March 11, 2013
From L.A., following the Egyptian signs to the Red Sea
If the Passover haggadah seems like hieroglyphics to you, it could be a good thing.
Though the Israelites left Egypt presumably to escape the ankhs and eyes of Horus of the ancient written language, recently I discovered that hieroglyphics -- a system of pictorial characters -- had a way of writing me into the haggadah.
Considering that on Passover we are commanded to re-enact an event of which we have no memory, perhaps adding some details from the Egyptian point of view might deepen our understanding, or at the very least acclimate us to the theme of leaving Egypt.
Besides, since the current Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi had been seen recently in a video telling Egyptians to teach their children hatred for Jews, I was looking for a way to ameliorate my own responsive charged feelings and not bring them to the seder table.
Carol Meyers, a professor of religion at Duke University in an interview on the PBS show "NOVA," related, “There are other ways of understanding how people have recorded events of their past. There's something called mnemohistory, or memory history. It's a kind of collective cultural memory.”
I wondered, would looking into the holiday with an Egyptian eye help me to recover some of that cultural memory and see past the present?
After sitting through seders for so many years, where a trip through the Exodus often becomes an endurance race to the matzah ball soup, I knew that my cultural memory definitely could use some augmentation and elaboration.
To freshen my “mnemohistory” -- this being Los Angeles, where movie magic memories are made -- I made tracks for the historic Egyptian Theater in the heart of the Hollywood Boulevard tourist district.
The theater, an ornate Egyptian Revival movie palace that had a large stage to accommodate the elaborate prologues before the films, recently was refurbished. Developed by Charles Toberman along with the Jewish impresario Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame, the theater had opened in 1922. As luck would have it, a few weeks later, King Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in Egypt, resulting in an Egyptian craze that swept the nation.
Further connecting the theater to the Exodus, I found that the “The Ten Commandments” debuted there in 1923. According to the theater’s website, the prologue for the Cecil B. DeMille silent epic featured more than 100 costumed performers on stage, including "players seen in their identical roles in the flesh and blood."
Now doesn’t that beat Uncle Earl droning through the Four Sons?
Still thinking about those costumes, I left in haste for the theater.
Upon arriving at its columned courtyard, I sat on a bench for a pre-holiday lunch of matzah and hard-boiled egg. Looking out at the surrounding cement walls that were cast to resemble stone blocks, I read a passage from a haggadah that I had brought along: “They put taskmasters over them to oppress them in their suffering; and they built the store-cities for Pharaoh, Pithom and Ramses.”
And movie theaters as well?
As I poured myself a little juice, I tried to decipher the hieroglyphics -- scarabs, ankhs, jackals, birds and snakes -- that were painted on a nearby wall.
For me, Egyptian imagery conjures up a creepy feeling of deja vu. Was it a cultural memory from the generations spent in Egypt? More likely just the result of too many haggadahs illustrated with pyramids, crooks and flails.
Even if the Exodus story has no basis in historical evidence, it is such a keystone story, so imbedded in Jewish outlook and religious practice, that when you see the signs of Egypt, even in kitschy indecipherable fashion, they speak to you.
On the hieroglyphics wall there were no cute wind-up frogs or Ten Plagues puppets like the kids have at the seder. But looking up at them, I wondered whether after the hail, lice, boils and cattle death if some Egyptians might have wanted to inscribe “Hebrews go now” on a wall.
Below the hieroglyphics I noticed a couple of cartouches. Originally worn by the pharaohs, the oval-shaped inscriptions could be worn as an amulet or be placed on a tomb.
Thinking about the 10th plague -- the death of the Egyptian firstborn -- I imagined the resulting stacks of amulets. It put new meaning in the seder custom of taking a drop of wine from our cups, demonstrating that we are not rejoicing over our enemy’s loss.
Curious how my own name would look on a cartouche -- as apparently are others -- I used my smartphone to go a hieroglyphics website that provides the Egyptian symbols to spell your name. Mine was represented by two reeds, a hand, an owl, a hawk and water -- images that made me feel like I was connected to a body of water; making me think of the shore of the Red Sea.
To get to Passover, it was time to cross.
Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.