Sunday, April 17, 2011


The other night, we were reading the Tomie DePaola book My First Passover. Granted it's for kids younger than mine, but since we've never made it all the way through the Passover story and the last time we talked about it, we stumbled upon the problem of God not being so nice when it came to those plagues, I figured the easy road was an OK road to take. So, we're flipping through DePaola's book and there's Moses. Moses! Helen said, "Mommy tell me all about Moses." So, I do.

I start to prattle on about how when he was a baby his mommy, who was a slave, put him in a basket and sent him down the river and sent his sister along to watch and I took a breath and then I looked up and at Helen's face. She looked devastated. Looking at me her face crumpled and she said, "But mommy, that means Moses' mommy abandoned him! That's so sad!" Then she burst into tears.

I tried repeating, "His sister was Right There!" and I trotted out, a bit woefully, "But she knew he'd have a better life...." All Helen could say was, "Would you ever do that to me?"

Can I just say? When I was a child attending a Jewish day school every day and shabbat services every week, it was like Moses in the bullrushes, la la la. Was it any worse than Abraham pulling a knife on his son, his only son, the one he loved best? Or Jacob tricking Isaac into selling him Esau's birthright? (Never mind Jacob knowing how much more Isaac liked Esau. What was with all that favoritism anyway?) Or Leah and Rachel's father tricking Jacob into marrying Leah first, even though he'd worked for seven years to marry Rachel? Or Joseph's brothers selling him to a band of traveling Egyptians? And never mind Dina. And that's just Genesis! (For the record, I didn't know about Tamar until graduate school.)

So I heard them all, but for me as a child those bible stories were not a big deal. Sure, they were weird and the parents weren't nearly so nice as mine, but I don't remember getting upset about them. Maybe none of it was that big of a deal because it's not like any of it was the Holocaust. Now the Holocaust, that was something to cry about. (And oh did I cry, because I read Holocaust books all the time.) Baby Moses in the bullrushes? He turned out FINE! Even with the lisp! (Here's the lisp story that I remember: When God told Moses to go talk to Pharoh he said he couldn't so Moses' older brother Aaron had to do the talking for him. The rabbis said it was because Moses had a lisp, or something, which he got from sticking a hot coal in his mouth when he was one and, in a test rigged up by the Pharoh and/or his advisers, had to choose between hot coals and gold. An angel "helped" Moses "choose" the coal because if he had chosen the gold that he had reached for first, Pharoh would've dispensed with baby Moses and you could just forget about all that Let My People Go business. It's quite a story, that one.)

But for Helen, whose exposure to both bible stories and the Holocaust is much more limited than mine was even at her tender age of six, there's hardly anything to mediate the Passover tale. We've had seders, but they haven't been elaborate and the story telling has been limited. We haven't talked too much about the rest of the bible, either. So as the facts come drib drabbing out, they (rightly) horrify her. We talk, and will talk tomorrow night, about freedom, and slavery, for sure. But who can focus on that when mothers are sending sons downriver and Gods are killing firstborns? All I can say is we've got to start somewhere. I just need to remember when it comes to bible stories, we're not talking about Edwina, even if both require some suspension of belief.


marjorie said...

Great post. (And I forgot about that hot coals/speech impediment story!)

Helen is a sensitive soul. I also never FELT those horrible bible stories (or Grimm fairy tales) acutely. No story was truly IMMEDIATE for me the way stories are for Helen. But when I re-read Harriet the Spy a year or two ago, reading it aloud to Josie, I felt physically ill -- the kids were so MEAN (Harriet included, of course) and the adults were so oblivious and the cruelty was so DEEP and brutal. The thought of someone treating my kids (or my kids treating other kids) the way the kids in the book behave -- and poor Harriet is totally unsocialized because the only person who loves her and teaches her and expects anything meaningful of her is her nanny who is summarily let go -- oh God, it's all agonizing. And as a kid it didn't bug me a bit, and it didn't bug Josie. SO I guess either you're a really empathetic soul like Helen OR you get older and you feel physical pain at the thought of your children's pain in a way you couldn't before having kids.

Rambling. Anyway, great post.

Robin Aronson said...

Thanks. I just read Harriet the Spy, too, and it really is stomach twisting and shocking and kind of hard to take -- along with being completely terrific. I also just finished Cosmic in which people were jerks but not mean at all. (That book is Awesome! Just like you said it was!) Anyway, it's hard to know what's going to hit home.....