Yetsies Mitsrayim

In dem Land.png

In dem land fun piramidn
            In the country of the pyramids
Iz geven a kenig, beyz un shlekht…
            There was an angry and evil king…

These words are so ingrained that I cannot read them without singing them in my mind.

Zaynen dort geven di yidn
            There, the Jews were
Zayne diner, zayne knekht
           His servants, his slaves.
Zaynen dort geven di yidn
Zayne diner, zayne knekht

Pesakh. The Passover Seder, done correctly, is both meaningful and delightful, and, naturally, there are (to put it mildly) varying perspectives over how to do it correctly. I just typed the word ‘Haggadah’ into Amazon, and it returned a 34-page list of different variations of the book (at a dozen per page, that would be about four hundred choices) for sale. In my view, whatever hagode (Haggadah) one uses, there are several inherent tensions in conducting a seder. The biggest of these is between thoroughness and speed, between putting extra things in, and taking things out.

Regarding speed, my parents often told me about the seders of their youths, at which the hagode was read, complete, in three languages— Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. What they mostly remember is how the heads of families would read at breakneck speed. I was told that this was a contest to show off whose Hebrew was best. I looked and found a similar story described on the internet, along with the writer’s indignation about how alienating this had been for the children; old people zooming through an incomprehensible story in a foreign language, just to show off. But I’ve also heard somewhere that this custom of reading as quickly as possible comes from much less crass a motive– the tradition that we tell the story of Passover as though we ourselves are there, experiencing the Exodus. We speed through the reading of the story, according to this interpretation, because we might have to flee for our freedom at any second.

Regarding putting things in and taking things out, we have in our hagode the Extremely Charming Story of Rabbi This, Rabbi That, Rabbi Somebody, Rabbi Youknowho and Rabbi Whatsizface; the five of whom once got to talking with each other about the amazing Exodus from Egypt, and were so spellbound that they talked all night, until finally their students came in and told them that it was morning, and time to recite the sh’ma. And? That’s it. No hint about what they came up with in all that talk, nor whether their wives thought this story was the least bit charming (or even, for that matter, true). But someone thought it was charming, because we’ve been telling it for over a thousand years.

Why even waste blog space on this? Isn’t it enough at the seder? Well, the point of the Extremely Charming story is that whoever adds to the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt has great merit. As the anecdote itself embodies and demonstrates, we’re going for quantity over quality. Furthermore, the story teaches us that it is easier to put something into a Jewish ritual than to take it out.

There are all kinds of brief, revised, short, essential, abridged Haggadahs available among those on Amazon. In my family, we do not use these. Instead, we read the “New” Haggadah, which was published 70 years ago, under the editorship of Mordecai Kaplan. This work, which was designed in its day to be new and relevant, to tell the old story in a modern idiom, has become unalterable cannon.

So the peanut gallery groans at the stories that go on in too much detail, seemingly with no connection to our lives. We chop a verse or three from Dayenu, but the rest of the text stays, even as the dissidents in the family openly mock one sexist passage or cluck their tongues at the doctrinaire socialist ones. Two concessions to speed are made— only for the very most famous passages do we add Hebrew to the English, and after the meal all we do is sing a couple of songs. But however few they are, along with Chad Gadyo and Eliyahu Hanovi, the pyramid song stays.

Shver hot zey geplogt der kenig
            The king afflicted them badly
Laydn hot dos folk gemuzt…
            The people had to suffer…

In my mind, I hear my Uncle David’s basso profundo filling the air and prevailing over the voices of his sisters and the rest of us. But not with these words. This particular verse, they did not sing:

Vayl es hot farstanen veynik,
            Because few resisted
Veynik mut gehat in brust.
            Few had courage in their hearts. [repeat]

As far as I remember, the verse that says the reason that the Jews had to suffer so long and so badly was that too few of them had the courage to resist… that one was not in our hagode. The rather gruesome verse about children being mortared into the walls was actually in our hagode all this time, but as long as there were children (and there were always children), we never sang it. My mother only pointed it out to me a couple of years ago.

We concluded with the heroism of Moses. Otherwise, who knows how long the misery of slavery, or the seder, would have dragged on,

Ven in land fun piramidn
            If, in the country of the pyramids
Volt nit zayn a shtarker held
            There had not been a strong hero,
Velkher hot gekemft far yidn
            Who fought for the Jews
Mit zayn khokhme un zayn shverd.
            With his wisdom and his sword. [repeat]

And, if you look up ‘In Dem Land fun Piramidn’ on YouTube, that’s pretty much what you get: [link to you tube version here]. Pharaoh was cruel. The Jews suffered. Moses saved us. For my whole life up until I studied Yiddish, I had no way to know that more was being left out than was included.

The poem that would later to be set to music was written by a man named Dovid Edelshtat. Born in Russia in 1866, he was of the first full generation of secular Yiddish poets, a highly politicized group known collectively as the sweatshop poets. Edelshtat moved to the US at age 15. He was an anarchist, who joined the movement just after the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Emma Goldman apparently referred to him as “a fine idealistic nature, a spiritual petrel whose songs of revolt were beloved by every Yiddish-speaking radical.” He not only wrote about sweatshops, but also worked in them, as a buttonhole maker. He died of tuberculosis in Colorado at the age of 26.

Called Yetsies Mitsrayim (the Exodus from Egypt), the original version of his poem did not have just the three verses sung at most seders, but twelve. Here is the text of a slightly modernized version, in full:

Full text piramidn for blog

I am grateful to Anna Gonshor (McGill University), who taught my literature class last summer, for sharing this version of the poem with our class. [note: I retyped it here, so any and all errors are mine, not hers]. It puts the intent of the song in an entirely different light.

Here’s a rough translation of stanzas 7, 8, & 10:

Un fariber zaynen, brider,
            And, brothers, millions
Miliyonen teg un nekht.
            of days and nights have passed.
Un itst, yidn, zayt ir vider
            And now, Jews, you are again
Pares diner, Pares knekht
            Pharaoh’s servants, Pharaoh’s slaves.

Folk! Ver vet dikh itst bafrayen,
            People! Who will free you now?
Vu iz er, dayn sheyner held?
            Where is your wonderful hero?
Af dayn veynen, af dayn shrayen,
            Over your tears and your cries
Ver vet tsiyen itst zayn shverd
            Who will now draw his sword?

— — — —

Ven du vilst kayn keytn trogn,
            If you do not want to wear chains
Zay aleyn dayn sheyner held!
            Be your own wonderful hero!
Nit nor mentshn,- shteyner klogn
            Not only people—the very stones are groaning
In der vister shklafnvelt!
            In the barren world of slavery.

And then, ‘my brothers’, a new Pesach will come. There’s more, but dayenu. It’s enough.


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