The things we carry
Every year at our family’s Passover Seder, before the meal, we play a game called ‘When I left Mitzrayim [Egypt] I took…’. It’s a variation of an old memory game, ‘When my grandmother went to market…’, in which each person must remember the previous players’ choices, then add an item of their own to the list. Over the years, the items added to our list have included food, musical instruments, iPads, family members, books, and more. The whole family enjoys the game, and we sometimes play extra rounds while food is being brought out.
On Seder night, we read the text of the Haggadah, which exhorts us to remember that we too were slaves; that we too were among those who left Egypt to find a safe home where we could be free, and raise free children. Over the centuries, there have been other times that our people have fled to a new land, other tyrants we have suffered under and tried to escape. Whereas our family, safe in Melbourne in 2017, play games like the one above, earlier generations had to make hard decisions about what to take with them. And today, there are families who are not safe, who are packing real bags with the items they consider most important.
While we laugh at Uncle J saying that he brought along his iPhone and charger when he left slavery 3000 years ago, these days the most important item people carry with them is just that. With a smartphone, people seeking asylum can stay in touch with family who are scattered across the globe. A phone can be used to plan safe routes, to know where violence has broken out, to search for help desperately needed.
Between June 1949 and September 1950, 49,000 Yemenite Jews were flown into the new country of Israel. Like many other people fleeing oppression, Yemenite Jews were unable to take all their possessions with them. There are stories of heavy jewellery being left behind because of fears that the extra weight would be too much for the planes to handle. The Imam imposed heavy taxes, so that even those who had been comfortable and well-off in their original communities arrived in the new country with only a few items. The death toll was high.
A few years later, another 25,000 Jews left Egypt, as their ancestors had done so many years earlier. The Egyptian state confiscated assets and many who left were allowed to take only a single suitcase and a small amount of cash. Homes were lost, communities destroyed, families separated. Listening to the stories is heartbreaking as people tell of suicides, fear, and destruction.
Earlier in the century, European communities were destroyed during the Holocaust. Those who left early enough may have been able to take enough with them to build a new home in a different country. Those who survived, whose homes were no more, arrived here in new places, including Melbourne, with very little. Our communities rallied to support people to rebuild their lives. Over the years, some items have been recovered and a few have been lucky enough to be reunited with belongings that had been lost, stolen, looted.
Today, many people and families are on the move, looking for a safe and secure place to live in freedom, and to raise their children. Like us and our ancestors they bring with them stories, culture, and perhaps mementos of their previous lives. Mass migrations of people from one part of the world to another are not new, and tensions between groups is to be expected.
We have a deep communal memory of loss and of rebuilding. We know what it is like to be the stranger in a strange land. Our communal retelling of the Exodus from Egypt should remind us of our own vulnerability. At the same time, our communities and families are strong right now. We are in a position to welcome the strangers who need our support.
Let us rejoice in our retelling of our own Exodus, while we also recount and seek to understand the people who are experiencing their own right now.