Mar. 27, 2002

April 4

by David Lehman

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Poem: "April 4," by David Lehman from The Evening Sun (Scribner Poetry).

April 4

The exodus from Egypt takes place
tonight this is the bread
of affliction this the wine
like the water of the Nile turned
into blood, the first plague
visited upon Pharaoh this is
the lamb of the feast the blood
of the lamb smeared on the doorposts
so the angel of death would know
which houses to pass over as he
came to slay the first-born sons
of the Egyptian ruling class these
are the bitter herbs fresh horse-
radish the sharpest most pungent
my mother served the tears
of many centuries and my father
poured the wine in Elijah's cup
that the prophet invisibly sipped
let all who are hungry join us

The Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach, begins today at nightfall. The eight-day festival commemorates the birth of the Jewish people as a nation when Moses led them out of Egypt, over three thousand years ago. Passover is celebrated with a special meal, called the Seder, at which special foods are eaten, special prayers are recited, and the story of the flight from Egypt is told.

It's the birthday of the great African-American dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell, born in New York City (1934). He started out studying tap dancing, majored in modern dance at New York City's High School for the Performing Arts and took up ballet at the age of eighteen. Three years later, in 1955, he was called in by George Balanchine to take the lead in the ballet Western Symphony at the New York City Ballet. At the time, the debut of a black dancer in the part was considered a "casting novelty." Mitchell was soon made a principal with the company, and Balanchine created memorable roles for him in A Midsummer's Night Dream (1962), Agon (1967), and other ballets. In 1969, Mitchell founded the all-black dance company, the Dance Theater of Harlem.

It's the birthday of Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, born in Baku, Russia (1927). In 1969, his support of dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn brought him into conflict with the Soviet authorities, who kept him under wraps for nearly five years. Finally, in 1974, he was allowed to travel to the United States, where he made a stunning debut as guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. His outspoken criticism of the Soviet Union while he was on the tour caused the Soviet authorities to strip him of his citizenship and brand him an "ideological renegade." In 1990, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, he made a triumphant return to his homeland as the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra.

It's the birthday of poet Louis (Aston Marantz) Simpson, born in Jamaica (1923). In 1964, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection At the End of the Open Road (1963). He said: "I want a poem to leave the reader wondering. I want it to be open. When a poem is written in a regular form that closes, click, with a rhyme-I don't like that."

It's the birthday of Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, born in Tokyo (1923). Ten of his novels have been translated into English, including Silence (1969) and Wonderful Fool (1983), both about European missionaries in Japan.

It's the birthday of American photographer Edward Steichen, born in Luxembourg (1879). In 1902, he joined photographer Alfred Stieglitz in founding the Photo-Secession Group, whose mission was to establish photography as a fine art. They opened a gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City.

It's the birthday of French writer Henri Murger, born in Paris (1822). His autobiographical novel Scènes de la vie bohème (Scenes of the Bohemian Life, 1849) became the basis for Puccini's famous opera La Bohème.

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