Passover is, like all Jewish holidays, filled with traditions. When I was a child, we cleaned our house for weeks beforehand, so we didn't have even a crumb of bread in it. Then my father turned to my mother and said, "Bea, I don't see what's so great about America. Back in Europe, we heard about streets paved with gold. But here it is Pesach, a major Jewish holiday - and we don't even have any bread in the house!"
The most important part of celebrating Passover is the seder, a festive meal. Before we eat, the youngest child chants the 4 questions, starting with "why is this night different from all other nights" and everybody else asks the 5th question, "when do we get to eat?" Then we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which we read out of a book called the Hagaddah. Nowadays, we all use the same Hagaddah. It's got a blue and white cover, the inside has Hebrew on one page and English on the facing page, and you get it free with Maxwell House coffee. But when I was little, we didn't have the Maxwell House Hagaddah yet. Instead, we had a mixture of Haggadahs and very few of them had English. Those were reserved for special guests - one of Dad's coworkers, a non-Jewish neighbor, and so on. The rest of us were expected to muddle along as well as we could. But, since it's important to understand the story, Dad would frequently stop to translate. It was only years later that I realized that his translations were not quite literal. Here, for example, is my father's version of the crossing of the Red Sea.
Moses and the children of Israel came to the Red Sea and were stopped in their tracks. Moses turned to his civil engineer and said, "Nu, Hymie? You can build us a bridge to get across?"
Hymie scratched his beard and thought a bit and scribbled a few things on a napkin. Then he spoke. "Well, let's see. First, we have to file the environmental impact statement. I need to order materials and find the labor. It will take 2 years and cost 100 million shekels."
Moses protested. "We don't have the money or the time. Pharaoh and the Egyptians are gaining on us. I've got to come up with another idea." He summoned his naval architect and he said, "So, Bernie, you can maybe build us some boats?"
Bernie scratched his beard and scribbled on a napkin and finally said, "We need at least 4 boats, should be double hulled. If we get started now, I can do it in 1 year for 75 million shekels."
Moses shook his head. "Pharaoh and the Egyptians are gaining on us - we can't take that long. We need to find another way."
Everyone had ideas. Someone suggested a catapult, another person suggested a hot air balloon, and there was even a swimming instructor who was pushing her crash course. But all those ideas would take too much time and all the time Pharaoh and the Egyptians were getting nearer and nearer. Finally, Moses said, "Enough! I'm going to go off and have a talk with G-d and see what he says."
So Moses went off and talked with G-d. He came back and he said, "Okay, here's what the Lord said. If I take this staff and strike it on this rock, G-d will split the sea open and we can walk across on dry land. How does that sound to everyone?"
And, at that, Irving the public relations agent turned to Moses and said, "Moses, baby, if you do that, I can get you 83 pages in the Bible!"
This year, I'll be spending the seders with friends instead of family. The youngest child will ask the 4th question and all the rest of us will reply with the 5th. We'll be reading out of the Maxwell House Haggadah. But I know that, when we get to the crossing of the Red Sea, I'll stop and say, "Wait - let me tell you the real story, just as my father told it to me."