I’d grown up hearing the story of Passover each year at our family’s seders. “We were slaves in the Land of Egypt,” my father would intone, my brother and I nodding at the familiar words.
If I ever thought about it (which wasn’t very likely), I pictured the scene that illustrated our worn, wine-stained haggadahs. Workers toiled in a field, a far away Egyptian overseer standing guard; the scene looked pastoral and peaceful. I didn’t doubt our ancestors were once enslaved in ancient Egypt, but it all seemed so remote. I couldn’t picture what that slavery meant… until one day when I took my kids to visit Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and my understanding of that chapter in our history—and the way I looked at the world—changed forever.
We’d visited the jewel collection on the top floor to please my daughter, and we’d gazed at the animal dioramas to please my younger son. Now it was time to see what our older son had been begging for—the exhibit on ancient Egypt. We descended to the lower level to see the museum’s collection.
The first case contained ancient weights and measures, along with a lengthy explanation: cheating by shortchanging customers in the marketplace was punishable by torture and death, the panel read. Many of those judged most harshly were the slaves who served Egyptians in ancient times.
Another case, amazingly, held scraps of fabrics and pieces of ancient clothing and shoes. Upper class Egyptians wore the white flowing robes I’d seen illustrating my haggadah long ago; the lower on the social scale people were, however, the less clothing they were allowed. Slaves, at the bottom, often went naked in the boiling Egyptian sun. My perception of my ancestors began to change: theirs was no peaceful work in pleasant fields. I wondered what it must have been like to toil on Egypt’s great building sites with no clothing for protection at all.
An eye-catching display showed an Egyptian bed; it looked surprisingly modern. It didn’t surprise me at that point to learn that such comforts were denied the vast slave class. Food, too, was strictly rationed, with free Egyptians enjoying more and slaves often going hungry and intensely thirsty as well.
The final exhibit was vast: The Field Museum holds in its heart an ancient ship, rescued from an Egyptian tomb and painstakingly transported to Chicago. It once held a nobleman, who was entombed with a fully functioning ship to ferry him to the next world after his death. Huge containers of food and drink—denied to his hungry slaves in life—were entombed with the ship to provide their owner with sustenance in the world to come.
As I wandered through the ship, my eye was caught by pictures of people painted on the walls: slaves, the display noted, who were murdered when their owner died, so that they could accompany him on his final journey. I stopped and wiped my eyes. As I stared at the pictures of each figure—with their own expressions, their own staring eyes—I realized I could be looking at my ancestors. The ship had come so far, traveling across thousands of miles and through the millennia, to rest in the modern city of Chicago. At that moment, I felt as if that journey had been for me: allowing me to catch a glimpse of what life and death was like for those slaves whose DNA—whose memory—might today reside in me.
That image has stayed with me. Each year as I gaze into my haggadah now, I see past the illustrations of toiling slaves that decorate the pages. I imagine the basement of the Field Museum instead: its market weights that were considered more important than the lives of slaves; its luxuries that were denied to those who toiled to make their empire great; and the ghostly images of countless murdered slaves.
The Torah famously instructs us to feel that each of us personally escaped from Egypt. Visiting the Field Museum helped me—and my kids—understand what the Jewish slaves in Egypt went through. It made it seem much more disturbing and a million times more sad than we were accustomed to thinking of it. Most important, for all of us, it helped it to seem much more immediate and real.