It’s just like Egypt, Miri thought, but not in a good way. Not in the sense of impending freedom, miracles or victory. No, every spring Miri was passed over for older, smarter siblings and younger, cuter cousins. At ten she was too old to ask any of the Four Questions, despite being the only one of the “little” kids who could actually say them in Hebrew. And, still she wasn’t as quick or as clever as her older brothers who always found the afikomen and collected the crisp dollar bills from Zayde.
This year, however, there was the potential, at least, for something interesting to happen because Miri had heard her mother and aunts gossiping about Aunt Renee and the fact that she would be home for a seder for the first time in three years. Aunt Renee was like a mythical creature: part fairy, part ballerina princess and wholly other. With her straight hair and goyish name (but named for Tante Rivka of blessed memory), a trained dancer, she was totally unlike the other women in the family. She had lived in India and Japan, she did yoga, was a vegan and, rumor had it, she no longer believed in God.
There was a tension beneath the air of celebration as everyone arrived at Bubbe and Zayde’s house. Miri stumped up the stairs of their split-level to the dining room, ostensibly looking for her cousins but actually checking to see if she was seated, finally, at the adults’ table this year. But, alas, there was her name, scrawled in Bubbe’s handwriting, on the little place cards that came out only once a year. She lingered in the doorway adjoining the dining room to the kitchen to listen to the women talk as they plated matzo, spooned soup into bowls and counted out the wine glasses. Their voices were high pitched with excitement and Miri found herself starting to getting excited, too. The seder would be long and sometimes boring but the food would be good and she always looked forward to the singing. She was lost in the attempt to follow the grown-up conversation about synagogue politics and the difficulties of kashering for Passover when she heard the front door open and close. She turned to look down the stairs toward the front door and saw Aunt Renee coming in, already peeling off her light jacket. “Ma,” she yelled, “where are you?”
Renee swept past Miri at the top of the stairs and into Bubbe’s arms. “Ah, maidele,” cried Miri’s grandmother with more emotion than Miri was used to. “My baby!”
During the seder, Miri couldn’t keep her eyes off her aunt, but in this she wasn’t alone. Fifteen pairs of eyes were trained on her from the Kaddesh to the Korekh and then finally it was time to eat. Aunt Renee was plied with questions which she happily answered. Japan was amazing, she told them, but after six years in Asia she was ready to see what adventures she could find here at home. Yes, she was still dancing but, now that she was older, she was hoping to teach, do a little choreography. And, yes she was still single at her age, and everyone shook their heads because what a shande for such a pretty woman and a smart one to boot to not have gotten married yet. At this, Miri locked eyes with Aunt Renee and she felt she could read her mind: who needs marriage, they both seemed to ask, when there is a world to see, dances to dance?
Tzufun, Barekh, Hallel, Nirtzah, the rest of the seder went by in a blur as Miri grew sleepier and sleepier. Finally she couldn’t fight it anymore and even as the grown-ups got noisier and rowdier, full of red wine and family, Miri found a spot on a downstairs couch and in a pile of little cousins, fell asleep.
She was awoken, who knows how much later, by the sound of the sliding glass door whisking open. She saw Aunt Renee slipping outside. “Can I come with you,” she whispered and Aunt Renee held out her hand. The backyard was illuminated by a brilliant round moon and Miri sat on a deck chair and pulled her knees up to her chin, hugging them. Aunt Renee stretched like a cat and turned to Miri and smiled. “So, what do you think,” she asked.
“All of it.”
“I don’t know,” Miri said, meaning she didn’t know about the question itself.
“Tonight was nice. It’s good to be home,” Aunt Renee stared at the moon.
“Are you back for good?”
“Maybe. Like they say, next year in Jerusalem! Who knows what a year will bring.” Renee laughed a quiet laugh.
Miri watched her aunt in profile. There were tiny lines shadowed around her eyes and maybe one or two threads of silver in her hair. Perhaps it was a trick of the moonlight.
After a few minutes of silence, Renee suddenly spoke. “There was another Miriam, the one in the Torah,” she began.
“Yes, I know,” said Miri, “Moses’s sister.”
“She saved Moses. But she was also a prophetess and a dancer. She sang a song about triumph and was no one’s wife or mother. Her story is tricky; lots of ups and downs for Miriam.”
“It is a good story,” Miri hedged, letting her voice trail off. She could almost feel her words being carried away from her on the breeze and into the dark corners of the yard.
“It is indeed a good story, a complicated story but a good one.” Aunt Renee sighed. She took Miri’s hand in hers and they sat like that for a long time. Clouds drifted past the moon and then moved across the sky. It seemed like there was a wonderful wilderness before them.
Sarah Rachel Egelman is a professor and writer, among other things.