“For we were once slaves in Egypt”

By Olga Shafran

Every year at Passover we sit around the table in a ceremonious fashion and read the Haggadah. The Haggadah tells the story of the exodus from Egypt. It’s a story of redemption from slavery to freedom. There is a line in the Haggadah that says, “In every generation one is obligated to view himself as though he came out of Egypt.” In fact, some Rabbis suggest that it is not enough to just think of our communal redemption, but that we must see our journey to freedom as a personal one. During the Seder we eat specific foods and recite specific blessings, all of which are meant to help us experience that journey that our ancestors took to escape slavery. Every year we celebrate our freedom and rejoice that G-d was on our side. We are the people who were oppressed and then liberated. We’re pretty clearly the good guys in this story.

What about the Egyptians? After the plagues and the loss of their free labor force, how are they to remember this period of time? And if we were the good guys, what does that make them? I’m not talking about Pharaoh and his hardened heart. What about ordinary Egyptian people; the lower-middle class that struggled to put food on their table? What lessons are they obligated to pass on to the subsequent generations?

Similarly to Jews, do the descendants of African slaves in America tell and re-tell the stories of their ancestors through generations? If they do, do they celebrate freedom?

Of course, it is difficult to talk about traumatic events. I really only know the Holocaust survival story of one out of four of my grandparents because the others did not like to talk about it. It might be even more difficult to talk about traumatic events if history finds you on the side of the oppressor. In 1870, after the Civil War, the population of the US was around 38.5 million people, but in the next 30 years alone America took in 12 million new immigrants. As new groups of immigrants arrived, I doubt they could see themselves as having personally benefited from slavery because they themselves were mostly poor and never owned slaves. I doubt it because I am an immigrant and a part of an immigrant community. This same community that every year sees themselves as having personally come out of Egypt, cannot see themselves as having personally benefited from slavery because their ancestors weren’t there.

We’re here now, though. And if we consider ourselves racially white (leaving aside the question of whether Jews are white or not for now) and American, then we inherited the history of slave-ownership. Even though our own ancestors did not contribute to slavery, the ripples of it are still being felt and the responsibility of dealing with them is on us. We should not discount the hardships we faced as immigrants, but we also need to begin seeing the myriad of ways in which we still benefit from being white – or even appearing to be white – in America today. There are lots of lists, articles, and books already written describing what those are. It is our responsibility to find them and educate ourselves on the history of our adopted country.

I don’t have a solution. This issue of systemic racism is so deeply ingrained in our society that it will take years to unravel. However, it begins in our minds. It begins with the conversations we have with each other, with our American-born children, and with their Soviet-born grandparents.

If you have other suggestions, please share them. Let’s start this conversation!

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