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Passover Ponderings: The Jews, the Pyramids & the Importance of Questioning

Passover Ponderings: The Jews, the Pyramids & the Importance of Questioning

I consider myself a Jewish rationalist, someone who identifies culturally with Judaism without buying the biblical myths. The Exodus story of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, told every Passover? Just one of the many overwrought episodes in the Old Testament, akin to the stories of Noah’s ark and Jonah’s stint inside a whale (strange, given the desert locale, how many of them involve scary water).

Seder plate, via Wikimedia commons. The charoses is at 3 o'clock.

Seder plate. The charoses is at 3 o’clock (via Wikimedia commons)

When I was old enough, I questioned the symbolism of the items on the seder plate. My favorite food was charosets, a mix of chopped apples, walnuts, and grape juice meant to represent the mortar used by the Jews exiled in Egypt to build the pyramids. Why make the building materials taste so good, I wondered, if you want to show how awful the job is?

But until a few days ago, I never questioned the underlying premise of the Passover story: that the Jews were slaves in Egypt.

Early Pharaoh Lust

First — a guilty secret.  I’ve always had a thing for Egypt. At family seders, I would dutifully recite the story of the Israelites’ abuse by the Pharaohs, while harboring a secret love for the land of the oppressors. “Let my people go,” I would sing, while longing to visit the Nile kingdom.

I partly blame Cecil B. DeMille, who cast sexy Yul Brynner as Ramses II against Charlton Heston’s buff-but-boring Moses in the “Ten Commandments.” My childhood friend Sharon and I would cross our arms and mimic the bald hunk intoning, “So let it be written. So let it be done.”

The Brooklyn Museum: Where my Egypt-lust originated

The Brooklyn Museum: Where my Egypt-o-philia originated

But my Egypt-o-philia went deeper than a childhood movie crush. Every few weeks, before I was old enough to go on my own, my mother would walk with me from our apartment on Lincoln Road down Washington Avenue to Grand Army Plaza and the Brooklyn Museum. I came to adore the hushed, high-ceiling halls of the Egyptian exhibits. I don’t doubt that the serenity of the setting, the quiet shared time with my mother, were part of the appeal. But there was something about the art itself that spoke to me on a primal level. I loved the busts with the elegant headdresses and exotic names like Akhenaten and Nefertiti, the clean lines of the towering statues, powerful beings who transcended the messiness of everyday life. Even my fear of the mummies couldn’t put a damper on my Egypt lust.

Happily, I grew up to be a travel writer and wangled an assignment to update a guidebook to Egypt in the late 1980s.  It wasn’t the serene land of my imagination, of course, but in some ways it was better, vibrant with the complex energy and languor of the Middle East, including Israel. When I saw the great pyramid of Giza, I felt a little bad about my ancestors having had to labor over it and all, but it didn’t dampen my admiration.

Blame Herodotus — maybe

I don’t hanker after Egypt itself anymore, given its current chaos and hostility to Westerners, but I still love the country’s ancient art. So on my recent trip to New York, I visited the Brooklyn Museum as well as the Metropolitan’s Egyptian collection (with the aforementioned fellow Yul Brenner-admirer of my youth).

As I sat down a few days ago to continue chronicling my New York visit, planning to confess my guilty love for Egypt in time for Passover, I decided to dig deeper.

It took less than a minute for me to find an article on, Did Jewish Slaves Build the Pyramids? by Brian Dunning.

It’s a complex, well-researched piece that distinguishes between Jews, Israelites and Hebrews; details the construction of the pyramids; and outlines the history of the presence in Egypt of any peoples who might later have been lumped into the category of “Jews.”

The key conclusions:

  • The pyramids were not built by slaves but, rather, by poor Egyptian workers who were well compensated for their labors.
  • The Jews were not in Egypt at the time of the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza; neither was Ramses II, the pharaoh played by Yul Brynner.
  • Jews did turn up in Egypt, at Elephantine, but at a later date, and they were not slaves. Rather, they fought alongside the Egyptians.
The pyramid at Giza; not built by the Jews or even ordered by Ramses

The pyramid at Giza; not built by the Jews or even ordered by Ramses II (via Wikimedia Commons)

So where did the Jewish-slaves-built-the-pyramids story come from?  It’s still not clear. Dunning cites a source that says “Herodotus reported in his Book II of The Histories that the pyramids were built in 30 years by 100,000 Jewish slaves,” but then adds:

In point of fact, Herodotus only says 100,000 workers. He does not mention either Jews or slaves. So even this popular belief seems to be in error, and the origin of the idea of Jews building the pyramids remains a mystery. Coincidentally, the text of the Book of Exodus was finalized at just about exactly the same time as Herodotus wrote The Histories. Obviously, the same information about what had been going on in Egypt 2,000 years before was available to both authors.

Menachim Begin, Embarrassment, and the Ultimate Meaning of Passover

Reading this sent me into an emotional tailspin.

First, I felt like an idiot. I’m not a bible literalist. How did I never question the core of the Passover story?

Then I felt relieved that I was in good company. According to Dunning:

In 1977, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin visited Egypt’s National Museum in Cairo and stated ‘We built the pyramids.’ Perhaps to the surprise of a lot of people, this sparked outrage throughout the Egyptian people, proud that they had built the pyramids. The belief that Jews built the pyramids may be prominent throughout Christian and Jewish populations, but it’s certainly not the way anyone in Egypt remembers things.

It could have been worse. At least I didn’t embarrass myself on the world stage and almost start an international incident.

Then I felt guilty  (well, maybe I was guilty from the beginning, the default Jewish emotion). I considered not posting this piece because it seemed disrespectful. It’s one thing to write about my childish skepticism regarding certain aspects of the Passover story; it’s another to debunk the center of a holiday that people are celebrating.

Then I got paranoid.

What if it this post stirs up anti-semitism, I wondered, if some nut takes this misinterpretation of history as fodder for hatred against the Jews? Holocaust deniers and their ilk use every little fact they find to prove their case. 

A Tradition of Questioning

Finally, I came to my senses.

For one thing, it’s not just Jews who believe the story, but also Christians, who often cite the Old Testament to justify… well, a bunch of weird stuff. Cecil B. DeMille, the director of “The Ten Commandments,” wasn’t Jewish.

More important, we Jews are not responsible for our persecution. Anti-semitism is irrational. Haters are gonna hate and Holocaust deniers are going to grab at crazy straws to make their crazy case, no matter the facts.

One of the key seder rituals is the Ma Nishtanah, the asking of the Four Questions by the youngest child in the room as soon as he or she is able to read or memorize them (my first-born sister may have had more pictures taken of her as a child, but I had this advantage once a year). The value of questioning, of intellectual inquiry from the earliest age, is central to Judaism. And the best of us, like the best of the rest of the world’s citizens, go with the conclusions to which the facts lead us, even if they are not what we wanted to hear when we set out.

It’s a tradition by which I try to live, and one perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Passover.

New York Report, Pt. 2: Family & Film, Pastry & Punctuation

New York Report, Pt. 2: Family & Film, Pastry & Punctuation

I admit it: It sometimes takes me a while to unpack from a trip. On my recent return to Tucson from New York, I didn’t need the winter clothes I’d brought with me (nyah nyah); only an underwear shortage inspired me to retrieve the contents of my suitcase. It sometimes takes me even longer toContinue Reading »

New York Report, Part 1: Vienna-on-the-Hudson

New York Report, Part 1: Vienna-on-the-Hudson

Ah, New York. I don’t miss winter since I moved to Tucson from Manhattan more than two decades ago — before I could be mistaken for a snow bird — but I miss New Yorkers’ unabashed grumpiness about the season. If you’re going to experience frigid weather, as I did  last week, you can’t beatContinue Reading »

Family Trek, The Next Generation: Herbert Bratspies

Family Trek, The Next Generation: Herbert Bratspies

I’ve been tracing the family of the third of the Kornmehl butcher brothers, Martin, a journey that starts in Vienna (see The Return of Martin Kornmehl) and takes us to Melbourne (see Detention of Jews in World War II: Et Tu, Australia?). Today I finish the story of the newly found Australian branch of myContinue Reading »

Survival in Paradise: Curaçao

Survival in Paradise: Curaçao

Last July, when I posted an excerpt from Manfred Wolf’s memoir, Survival in Paradise, I was pleased — though not at all surprised — by the positive response it got. It’s a very moving piece about a young boy’s coming of age during World War II. So I am doubly pleased to have gotten permissionContinue Reading »

Detention of Jews in World War II: Et Tu, Australia?

Detention of Jews in World War II: Et Tu, Australia?

I ended my last post about Martin Kornmehl’s family with the promise that the continuation of their story will be happier. I’m afraid that I can’t entirely keep it. The narrative led me to a chapter in World War II history that surprised me — and not in a good way. Come to think ofContinue Reading »

The Return of Martin Kornmehl

The Return of Martin Kornmehl

It’s hard to believe a year has passed since last February,  when I took the Family History Writing Challenge. It was a terrific focusing tool and I highly recommended it — though I’m going to have to pass this go round. That said, I have stories of two close family members, a great uncle andContinue Reading »

Found in Translation: The Mad Butcher of Berggasse

Found in Translation: The Mad Butcher of Berggasse

Happy 2014. So far, this year is looking promising. I woke up on the morning of Jan. 1 to a nice surprise: The notification that the first post of a new blog called Wien um die Jahrhundertwende (Vienna at the Turn of the Century) was devoted to discussing Freud’s Butcher. I was pretty sure theContinue Reading »

Oscar Nemon: Sculptor of Freud — & His Canine Circle

Oscar Nemon: Sculptor of Freud — & His Canine Circle

My discovery of Oscar Nemon — probably the most famous sculptor of whom almost no one has heard — started with a comment I received the other day on an earlier post, Richard Tauber: “How Can I Be a Jew?”: Congratulations on an informative and amusing blog. As you mention Richard Tauber I thought youContinue Reading »

Asser Levy: America’s First Kosher Butcher

Asser Levy: America’s First Kosher Butcher

Knowing of my interest in the the history of Jewish butchers, the ever-helpful Philip Trauring of the Blood and Frogs Jewish genealogy blog sent me a link to a post from New York’s Tenement Museum, “Keeping Kosher in 17th Century New York:” November 15th, 1660 was, by any means, a normal day in the smallContinue Reading »