I stand on the notorious Pedra do Sal (Rock of Salt) in Pequena Africa (Little Africa). The Rock overlooks Rio de Janeiro’s Empress Wharf where slaves from Africa were unloaded, a few minutes walk from the square where they were bought and sold. The sun is bright as I climb stone steps carved by slaves to make it easier to haul bags of salt. The ocean sparkles, and beneath the dust I smell the sea breeze. During Carnaval the port will be crammed with cruise ships, but in early November—Black Consciousness Month in Brazil—our ship, the MV Explorer, is the only one docked in the harbor. I find myself thinking of Passover, my favorite Jewish holiday because of the story it tells: the amazing, seemingly endless journey from slavery through the desert to the Promised Land.
I’ve just finished another journey by ship, from Morocco to Barcelona, and then a fourteen-day Atlantic crossing to Rio that retraced the Middle Passage, the heart-wrenching transportation of slaves from Africa to Brazil and Barbados. Brazil received four million slaves, more than the United States—a fact that surprised me. Generations of slaves kept coming, keeping the African traditions alive, until slavery finally ended in 1888.
           
While at sea I participated in a dramatic reading of actual testimonies from slaves and their captors. It was the most emotionally fraught program of the entire three and a half month long Semester at Sea voyage. The only white actor in the play, I was ironically the only one born in Africa. A Moroccan Jew, whose father had sailed from the northwest corner of Africa through the Strait of Gibraltar and across the Atlantic Ocean to America—so his children could grow up free.
 
On Passover we ask four questions to mark the distinctions between one who is a slave and one who is free, but what does freedom mean? And do we ever forget the taste of slavery? In my novel, The Road to Fez, the patriarch of a Jewish family speaks at their final seder in Morocco:
            “This is what Pesach means to me,” says Papa Naphtali. “It represents the most courageous, terrifying decision human beings have ever made, to leave a known life of slavery, and to enter the unknown, dangerous promise of freedom. They had to lose the habits of slavery, to learn to straighten their shoulders and to look strangers directly in the eyes. It took forty years of wandering in the desert before the last generation born as slaves was gone, and the first generation born free and wild in the desert was ready to fight for the promise. Imagine the terror. Imagine looking over the rocks into the land you thought was a myth, and seeing that it was real, that you could touch the ground and smell the air. We’re always on the verge of freedom, but frightened to take that last step. So what will we do, mes enfants? Remain in the desert for another forty years? Or advance to the vision of light, which may be a mirage?”
 
A couple of weeks later I pretend I'm walking on sand as I explore Nidhe Israel Synagogue in Bridgetown, Barbados—the first synagogue in the Americas. When the temple was built in 1654, the new Jewish immigrants covered the floor with sand to symbolize the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years before they came to the Promised Land.
Armed with a valuable knowledge of sugar, this first wave of Jews came from Recife, Brazil, to the Land of Coconut Milk and Sugar Cane, which they hoped to turn into their Land of Milk and Honey. Their stay in Barbados began promisingly as they established and developed sugar plantations. However, this golden period lasted only five years, until 1659, when the Portuguese grew jealous of the Jews' success with sugar. They imposed a law restricting Jews to a single slave, thereby eliminating the possibility of a Jew maintaining a sugar plantation. Hence, the Jews, not permitted to be slave owners, lost the sugar trade—the only work they knew. The struggle to survive on the island became too difficult, and most Jews left for more promising ports.
My last day in Rio, I return to the Rock of Salt, drawn as if to a magnet. At night there will be live samba, but this afternoon it is hushed—two boys playing with a mangy dog, a woman walking past with a bag of groceries. The graffiti speaks louder than voices: stenciled dancers, Afro-headed women, slogans proclaiming, “Zumbi Vive!” The spirit of Zumbi, the first hero of the slave rebellions, lives. The need for freedom never dies.
          
I stand on the Rock and remember the clanging chains, the lash of the whip, the trudge of bare feet on sand, the maror that magically transformed into manna. I straighten my shoulders, lift my face to the sun and taste freedom. A promise. A responsibility.
    
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