At every Passover seder, in each generation, Jews are reminded to see themselves as though they came out of Egypt in person.
I used to count paragraphs in the Maxwell House haggadah to figure out which parts of the story I would read and how long it would be until dinner. Asking the Four Questions, like the foolish child, I did not search for the meaning of slavery and freedom.
I went to Egypt hoping to see myself in the Exodus story. And I did. But it wasn't the ancient stones of Pharaoh's treasure-cities that revealed the wise child -- it was Irma.
We shared a sleeper compartment on the Cairo-to-Aswan night train. There she was, sitting primly on the edge of her berth, thumbing through a dog-eared Bible.
In Spanish, she told me her name was Irma and asked mine. This was the last place I expected to dust off my college Spanish.
A conductor came by to check our tickets. Irma asked him in Spanish for an extra blanket. I provided simultaneous interpretation into English, prompting Irma to ask why the conductor didn't understand Spanish.
"They speak Arabic in Egypt, but the conductor speaks English as well," I said, wondering which turnip truck Irma had fallen off and how she ended up in Egypt.
"Dios mío!" she cried, "If they don't speak Spanish in Egypt, does that mean they won't speak Spanish in Israel either?"
Irma was from Ecuador, on tour with a dozen other compatriots who filled the adjoining compartments. "We flew from Quito to Cairo. We'll spend 12 days in Egypt, and then we'll tour Israel," she said. Her eyes welled with tears as she mentioned Israel.
The conductor-cum-waiter came by to list our dining options. Meals were included with the train fare, but drinks were not. I explained this to Irma. "Ay!" she exclaimed. "We have no money to pay for drinks." I asked the conductor to distribute bottled water to all the Ecuadorians. My treat.
Irma's tour mates trickled over to our compartment and thanked me for the water. Everyone had questions. "Is it true that they don't speak Spanish in Egypt?" asked a young man in a Panama hat.
"Are there any Catholic churches in Israel?" asked a grandmotherly type, almost quaking. I answered their questions and wondered about their naiveté.
They asked me where I was from. "I'm from Los Angeles, California," I said.
One of the men said, with great reverence, "It does not surprise me that you come from Los Angeles, the city of angels, since you are an angel who has been sent to us from above." I wasn't quite sure why I was heaven-sent, but I was determined to find out.
When we were alone in our compartment, Irma whispered, "Andrea, my friends and I, we are not typical tourists. We will stay in Israel for a long time. If we are on a tour, it will be easier to enter the country." The Ecuadorians were illegally immigrating to Israel. Each had spent their life savings, desperate to earn money to send back to their families.
I was spending my life savings too, for a trip around the world. My biggest concern was where to go next. I was free to leap into the unexpected, whereas Irma was being thrust into it.
Irma let the others know that their secret was safe with me. A line formed outside our compartment as the group came by for advice on what the future would hold in Tel Aviv. They hung on my every word. Some requested benedictions for a safe journey. How could I refuse? After all, I was their guardian angel.
We disembarked at Aswan in the morning and said our farewells. "Vaya con Dios," I said, thrilled to use that particular phrase in the proper context.
Twelve days later I climbed onto a bus and settled in for the 10-hour ride to Tel Aviv. Downtown Cairo faded into endless desert. Suddenly the bus lurched to a halt, and like a mirage, a group of tourists materialized and boarded with much clamor.
"Dios mío!" Irma's familiar voice called out.
"Look, it's our guardian angel, Andrea," said the man who had bestowed angel status upon me in the first place.
We would cross into Israel at Rafah, a dusty outpost on the northern reaches of the Sinai. The Ecuadorians were certain that I had been sent to lead them to their new lives.
I contemplated my own experiences with border crossings in Israel. Ever since my first trip to Israel, when I was plucked out of line just before boarding my plane and interrogated for an hour, I've had problems. Somehow, I look suspicious. I now have a Holy Land dossier. Showing up at Rafah with a group of illegal immigrants was not going to help my case.
I told my flock that I had to give up guardian-angel duties once we reached the border. "I can't help you through the border crossing. It will create problems," I said, without going into detail. They nodded in understanding.
I breezed through the checkpoint and waited for the rest of my fellow-passengers to clear, so we could continue our journey to Tel Aviv. Out of the corner of my eye, I detected some action as the Ecuadorians attempted to pass through. A Hebrew-accented voice boomed over the loudspeaker in the nearly empty lounge, "If anyone is speaking Spanish, come to the Customs." Self-preservation won out over any good-Samaritan tendencies, as I ignored the call and feigned interest in the book I was reading.
It didn't take long for the Ecuadorians to crack. "Andrea, por favor, we need you," they said.
"How do you know these people?" barked the boyish border guard, grabbing my passport.
"I met them in Egypt," I said, wondering how aiding and abetting illegal immigrants would look on my already tarnished record. I was whisked aside for questioning.
"My brother lives in Tel Aviv," I offered meekly. When asked if I spoke Hebrew, I said, "I only speak dog Hebrew -- sit, stay, come." My interrogators had heard enough.
Soon, we were all back on the bus, Tel Aviv-bound.
My friends became subdued as they contemplated the uncertainty of life in Israel. Irma clutched her Bible and asked if my brother needed a cleaning lady. The man in the Panama hat wanted to know where he could find work as a mechanic. This time, I didn't have the answers.
The bus pulled into the station, and we said farewell again. I gave Irma my phone number in Tel Aviv and waved as the group was hustled off to a waiting van.
The following week, my brother's father-in-law held the matzah high and began the Passover story: "Let all who are hungry come and eat!" I thought of my Ecuadorian friends and hoped they were not hungry. My young nephews, Mattan and Mickey, stood on chairs and proudly recited the Four Questions. The door was opened, and I truly felt Elijah's presence.
Another seder. Another generation. "For it is written: This is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt."