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The Exodus-from-Egypt Song

 

For the Women’s Passover Seder at my synagogue, for the second year in a row, the female rabbi asked congregants to share their own escape-to-freedom stories ahead of time, and have songwriters put those stories to music. I said no last year, because I was adamant that I didn’t want someone else telling my story. I had just published my novel and I wanted people to read it; and to read it in my voice. But this year, when the Rabbi asked me again, I said yes.

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“You did what?!”

I decided that, imperfect as the method might be, I needed to take the opportunity; my community needed to hear from me. And maybe, in the form of a song, in a room filled with friends and good food and music, my message could be heard, and received; and maybe someone in the audience of women would feel like they could come forward and tell their story as a result of hearing some version of mine.

My synagogue has not made much of the #MeToo movement. If anything, a lot of the older congregants have found it disturbing to have to look at Woody Allen, or any of the other famous cases of sexual assault, more closely. What they were really mad about was the way Al Franken was “forced” out of the senate, by “women with an agenda.” This wasn’t coming from the men in the congregation; it was the women who rejected #MeToo.

So I hoped a song could help make a difference. But I was still uneasy about having someone else interpret my story. The rabbi asked me to write up a short summary of my exodus story, so that the songwriter wouldn’t have to “read the whole book,” and I took the opportunity to not just write another summary of what happened to me, but to explore some of the metaphors I’d want to use if I were up to writing the song myself, and to reference some of the Jewish prayers that have resonance for me. I wanted to make the process easier for the songwriter, yes, but more than that I wanted to make sure that my voice, and not just my story, were heard.

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“Woof!”

This is some of what I wrote:

I was sexually abused by my father when I was a child, and emotionally and psychologically abused by him throughout my childhood and adolescence. He relied on his considerable intelligence, and his midlife discovery of Orthodox Judaism, to protect himself from consequences, but he was still accused, multiple times, of inappropriate sexual contact with young girls. I was also sexually abused by my best friend’s older brother when I stayed over at her house. Incest families, I’ve discovered, are like alcoholic families: they tend to find each other.

            My mother and I were able to leave my father behind when I was twenty-three, after we’d both been in therapy long enough to feel ready to escape. The process of recovery, for both of us, has been long and difficult. We are each other’s support systems. I’m a writer, with three masters’ degrees, but I still struggle every day. My time line is very different from other people, with a lot of “normal” life events out of reach.

            My hope for this song is that it will focus on the liberation part of the story, and the work of recovery, because I think that’s the part most people don’t see or understand. They’re used to seeing the dramatic moments of the abuse itself, or the heroic escape. They’ve read Lolita, and gotten a distorted (and sexualized) view of abuse, or they’ve watched Oprah and believe that abuse victims can all pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and fast, if they just try hard enough. Neither version is the truth.

            I like the comparison to the Exodus from Egypt, because that story isn’t just about one person, it’s about needing a group to go with you on the journey; and it’s about the difficulties that come with liberation: the years of wandering, the struggle to survive, the overwhelming nature of freedom, etc. Liberation is painful and full of effort. The Exodus requires faith that God will part the Sea of Reeds to let you pass through, and that manna will fall from the sky when you are hungry, and that you will not have to walk through it all alone.

            It’s important to remember that leaving the place where the horrors happened doesn’t mean you leave the memories of the horror behind. You bring yourself with you when you leave.

            People have unreasonable expectations of the victims of abuse. They think that the victim must save herself in order to feel empowered, but that’s just not how it works. The victim needs to feel safe and loved and honored and supported and believed in order to begin to empower herself. Our idea of the hero as the lone wolf fighting the bad guys is unrealistic. The reality is that groups of people defeat monsters together. If you see only a lone hero then you are not looking closely enough; look for the friend, the parent, the teacher, the neighbor, the doctor, the therapist, the librarian who smiles at a little girl who has been taught to believe she is nothing.

            As a child I was always hiding: under the porch, curled like a snail in the wet dirt; in the closet, behind my big stuffed panda; under the bed, with the blanket hanging down; under the piano, where no one thought to look. I hid, and I ran, and I held my breath. That’s the part I can talk about. The rest is unspeakable. The smells. The slick on my skin. The weight on me. The suffocating smell of polyester as I tried to breathe through the blanket smothering my face, and counted and counted until it was over. And the words. So many awful words aimed at me like a pistol at my head. A real pistol, dull matte black that smelled of fireworks. My father liked to say that I was the cause of all evil; that all of the problems in our family, and in the world, were my fault in some way. I have never been able to completely let go of that belief.

            We are often mute about sexual abuse because the crime itself is unspeakable, not because it shouldn’t be spoken of. How do we talk about the unspeakable – or do we sing about it instead?

            There’s a song in Hebrew that has always troubled me: The whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid. But I am afraid every day. I cross the narrow bridge every day and sometimes it feels so narrow that I can barely put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes I barely make it across. But, to me, the important thing isn’t to not be afraid, the important thing is to be afraid and to cross the bridge anyway, because if you don’t you’ll die.

            The danger of telling is that you won’t be believed. The danger of telling is that no one will care. The danger of telling is that even when they know, they won’t do anything to stop it. The danger of telling the secret is finding out that you are not the only one, that there are millions of you crossing that narrow bridge, each alone.

            This is not a song of forgiveness.

            Update: I received a draft of the lyrics from the songwriters and it looks good. They focused on that image of crossing the narrow bridge, and the need for support. Unfortunately, the Women’s Seder has been cancelled this year due to the Coronavirus. I hope that the song will survive the impact of the virus and make its way into the world at some point, because I really want to hear the song, and share it with my community, and see what happens.

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“We’ll see.”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

 

 

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

107 responses »

  1. Powerful and beautiful statement. Thanks so much.

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  2. First off what a tremendously brave thing you have done to share what you gave to the song writer to your blog readers. I won’t be surprised if you need three naps after that! I don’t hear much about the Israelites going back to forgive Pharaoh, by the way. And we rejoice that all those chariots and charioteers got “drownded” when the Sea closed back up!

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  3. You are a very brave and courageous woman Rachel. I came into contact with abused children through fostering. Some of the stories are truly horrific and the effects on those young people disastrous. My heart goes out to you and your strength is amazing. ❤ ❤ ❤

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  4. I hope your song will be heard someday real soon.

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  5. I read every story you post, but don’t think I’ve ever commented. You’ve probably heard it before, but I admire the strength it takes to tell that story and just wanted ton tell you that. Sorry that your song, along with the rest of our daily existence has been put on hold.

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  6. What a terrible thing to endure as a child; unspeakable things that must be told for healing to occur. Know that you are not alone; we weep with you and encourage you onward in your journey.

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  7. Very brave – hopefully it will not be too long until the song is heard 🌿

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  8. Reading this gives me hope. Hope that through telling your story you will achieve a modicum of peace, a sense that you are believed, that what happened to you was not your fault, that you are important and worthy. I see you. I don’t know you but I see you. Peace, my friend. 🙏🏻❤️

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  9. I wish you hadn’t gone through this. You have my hopes for healing.

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  10. Your song will be heard, Rachel. It has been heard here, but I have no doubt it will be heard further.

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  11. Words fail me. Your voice is being heard, respected for its truth, and loved by those who hear the sound.

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  12. I think that is the most beautiful and heart-breaking pride I have ever read. I see your heart. It and you will survive.

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  13. It was beautifully written, and I hope, too, it will someday be sung. And I hope you will recover and be able to live the full life you deserve. You are not responsible for anything bad, you know. (No, you don’t know, but it’s true)

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  14. That is beautiful and wise. I especially liked the comparison of needing a group for a journey and the pain and effort of liberation. Thank you for sharing.

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  15. Thank you for sharing this. So many things you said here are so important for people to try to understand.

    I hope you already know this, but you have a great ability to share insight through your words. I hope the sequel to your first novel finds it way to becoming the story you want to tell for Izzy.

    And, I hope the music is performed, at some point. I hope it is beautiful and honest.

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  16. formidable…chapeau dear Rachel!

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  17. “People have unreasonable expectations of the victims of abuse. They think that the victim must save herself in order to feel empowered, but that’s just not how it works. The victim needs to feel safe and loved and honored and supported and believed in order to begin to empower herself. Our idea of the hero as the lone wolf fighting the bad guys is unrealistic. The reality is that groups of people defeat monsters together. If you see only a lone hero then you are not looking closely enough; look for the friend, the parent, the teacher, the neighbor, the doctor, the therapist, the librarian who smiles at a little girl who has been taught to believe she is nothing.”

    My heart is overflowing. I see you, I hear you, I believe you, and I honor you for speaking the truth.

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  18. So good! So true! None of us survive without help. And yes, the worst is telling and not being believed.

    Rachel, you are a TREASURE, exactly as you are.

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  19. I admire both your bravery and your literary skill!

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  20. Congratulations on making a huge and very brave leap forward from one year to the next. When your song is heard,, I’m sure it will resonate with others in not dissimilar situations.

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  21. You are an amazing survivor. G-d bless you for telling your truth. I hope you have many who will walk with you across the bridge. You are doing such a wonderful service for many who haven’t been able to share their truth.

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  22. Hugs… I can’t imagine the horror and helplessness of a child experiencing sexual abuse from a parent, nor the depravity of the parent doing it. It crosses all taboos in the parent-child bond, and leaves a lifetime of hurt and self-doubt.

    In the Christian world it is Lent, the 40 days before Easter. It is a time to prayerfully deal with those things that are obstacles to your faith, one being failure to forgive others their hurtful behavior toward you. Trying to place myself in your shoes, I believe it would take many Lenten prayers to restore my faith.

    Bless you, Rachel, and may your escape-to-freedom song lead to a song of hope and joy!

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  23. How brave of you to share this. I really hope your song gets to be sung – strong and loud.

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  24. It takes a lot of courage (or moving on despite the fear) to be willing to write your story as a song for all to hear. BTW, our Sisterhood Shabbat event was also cancelled, as was all gatherings for the time being.
    Anyhow, who will sing it? Could it be recorded and put on You Tube? Your voice needs to be heard.
    Shalom

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  25. I’m sorry that you or any child has to endure this. You are very brave and thank you for sharing.

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  26. There is no excuse and no forgiveness for child abuse.

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  27. This breaks my heart. Prayers. May you continually fix your eyes on the column of cloud and pillar of fire as you cross the narrow bridge. 🙏❤

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  28. Outstanding, Rachel. I was not the victim of physical abuse. I am still trying to figure out how to even describe what my daughter and i went through. Your bridge analogy is excellent. Thanks you. I can’t wait to hear the song.

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  29. This is beautiful. Thank you

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  30. Brava for this powerful and important piece you have written. I hope that it gets the wide attention it deserves. And know that it has created great interest among your readers in hearing the song! Hope you will be able to share that. God bless you and keep you safe and strong.

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  31. Wonderful , you’re babies looking good!

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  32. “Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons…Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart” (Ps. 107: 10, 13-14). ❤

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  33. I am in awe of your honesty and your eloquence in telling your story. Thank you so much for helping those who have been not been sexually abused to understand what the victims of it need to help them recover, and for being a voice for those who have been abused but haven’t been able to speak up. I sincerely hope you are able to sing your song soon.

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  34. You’re sharing your song here, Rachel. The Exodus is a great analysis. May your continued journey be filled with unexpected blessings!

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  35. ” The victim needs to feel safe and loved and honored and supported and believed in order to begin to empower herself” I couldn’t agree with you more Rachel. Thank you so much for sharing this. x

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  37. Rachel, this is a beautiful, powerful piece of writing that left a lump in my throat. Such courage it must have taken to put all this down in words. There will be a perfect time for this song to be performed. Thank you. Take care, be wise and safe in these troubling times. Much love xx

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  38. Salute to your powerful statement !! Hope your song will come out soon !!!

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  39. Good luck with the song next year. As a songwriter, I can tell you that it’s often not easy to put someone else’s story into words,

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  40. Of course words are inadequate when speaking of the unspeakable, but I just want to say your story brought tears to my eyes. There’s no curse in any language strong enough for the paralyzing horror of sexual assault, in any form.

    You have all my respect and admiration.

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  41. I want to hear the song, too!

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  42. You and your words are strong and courageous. I am so deeply sorry you had to go through this abuse. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope the song will make an appearance soon. Blessings on your journey.

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  43. I love your song. But I hate what it took to get you there.

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  44. Rachel, I think I’ve said this to you before, but you are a superhero! Your sword is your voice!

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  45. Aww that’s cute looks like my dog Chloe:) my other dog Lilly also sings lol when she’s trying ty o get my Moms attention hehe

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  46. justaseniorwholovesjesus

    Dear Rachel, Truly a powerful and beautiful post. I went through many of the same abuses by my adoptive father – including the indignity of verbal and psychological abuses. I was also told how evil I was, and that I was the cause of the evil in the world. I didn’t find freedom or truly begin the healing process until he died, two years ago. I’m sixty eight and can honestly say that you speak the truth so bravely. You are also a very special and precious person. And definitely not worthless. I also heard that word for decades. No human being should suffer any indignity at the hand of another person. Thank you for the courage to share your story. I look forward to hearing the song. I’m returning to blogging after a break due to health issues. I missed your posts and reading about Cricket and Ellie. Blessings to you and your mom. And hugs to the girls.❤️

    Reply
  47. I’m stunned – because your words are so beautiful and powerful. As a writer I admire your gift with language; as a fellow human being, I am moved by your honesty. Thank you!

    Reply

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