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Opening Up to Elijah: A Passover Story

Opening Up to Elijah: A Passover Story

Call me a seder skeptic.

I’m fond of the Passover story, its message of exile and redemption. I especially like the ritual of saving a place at the table and a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah. Like Santa Claus, he is required to visit millions of homes in a single night. Opening the door for him to come in after the seder meal is a simple act of faith that often gives rise to jokes about the prophet’s massive consumption of Manischevitz. 

Elijah’s glass doesn’t have a napkin in it. Image by datafox (own work)  via Wikimedia Commons. 

But Elijah was probably the first victim of my growing skepticism about religion. After age six or seven, I stopped believing that he would really turn up.

Over the years, I’ve unearthed rational explanations for pretty much all of the Hagaddah’s events. I can detail the natural phenomena that likely gave rise to each of the seven plagues, marshal historical data to demonstrate that no Jews lived anywhere near Cairo at the time of Ramses II, when the Great Pyramids were built.

All this to say, I had a hard time accepting the idea that a deer guided me to my great uncle’s grave in Vienna, and that it might have been channeling my mother’s spirit.

A search for my ancestors

This happened almost exactly three years ago, in the new (est. 1917) Jewish section of the vast Friedhöf cemetery, where members of both my parents’ families had been laid to rest. Theoretically.

I sent the genealogical information to Austria in advance so that, when I got to Vienna, it would be easier to locate the graves. The task of mapping them fell to Walter Juraschek, a guide and historian with the Jewish Welcome Service. He was a genial man; we talked easily en route from central Vienna to the cemetery on the outskirts. He showed me a piece of paper that authoritatively plotted out my family plots.

But we couldn’t find any of them.  The cemetery was overgrown. Many of the gravestones had been toppled. The carvings on others were indecipherable. We began to grow frustrated. It was hot and we were getting tired. We were relieved when the ordeal was almost over, when only one more relative’s grave relative was on the list to check off. 

That’s when we spotted a spotted a deer in the distance, resting in the grass.

It’s hard to see the deer: Look for the ears.

I was delighted. Deer have become so commonplace in some suburban areas that they’re considered pests, but in this cemetery of my ancestors, I had another association: Bambi, the book that my mother read to me at bedtime. She would remind me over and over that the story was written by Felix Salten, another Viennese Jew who had been forced to leave his home. She was proud of the book’s popularity, of the fact that it had been made into a movie by that icon of American entertainment, Walt Disney. 

To my mother, that deer was the ultimate symbol of successful assimilation into American society. 

Walter had no such nostalgic associations. Lots of deer come to the cemetery, he said.

He was soon far more impressed by this one, however.

It seems my Bambi-surrogate had not only rested in the row that we were seeking, but had been sitting at the foot of my great uncle’s grave. Walter and I looked at each other, astonished. Had the spirit of my mother guided me to her Uncle Siegmund? 

But that was crazy, wasn’t it? And what did it signify?

I didn’t have time to dwell on the event. I had a full roster of activities to pursue. I decided I would contemplate what had happened in repose, when I returned to Arizona.

By then, however, the experience had faded. I didn’t try to explain it away, but neither did I marvel at it anew. I blogged about the Friedhof visit, as I did about the rest of my trip, but embedded the strange occurrence into a long post, and then more or less dismissed it.

Vienna, Redux

Walter, searching for graves in the tall grass.

I am about to return to Vienna — that’s another story, which I promise to tell here — so I emailed Walter, hoping we could reconnect. The cemetery was not the only place to which he had guided me, and we had gotten to be fast friends. I was nevertheless unsure that he would remember me, because that’s how I roll.

He wrote back almost immediately: “Edieleben, it would be a great pleasure for me to meet you. I am talking very often about you since we had an unique experience at the cemetery.”

I was practically in tears.

The suffix “ele” is an affectionate diminutive in many German-speaking countries. No one has called me “Ediele” since my father died, more than 40 years ago. I had never heard the addition “ben” but was assured by friends that it’s common in Yiddish, and equally affectionate. 

Not only did Walter remember me fondly but the cemetery story had made a big impression on him. True, he has more occasion to revisit the site, but he seemed to embrace the special nature of the event more than I did.

Why was that? 

Eschewing belief in an Old Testament deity and other trappings of organized religion is one thing, but had I left no room for any trace of spirituality in my life, for occurrences that couldn’t rationally be explained away? 

Mixed Messages

Then it struck me:  Maybe I had taken a message from that magical event without realizing it.

In the three years since I visited Vienna, I finally finished and published the book of my heart, a memoir that had been on the back burner for more than a decade. Maybe my mother’s spirit got me to tap into my inner Felix Salten.

Some evidence:

Deers speak in mysterious ways. And so did my mother, even when she was embodied. For all her nitpicking and criticism, she also supported my hopes and dreams.

Should I be waiting, then, for Disney to buy the movie rights to my memoir — or to my dog book? Maybe Elijah will give me a sign tonight. 

Grief, Food, & Nudity: A Story About My Mother & My New Book

Not long after my father died, I went to Martinique with my mother. I remember three things about that trip.  My mother’s grief. The profiteroles. And the topless beach. Grief, food, and nudity My mother was in a raw stage of mourning, subject to fits of literal wailing. But no one in my family was everContinue Reading »

Of Chutzpah, Kickstarter, and Keeping a Low Profile

Of Chutzpah, Kickstarter, and Keeping a Low Profile

When I was growing up, my mother always implied that my sister and I should keep a low profile. We were supposed to excel in school, sure, but not to stand out because otherwise “they” would find us, even though we grew up in America, even though “they” found everyone they wanted to find inContinue Reading »

A New Journey

A New Journey

Dear Freud’s Butcherites Friends of Freud’s Butcher, As you may have noticed — at least I hope so — I haven’t been around much lately. The short version of the reason: I’m not a very good multitasker. For many years, I’ve had a travel memoir on my back burner. And I finally decided to finish itContinue Reading »

Of Genealogies and Possibilities: A New Year’s Musing

Of Genealogies and Possibilities: A New Year’s Musing

Happy 2015. It’s that time of year when all the possibilities seem to open up. January 1 is an arbitrary date, of course, but who doesn’t want to believe in fresh starts, in learning from our experiences, even if those experiences sometimes seem arbitrary too? I ended last year on a sad note, with the accidental death of aContinue Reading »

In Memoriam, Jean Phillips, 1953-2014

In Memoriam, Jean Phillips, 1953-2014

This page is for those who knew and loved Jean to post pictures and remembrances, long or short. Feel free to post text remembrances in the comments section here; if you want to have your comments in the body of the post and send pictures,  email me at, which is the best place for me to get attachments.Continue Reading »

If Freud Celebrated Sukkot

If Freud Celebrated Sukkot

Jews around the world recently celebrated Sukkot, a joyous holiday that follows five days after the very solemn Yom Kippur; it has its roots as a harvest/agricultural festival. I won’t attempt to explain it in detail here; if you want to read all about it, including a discussion of how to pronounce it, here’s a linkContinue Reading »

7 Things You Didn’t Know About Sigmund Freud, Including His Eyeglass Prescription

7 Things You Didn’t Know About Sigmund Freud, Including His Eyeglass Prescription

I’d be hard pressed to guess how many pages have been devoted to the life and times of Sigmund Freud. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I’ve contributed more than a hundred here alone. But there are still a few things about the father of psychoanalysis that most people don’t know, 75 years after his death, details about hisContinue Reading »

And the Memoir Contest Winner Is…

And the Memoir Contest Winner Is…

First of all, thanks to all of you who participated in the win-a-great-memoir contest. Short and long, the family stories posted in the comments were great. I urge you to read all the them if you didn’t when you posted your own story or if you’re just checking in now. And the winner, chosen by,Continue Reading »

Contest: Tell Us About Your Family’s Journey, Win a Great Memoir

Contest: Tell Us About Your Family’s Journey, Win a Great Memoir

Besides changing their names, one of the greatest banes of family historians is that ancestors move around–and aren’t always considerate enough to leave accurate records of their new addresses. They move for a variety reasons–some to strike out and start a better life, others, like many of my relatives, to flee imminent danger. I’m often amazed at howContinue Reading »