Contents | January/February 2004
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | January/February 2004
"At that time, they stole from the Pharaonic Egyptians gold, jewelry, cooking utensils, silver ornaments, clothing, and more, leaving Egypt in the middle of the night with all this wealth ..."
A Family Deposition
Should Egypt receive reparations for the Exodus?
by Ben Birnbaum
—Nabil Hilmi, dean of law, University of Al-Zaqaziq, interviewed in the August 9, 2003, edition of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Al-Arabi regarding a lawsuit "against all the Jews of the world" for alleged misappropriations during their exodus from Egypt, in 1230 B.C.
Transcribed From The Deposition of Ben Birnbaum, Defendant 571,224
First, in regard to the earrings. Mrs. Ramses, who lived down the hall, gave them to my ancestor Chavah (Cleopatra) Birnbaum the night before we left. I know what you're thinking, but it's not that Ramses family. Ramses was a common name in Egypt, very big in personal hygiene. In fact, they had a Jewish saying back then that even when you were alone with your wife in the bedroom, there was probably a Ramses somewhere in the picture, if you get my meaning. I hope that doesn't offend the stenographer. At the time, they used predominantly papyrus in their products, which is why we had such big families. But we never sued. I feel I should point that out.
Anyway, we're getting ready for the Exodus, baking matzoh and macaroons like crazy, and Mrs. Ramses runs in. "What's going on?" she says. "Such a tumult in the building!"
My ancestor Menasheh (Menes IV) Birnbaum, Chavah's husband, explains to her, "It's not personal, but apparently we've been promised a land, and you know how it is, just to put together a down payment on a decent co-op in this market is impossible, and especially with the slave wages."
"Look," Mrs. Ramses says, "you can't go empty-handed." Next thing you know, she's handing the gold earrings to Chavah, who'd just started in on the tzimmes. Hugging, tears, prunes and carrots. A mess. That's the earrings.
In the matter of the egg cups. The fact is, we were leaving the building, and there they were on the street, out with the recyclable vessels. One cup was chipped, and another was missing from the set, but otherwise they were in okay shape. So my ancestor Tevyeh (Tutan-khamen) Birnbaum, Menasheh's son—he grabbed them. "We can eat a decent breakfast on the side of the road and we won't have to pay restaurant prices for a boiled egg," he said. But Tevyeh wasn't as smart as he thought. They were ibis egg cups! Show me where you find an ibis in Tel Aviv and subsequently Brooklyn. And then there's the matter of the sterling-silver fruit knife. That I can't explain, I have to admit. But I'm happy to send it back. Three thousand years, and we used it four times.
As far as the statue of the fat lady rubbing herself with a radish goes, that wasn't us. That was the Gordons. The Gordons were Naphtalites, so enough said. But very clever with their hands. The Birnbaums saw nothing in the piece, even Tevyeh. But Kishkeh (Karnak) Gordon turns it into a lantern that runs on camel dung or olive oil. In 1966 the statue was still in their hands, by the way, and I know because I myself saw it in the Gordon apartment, 156th off Grand Concourse. It was on the mahjong table, mint condition. The only thing was that now it was electric, with a wire running out, and instead of the radish there was Bing Crosby's head. Look, I don't make this up. I'm just here to give my testimony.
So now the towel in the hall closet. Let me take you back to the Exodus, day three, outside Memphis. Already it's apparent that Moses is a very gifted guy but no sense of direction, and worse, he wouldn't stop at an oasis to ask. You'd try to tell him something, he'd say, "What are you, a burning bush?" So we knew we were in for it. Anyway, my ancestor Abe (Anthony) Kerry, Menasheh's nephew through his sister Sadie (Nasheeka), he says, "I'm already clamped up from the matzoh, and there's sand in my phylacteries, and this guy could drag us around the desert for forty years for all we know" (that got a big laugh, by the way), "so tonight I'm going to a hotel and I'll get a nice meal with leaven and some wine that doesn't taste like Log Cabin syrup, and I'll have a shrimp-cocktail appetizer, too, because the way our luck is running, someone's going to think up kosher any day." Which is why, to this day, you snoop around a Jewish bureau or highboy and sure, you might find an item that says "Hotel Memphis," and maybe it's made of Egyptian cotton. But even with this you can't jump to conclusions, because in fact it could be Tennessee.
My sister-in-law's crocodile purse I'm not even going to dignify with a response.
Ben Birnbaum is the editor of Boston College Magazine and the special assistant to the president of Boston College. His work has been anthologized in Best American Essays and Best Spiritual Writing.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January/February 2004; A Family Deposition; Volume 293, No. 1; 93.