Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Seder on the Fourth Floor of an Old House in Charleston

Last night Eric and I attended a Seder to commence Passover, the first that I've been to as an adult. Jeff and Lis are fellow former New York City dwellers, though Jeff, much like Eric, grew up calling Charleston home. Located only a few blocks from Colonial Lake, I could see the gray blue waters of the harbor glinting in the early evening light as we pulled up in front of a massive historical home. There's something about downtown Charleston that steals my breath in any light, rain or shine, and last night, buffeted under the dark threat of storm clouds, the colors were even more vivid: deep pink red buds, lush green grass, and the towering teal house with black shutters that Lis and Jeff call home. Bottle of Chianti in hand, we wound our way along the old wooden porch to a set of stairs that headed up on the outside of the house, climbing the steep and narrow steps to the fourth floor. I wondered how many apartments the old beauty had been carved into -- given its sheer size and domination of the block, there was of course no doubt that this home was once a bustling, single-family home, complete with cooks, maids, slaves.

Inside the kitchen was warm with the smell of short-ribs and matzah ball soup, Lis moving about the apartment in a green party dress with orange heels and their new dog, Einstein, a shaggy white and brown mop, trotting around at her feet.
"People tell us that our apartment used to be the slave quarters," Jeff explained as he poured us two glasses of red wine. More guests arrived and at last when we settled, elbow to elbow around the table, Liz passed around stapled pamphlets she'd made - the Haggadah - which contained all the readings for the night and doubled as a nice "how-to" for guests like us, attending their first real Seder.

Honoring the Jews flight from slavery out of Egypt and into freedom, the meal itself tells their tale. In the Haggadah I read that Egypt in Hebrew is "Mitzrayim," which literally translates to "places of constriction and limitation." In this way, Mitzrayim comes to represent not just a geographic location, but also a metaphor for all the enslavements we meet in life. And so Passover becomes a time to awaken to places in our lives where we are stuck, so we might release ourselves from the slavery of old patterns, beliefs, and ways of being that hold us back from personal growth. It was beautiful, unexpected, and imbued the night with a new meaning for me: I have not always found religion to be so easily relatable.

As we sipped wine and took turns reading from the Haggadah, I was captivated by the concept again and again:

"Like the Jews in Egypt, we are not simply enslaved by others. It is not only a Pharaoh outside who keeps us in bondage. We carry Pharaoh within ourselves. We seek to remember that we hold the keys to our slavery and our freedom. We keep ourselves stuck with limiting thoughts like, 'I can't,' 'I'm not ready yet,' and 'I don't deserve better.' We are the slaves and we are the enslavers. Only we can set ourselves free."

Sitting there under the sloped roof of the dining room, lightning flashed over the churches and steeples of the Holy City, and a table filled with people from all faiths cracked Matzah between their fingers even as we ate in the slave quarters of an early 19th century home. These are the things that I love about Charleston. These are the things that I love about our friends.

That night was a full moon, and I woke after 3 am to the sound of a dog barking. Looking out the bedroom window I saw two dogs, a black one and a white one, lit in the moonlight. The fat black dog was only about eight feet from the house, and they were both facing me, looking inside almost, as his bark echoed through the dark early morning. They must have stayed there for nearly an hour, facing our bedroom window and barking, and it was an eerie ending to a magical evening. What their connection could have been, if any, baffles me. But then again, maybe it was, in its own way, a call to freedom as well.

Two dogs, half wild, running in the night, baying their freedom under the light of the moon.


  1. Oh, Signe--lyrical, beautiful, amazing. And liberating. Thank you!

    1. Thank you! I hope you have a transformative weekend! xx