As I write this, I’ve just come from a Passover Seder for small children. At this age, religious education involves a lot of singing, loud percussion instruments, and plenty of room for wobbly preschool dancing. Small children are demanding in the ways they receive spirituality. They sit still only briefly for narrative; long explanations cause them to engage in a range of anti-authoritarian behavior including, but not limited to: whining, spilling juice, hitting thy neighbor, or demanding to go home. So we kept the evening punchy and short. Singing, clapping, a picture book about plagues and the wondrous escape from slavery across the sea. Then we ate matzo ball soup.
My wife, a young and quite beautiful rabbi, knows a lot about the plagues. She knows, for example, that the ninth plague, hoshech, was not just darkness for the Egyptians, but complete isolation and imprisonment. The darkness was so pregnant, she tells us on the way home, that it had physical presence and force. Once it descended upon the Egyptian houses no one could move. Sound was drowned out by it. There was just thickness and blackness and paralysis, a darkness so heavy that it crushed the Egyptians into their chairs or pressed them against a wall. Each of them alone, terrified, with only their own thoughts for company.
And the frogs! she says. They were everywhere. In the food. In the cabinets. In your clothing drawer. And all of them croaking, all at once. Fat bullfrogs and tiny tree frogs and squat, ugly bellowing toads. Bellowing in every street and courtyard and bedroom with their terrible sounds.
Have you heard a frog? she asks our son in the backseat.
He has. He agrees that they are very loud.
So you can imagine how painful this noise was, she says.
My son loves this midrash, the Jewish tradition of re-telling and adding to stories. He loves their texture and their details, their inherent creativity. He wants to know more about how the Egyptians suffered. The burns from the hail, the itching from lice bites. The terrible rank smell of their dead cattle. How they could have endured all this, nine times, and not let us go.
He is not the only one to want to know more. In March 1936, a young Jewish poet named Muriel Rukeyser traveled from New York to West Virginia to document the effects of a plague.
Six years before her journey, in a place called Gauley Mountain in the West Virginia countryside, work had begun on a tunnel to reroute the fast-running New River, sending it downhill hundreds of feet so that the force of its descent could be captured by turbines and converted into electricity. Such projects were not uncommon in Appalachia at the time. Once the drills started, the rock inside the tunnel was found to be rich in a valuable substance called silica and the project was expanded. The tunnel was widened beyond what was strictly necessary to divert the river. The silica was collected by dry drilling, a quick, cheap method that threw clouds of dust in the faces of the men performing the work. The laborers consisted of uneducated, unaffiliated, local white workers and black men brought in from Kentucky and Ohio. They breathed this dust and they began to cough. Then they died by the hundreds.
Rukeyser wrote twenty poems about Gauley Mountain: landscape poems and historical poems and monologues in the voices of wives and caretakers and documentary poems of a kind rarely seen before — angry transcripts of testimony in front of Congressional committees; quotations and accusations of witnesses, cut and stacked together like geologic strata. She titled the sequence The Book of the Dead, remembering the Egyptians, the complicated series of spells and incantations they slipped into coffins to help their dead wander through the afterlife.
Last year there were nine plagues. My son was three years old then, and in his interest in dump trucks and washable paints and birds outside the kitchen window there was no room for the finality of suffering. But this year death has entered his vocabulary anyway.
It is a few weeks before Passover once again in Appalachian Ohio, located just a few miles from the West Virginia border. My wife and I are standing in the kitchen, preparing for the holiday. It is a lengthy job to make a kitchen Passover-ready. It involves a complete exchange of every dish and utensil, taping shut the dairy dishes and silverware drawers, pushing back the meat dishes to where they can’t be reached, even by accident, then going down to the garage and unearthing from dusty cardboard boxes the separate sets of Passover dairy and Passover meat, then back to the kitchen again, where we run the dishwasher through, completely empty, to clean it of any bread residue, then wash, in separate loads, the dusty dishes — all of this preparation for eight days of repeated meals of matzo and butter, matzo and cream cheese, and those terrible hard bits of unleavened cereal that the children will eat once and then push away every morning for an entire week.
Children make it difficult to observe Passover. They love the holiday festivities but hate the diet. We are standing in our unprepared kitchen, asking ourselves, Can they possibly eat matzo for a week? Then the phone rings. It carries the news that one of my wife’s congregants, a professor’s wife, has died from the sudden and fierce onset of kidney cancer.
She was fine — we saw her just a few weeks ago. Then she began to experience a crushing pain. Now she’s dead.
We live a young community — a town filled with college students, mostly — so funerals are rare. But already on the phone I hear my wife’s professional voice kick in. She is brilliant at funerals. Death does not scare her. During her rabbinic schooling she served as a chaplain at an inner-city hospital in Philadelphia. She was assigned to the neonatal intensive care unit, the saddest place in the hospital, where young mothers waited for their tiny premature babies’ lungs to inflate, their hearts to grow enough muscle to push blood out and back through their small bodies. Often they did not.
She would leave in the morning in her prim cardigan and long skirt, the uniform of the modest clergy, and come back late at night, tired and worn from long hours of attending the slow deaths of the youngest people in the world. She would sit at the sides of African immigrant women and Haitian women and Puerto Rican women while they prayed, in their respective ways, for their shriveled, premature children, incubated down the hall. I don’t believe in Jesus, she said once, as we sat at the table in our small apartment, after one of these long nights. But I see why one would want to.
Now, on the phone, she efficiently navigates the conversation from condolences to logistics. Per tradition, the funeral must be as soon as possible. There is the funeral home to inform (her job) and relatives to summon (theirs), academic departments to notify. A phone tree will bring the rest of the community, Tuesday at one in the afternoon, shiva to follow at the home of the deceased.
For the Egyptians, death marked not the end of struggle but the beginning. Their afterlife was filled with hazards. One could be devoured by a crocodile or mauled by a hippopotamus. One could be called before Atum or Ra and asked to testify to the value of one’s existence. One had to know how to leap onto the celestial barge that rode the ‘four steering-oars of the sky’ into the Otherworld or be left behind forever. Journeying through this Otherworld was an act of knowledge; one carried slips of parchment with instructions provided by relatives. Scholars refer to those phrases as The Book of the Dead.