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A Song Of The Sea With A Hint Of Ladino And Arabic Towards A New Perspective On Passover

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Out Of The Reeds
CD by Basya Schechter
Tzadik Records, 2004 (Re-release)

The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage
Edited by Loolwa Khazzoom
Seal Press, Fall 2003

With Pesach swiftly approaching, many are hyper-aware of all the cleaning and cooking implied in the festival. A holiday of freedom, Pesach has an ironic way of assuring us that the process of preparing for freedom oftentimes involves work with a far more enslaving feeling than we imagined. Luckily, the arts can often remind us that holidays transcend the grunt work affiliated with preparation, and as Julie Andrews sang as Mary Poppins: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Find the fun, and snap, the job’s a game.” So what songs should we sing while we check the bitter herbs for bugs and while we eradicate every leavened crumb from our houses?

Happily, we needn’t look too far, for song is central to the Exodus narrative. Initiated by the men (and perhaps the angels), the Song of the Sea thanks G-d for the salvation at the Red Sea and for the Egyptian taskmasters’ aquatic demise. After the song, Miriam the Prophetess appropriates a drum and leads the women in singing their own thanks to G-d. We sing Dayenu and all the lovely songs of Hasal Seder Pesach and the Hallel. But Basya Schechter’s CD “Out of the Reeds” has a different song in mind.

On the CD cover, Schechter sits holding a drum a la Miriam, but her band is called “Pharaoh’s Daughter”. Schechter elaborates upon this apparent “schizophrenia” – the sister of the redeemer on the one hand and the daughter of the disgruntled king on the other – in an interview that two of my friends, David Keesey and Jake Marmer, conducted for an article in the Mima’amakim Journal. Schechter spoke of her travels in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Turkey, Morocco, Greece and of course, Egypt. “I loved Egypt, and I loved the Middle Eastern music. I wasn’t a musician at the time; to me it was just interesting to ‘see and feel.'” This collaboration of a Jewish singer from Boro Park with Egyptian music, emerges in the Biblical Miriam with drum, doubling on the CD cover as Basya, Pharaoh’s daughter who draws Moses from the Nile.

The CD does not focus exclusively or even mostly on the Exodus story, but track eight entitled, “Taitsch (Exodus)” begins with one of Schechter’s Hebrew school students’ chazzanus, singing the verse “And the daughter of Pharaoh went down to wash upon the river,” with Schechter further developing the story in Yiddish. “In Yeshiva we used to do taitsching,” Schechter told me of the technique of turning Hebrew into Yiddish. In an attempt to reenact that style of learning, “Taitsch” combines the Hebrew verses where the princess discovers Moses, with Middle Eastern percussion. The overall effect “creates a soundscape that combines both the Jewish way of learning and reciting the texts with textures of Egyptian percussion,” Schechter said. The song thus meditates upon the very Egyptian style that the princess seems to exhibit.

But what can a CD that seeks to combine Egyptian and Jewish sounds mean, within the larger context of a holiday celebrating the decimation of Egypt and of a commandment never to return to Egypt (to purchase horses therein)? What are we to make of such a collaborative CD, given such a general anti-Egypt halakhic sentiment?

To answer this question necessitates a meditation on Pharaoh’s daughter. Who was she? Unfortunately, we don’t really know. The Exodus text offers no name, let alone an unpublished memoir, though the Midrash calls her Batya, literally the daughter of G-d. Ironically, though the name was probably indicative of Pharaoh’s megalomaniacal notion of himself as a divinity, the name has been canonized in many contemporary Orthodox communities. We know Batya was kind; she unthinkably had compassion for a Hebrew infant (there were no “Jews” then), and perhaps she deserves the tag, Righteous Gentile simply for that act. But, despite her righteousness, the only memorable line she utters is the name she composes, Moses: an Egyptian name that references drawing him from the Nile. This ability to name without having her own name is a powerful thing, and it is a phenomenon that plagued many contemporary, North African Jews, as well.

Loolwa Khazzoom et al’s” The Flying Camel” explores a series of narratives written by Jewish women, Mizrahiot and Sepharadiot. In the introduction, Khazzoom writes, “Today, North African and Middle Eastern Jewish women continue to live in the shadows of metaphoric veilsIn a world where Jewish is synonymous with Central and Eastern European, where North African/Middle Eastern is synonymous with Arab Muslim, where ‘of color’ is synonymous with ‘not Jewish’People try desperately to reconfigure us [emphasis hers], lest they should have to reconfigure fashionable uniting and dividing lines.”

Here we have a community of disenfranchised Jews, who themselves have named so much of Jewish culture and tradition but, like Pharaoh’s daughter, they themselves lack names. Rachel Wahba’s essay “Benign Ignorance or Persistent Resistance” explores her family’s exile from Egypt to India and ultimately to America. Her father told her, “‘It was over for the Jews in Egypt, even though we were there before the Arabs, before Islam.'” Tragically, though, even upon settling in Los Angeles, Wahba experienced anti-Semitism from her new Jewish neighbors. “Suddenly people questioned whether I was ‘really Jewish’ because I did not grow up eating bagels and cream cheese, or because my grandmother did not speak Yiddish.”

This Pesach at our Seders, we can consider these generally disenfranchised elements of the Egyptian narrative: the kind princess and the very real Jews living in the region. As we sing our Jewish songs and narrate our national heritage and folklore, we can bear in mind the totality of our Egyptian experience. Surely, we celebrate our freedom from Pharaoh and our subsequent (voluntary) subservience to G-d. Surely, we thank G-d for our salvation. But we are instructed to recite an abridged Hallel for the bulk of Pesach so as not to delight in the demise of our enemies, and I know of no commentaries that condemn incorporating the beautiful aspects of the Egyptian culture. We would do well for ourselves to meditate upon Basya Schechter’s beautiful melodic diversity, upon a righteous, Gentile princess and upon communities of Jews who have too long been denied an opportunity to tell their own tales. What better place than in the festival where one of the primary commandments is relating the story of our redemption, of Passover?

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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