Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Vitaly Armand/AFP via Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Vitaly Armand/AFP via Getty Images

“Were there animals in prison?”

The table was beautifully set on the afternoon I asked this question, and my sister and I wore our Shabbat clothes, even though it was a weekday. My father, Natan Sharansky, wore the odd white kippa that a fellow inmate made for him from a boot sock back in the Soviet gulag. Young though I was, I knew that my father only wore it on Passover and on the “family Seder” we hold annually on the anniversary of his release. Since it wasn’t Passover, I knew that we were celebrating Abba’s freedom. And I knew that it was time, once again, to ask my parents questions about their experiences. Obsessed as I was with cats as a child, animals seemed like the best place to start.

In subsequent family Seders, our questions changed to reflect our evolving interests. Queries about Abba’s clashes with the KGB replaced questions about animals, only to be replaced in turn by questions about love. How did you fall in love, we asked once we both crossed the threshold into adolescence? How did you later survive 12 long years of separation? Adulthood, and especially parenthood, changed our questions yet again. Was it hard to resume normal life after Abba’s release and your reunion, we wondered? How did the years of your struggle affect you once we came along?

With every new question and every new answer, my parents’ experiences seeped into my own sense of self. When I had to confront potentially embarrassing situations, for example, I found myself thinking about the day of my father’s arrest. The jailers stripped him, hoping to leave him humiliated and vulnerable to manipulation. “Only you have the power humiliate yourself,” I’d tell myself in an echo of his thoughts from that day. “Only you have the power to decide you feel humiliated.” When I watched my friends lash out against each other over the disengagement from Gaza, I felt confident that we will recover our unity in time. We have it within us to stand together despite this temporary crisis, I thought. After all, didn’t we do it when we fought for Soviet Jewry? The fact that I wasn’t born in time to be part of that “we” didn’t make it feel less real to me.

When it was time to include our children in the family Seder, I was thrilled. My parents’ story gave me so much, and I couldn’t wait to see how it will affect my kids in turn. My son and my nephew, who were 3 years old at the time, had a hard time coming up with questions. So I shooed them under the table, told them they’re in prison now, and gave them a basic introduction to the family story.

“Bad people didn’t want Saba to come here to Eretz Yisrael, so they locked him in a little room,” I explained, and invited the kids to try and escape their “prison.” The adults, playing jailers, stopped them. I continued with the story: “Savta yelled, ‘Let Saba come to Eretz Yisrael,’ but they didn’t listen to her. So Savta went all over the world, and because all Israel are responsible for one another, Jews everywhere started yelling with her. They yelled so loud, and for so long, that the bad people had to let Saba, and his fellow Jews in Russia, come home.” And then we let the kids come out from under the table, and sang “hine ma tov umanaim,” just as my father did with my mother and thousands of others when he landed all those years ago in Tel Aviv.

This story became a favorite with my children. But as the years went by, I became concerned that it wasn’t affecting them as profoundly as it affected my sister and myself at their age. They’d beg me to “tell us about Saba in prison” one moment, and ask for a retelling of Sleeping Beauty in the next. Somehow, the stories that shaped my world as a child failed to evoke more enthusiasm than a fairy tale in my kids. It entertained them, but also didn’t seem to touch them beyond a moment’s thrill.

I must not be telling the story well enough, I concluded, and poured everything I knew of storytelling into more and more elaborate retellings. I set the scene with vivid details to engage my children’s imagination. I gave them characters to root for, stakes to worry about, and opportunities to feel elation and horror. In short, I did everything I could to make the story what some scholars call “transportive”–a story that activates our imagination and empathy to such an extent that it makes us lose ourselves in its world, identify with its values, and forget its artificiality. Surely, I thought, if my kids would only experience my parents’ struggle for themselves, they will be affected by it.

My kids laughed and shrieked and paled in all the right places. And then they said, eyes alight, “now tell us a story about pirates at sea!”

*

During the Passover Seder, we declare that “in each and every generation, a person must see himself as if he himself left Egypt.” And one year, fresh from another failed attempt to make my parents’ story leave a lasting impact, these words made me feel an odd kinship with the authors of the Haggadah. They, too, wanted to tell a story that will do more than entertain its audience. In fact, their challenge was far greater than my own, since they wanted their audience to experience an event millennia after its occurrence. Perhaps if I could understand how they tried to achieve this objective, I could transport my kids across the meagre generation and a half that separates them from my parents’ struggle.

To my surprise, a careful rereading of the Haggadah revealed that its authors didn’t try to activate our imagination, transport us to the world of their story, make us lose ourselves in it, or do any of the things I tried to do to my children. If anything, they seemed bent on pulling us out of the story of the Exodus in every opportunity; in fact, they barely let us get into it in the first place.

We start the storytelling part of the Seder conventionally enough, with the words, “This is the bread of destitution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” But before we have time to settle into a third-person account of our ancestors’ story, we are made to say, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt” in the first person. We conclude that part by acknowledging that we are commanded to “tell the story of the Exodus … and anyone who spends extra time in telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, behold he is praiseworthy.” But instead of letting us progress to actually telling the story, as we might expect at this point, the authors of the Haggadah veer into a story about other people telling the story of the Exodus instead.

In case these shifts failed to give us whiplash yet, the Haggadah goes on to compound our disorientation by moving in quick succession through a halachic dispute, the rabbis’ pedagogic instructions, and a walk down history lane all the way to Avraham’s beginnings. Only then does it actually delve into the story of the Exodus. But instead of setting the scene and describing the action, this section of the Haggadah takes the form of hermeneutics, matching words in Deuteronomy’s account of the salvation from Egypt to appropriate passages in other biblical sources. Without even the benefit of characters to root for, how can we lose ourselves in a story that constantly shifts between genres, topics, and points of view?

Perhaps, I realized, we’re not supposed to lose ourselves in the story at all. Perhaps the authors of the Haggadah recognized a truth that I ignored in all my attempts to make my parents’ story conventionally transportive: Stories that transport us away from our day-to-day life can be very powerful, but they also leave our actual lives untouched. By creating a story world that’s so removed from our reality we allow the two to remain separate. In other words, a story we visit to lose ourselves in, is also a story that we can leave behind when it’s time to find ourselves again. Perhaps the authors of the Haggadah wanted to prevent the Exodus from becoming a place that we could visit—and abandon. Perhaps they wanted us to entwine it into our actual lives instead.

The literary scholar Wolfgang Iser wrote extensively about the reader’s role in creating a text’s meaning. An author can place various building blocks in the reader’s path, but it’s up to the latter to connect these blocks as he or she reads and make them come to life. The gaps and discrepancies that exist in any text serve a crucial role in this process, according to Iser, since they function as “a network of response-inviting structures” that activate the reader’s dynamic participation. (The Act of Reading, 34)

By pulling us out of the story, the abrupt jumps from tangent to tangent in the Haggadah function like Iser’s gaps and discrepancies: They invite us to involve ourselves in making sense of the story. Though the Haggadah instructs us to say “we were slaves” in the first person, for example, it doesn’t allow us to lose our actual “I” in a sweeping narrative that will make that fictional “we” feel natural. It forces us to pause and consider how we feel about it instead. When the text then drops the first person in favor of other genres, it forces us to pause and try and understand how that “we” is connected to the fragments that follow.

This process of evaluation and reevaluation goes beyond the normal reading process Iser describes, because the Haggadah doesn’t even give us the benefit of a discernible story arc. Since we must rely on ourselves to give the evening any form of coherence, we are forced to draw upon resources that lie beyond the bounds of the text itself, such as our familiarity with the Exodus story in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and, even more importantly, our own concerns, experiences, and ideas. This process forces us to act as authors and interpreters and recreate the Exodus story in our own image. By the end we can no longer simply place the story of the Exodus on a shelf and move on to Sleeping Beauty. We poured too much of ourselves into it to ever fully let it go.

Like the authors of the Haggadah, my parents never tried to offer us polished versions of their story. They gave us a segment here and an episode there, and always in answer to questions that stemmed from our own inner lives. Looking back, I can see that it was this lack of editorial intervention that made their story so impactful. Their story shaped us because they didn’t treat it as their story to tell and to give, but rather as building blocks that we could use in the stories that we told to ourselves. We were the ones who wove my parents’ memories into our obsession with animals, interest in adventure, or preoccupation with romance. We were the ones who worked them, like disparate and disconnected notes, into the soundtrack of our lives.

By polishing my parents’ story into a sweeping narrative, I was limiting my children’s opportunity to do the same. I told them how my parents strove for freedom, and how hundreds of thousands marched together and cried “let my people go.” But to make this story truly meaningful to them, I needed to let go of my control of the narrative. I had to take my lead from my children’s questions, and recognize that it was time to let them recreate the story for themselves.

The Haggadah taught me how to tell my parents’ story, and how to give my kids the liberty to explore it for themselves. Time will tell what they’ll make of it. But in the meantime, my struggles with the latter taught me something about Passover in turn. Perhaps when the authors of the Haggadah told us to see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt, they meant something more than envisioning ourselves wearing tunics, marching out of Egypt with matzos in our sacks. Perhaps they meant that we should take this opportunity to experience what it means to become the authors of our own story. By liberating us from the mindset of a passive audience, the Haggadah frees us to taste self-determination, in an echo of the very event which it so circuitously explores.

Rachel Sharansky Danziger is a Boston-based writer and educator who blogs about Judaism, storytelling and daily life. Her work can be found on The Times of Israel, Project 929 and other online venues.

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