Mark is home from college for spring break. His uncles, Ira’s brothers, Lester and Herbert Gordon, his aunts, Irene and Anne, and their five children are at the table. Everyone is dressed up for the holiday, suits and ties and special dresses bought for the occasion. The men wear yarmulkes. In contrast, Mark is wearing torn dungarees and a T-shirt, with nothing on his head. In the past, Ira and Evelyn tried and failed to get him to change into something more appropriate. They’ve given up the fight. That includes his wild uncut hair. During previous Seders, other than his clothing, he’s been tolerable. But they are not sure what to expect tonight.
The evening starts out fine. The family performs the same rituals every Pesach. It’s a happy time. God is ordinarily not a big part of their lives, but on Passover he’s in the room with them. The women and children sit straight and formal, reverent for God’s sake. Mark slouches, which he rightly claims is a Seder commandment. With the exception of Mark, who is bored, everyone quietly listens as Ira and his brothers pray. Ordinarily, they are modern Americans, acting and looking like everyone else. Left over from their Hebrew school days, when the brothers competed for their father’s praise, which of them could daven faster has heroic implications. It is their form of showing off.
But not all is show. When the Gordon brothers put on yarmulkes, they are not fully in a room on Long Island. Even if their mother wasn’t at the Seder, they would be showing off. For God!
As they pray, they are visiting an earlier time and place. A soft echoing melody can be discerned, chanting as their father had chanted, and as their grandfather and his great-grandfather had chanted. They daven with exactly the same voice, the same beat, with a familiar hum. In this process, the voices of their father and grandfather are returned to them. There are other ways to be connected to people who have come before. The dead visit us in recognizable physical characteristics, the same eyes, the same lips, the same smile. Jay raises his eyebrow when he is curious, exactly like his grandfather did, and Jay never knew him.
Prayer is a sacred place to meet, for, in their imitation, the departed are reincarnated. Father and son, father and grandson together again, together in obedience, together in their sway.
Soon enough, the rest of the family gets busy. From one to the other, the potatoes and then the parsley are passed to the person next to them and dipped in salt water. As the dish is handed to them, cousins thank cousins almost formally, like they are participating in a ritual supervised by God. They are not as absorbed by the process as Ira and Lester when they daven, but they, too, feel joined to generations beyond the room. Even the children feel uplifted, inspired by their parents’ formality. They are not simply passing potatoes and parsley. They are doing something important.
Not Mark. He waves the potatoes and parsley off, but then he decides he wants a piece of boiled potato and throws it in his mouth, making funny faces at his aunt Irene’s three-year-old daughter. Several times during the prayers, he whispers to CC and the two of them giggle. Ira notices but says nothing. He repeatedly looks to his brothers for support, which he gets–sympathetic kind eyes. Ira breaks up the matzo and hands it to everyone to take a piece and pass it along. Mark takes a bite of his matzo as soon as it is handed to him, before everyone else at the table can say the prayer thanking God for the matzo. Soon after, Mark begins sipping and then gulping wine—again not at the prescribed moment, after boray pree, when everyone sips their wine together. He pours himself some more, with a disingenuous innocent expression on his face.
Being oblivious to the expectations that once dictated his holiday obedience puts Mark in a very good mood. During the earlier years, he was a child. Now, doing whatever he wants, when he wants, is his way of saying he is an adult. He’s so taken with the charm of his independence that in his mind he is having a great time. Everyone is conspicuously ignoring him, but that doesn’t bother him. As the Seder moves along, Ira can no longer ignore him. He glares at Mark repeatedly. Mark avoids making eye contact.
Customarily, Ira calls on each member of the family to read a section of the Haggadah.
“Mark, you read this . . . in Hebrew,” Ira says pointedly.
Mark reads the Haggadah out loud in Hebrew. During his Hebrew school days, he used to read Hebrew with ease, but he is struggling now.
“‘Raw—shaw mah who Omer? Mah ha—avodah ha—zos law—chem? Law—chem v—low. Ul—fee sheh—ho—tzee et—atz—mo min ha—kilal ka—far bah—ee—car. V—af ah—tah ha—keh—hey et—she—nahv veh—ay—mahr—low bah—ah—voor zeh aw—saw Adonai lee bTzay—see me—mitzrayim. Lee v—low low. Ee—loo ha—yaw shahm. Low ha—yaw nee—geh—al.’”
Ira admonishes him. “You’re a little out of practice, aren’t you?”
Mark doesn’t answer.
“Now the English.”
Mark begins, “‘The wicked son, what does he say?’
“Wicked?” Mark asks.
Mark obeys. “‘What is this service to you? By saying, “to you,” he implies “but not to himself.” Since he has excluded himself from us, he denies the foundation of our faith.’”
Preparing himself, Mark stares back at his father. Then looking at CC, he playfully rolls his eyes. She smiles sympathetically but tries to hide this from her father.
“The wicked son.” His father repeats. The room is tense.
“Mom, when are we eating?” CC asks.
Normally, at this point, awaiting the meal, everyone is starving. But it isn’t hunger alone. There is the anticipation. The Seder meal is like Thanksgiving. Nanny used to cook the whole thing, but when she no longer was able, Evelyn took over, using the old recipes. Together with Beryl, their live-in maid, they began shopping and cooking two weeks before. Yes, it’s the taste of the food. But the meal is meant to be momentous, like the Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving. The gefilte fish, the matzo ball soup—Rockwell would have done a mean Pesach dinner painting. He would have been in good company. The Last Supper has been painted a thousand times. Did Jesus have matzo ball soup? Unlikely, but for thousands of years, this meal has had deep meaning for Christians as much as Jews.
Ira loves presenting its significance to the family.
“It was the first time God showed us we were his chosen people. That is what the Seder is about. God chose us!”
Mark adds in a sarcastic tone, “He kicked the asses of the Egyptian’s gods.” His rhythm carries him forward. “Yes he did. The Jewish God came through.” Ira is boiling but he remains silent.
Soon after, they begin everyone’s favorite song, “Dayenu.” As always, it is sung with gusto. A few of the cousins add weird harmonies, especially Donny, who has a great voice. That adds to the fun.
Elu hostey, hosteyano, hosteano, me mistraiem, me mitstraiem, hosteano.
Mark interrupts them, speaking loudly. “You realize what we are singing? It’s a war song. A victory song.”
The family’s smiles evaporate.
“What?” Ira barks at him
Mark replies victoriously, “Read the English translation? Dayenu means ‘It would have been enough.’”
Ira takes on the challenge. He reads the translation.
“‘If He had brought us out of Egypt. Dayenu.
“‘If He had executed justice upon the Egyptians. Dayenu.
“‘If He had executed justice upon their gods. Dayenu’—right. So what’s your point? We’re appreciating the gifts God has given us. We are celebrating that our God is the most powerful God, the only real God.”
Happily, Mark replies, “Read the next two.”
Ira begins “‘If He had . . .’”
He stops. Resentfully, he looks at Mark.
Mark takes over, reading triumphantly:
“‘If He had slain their firstborn.’” He raises his voice. “‘Dayenu. It would have been enough.’”
The room is silent. No one knows how to react. Mark continues loudly,
“‘If He had given to us their health and wealth. It would have been enough. If He had drowned the Egyptian army. Dai ye noo.’”
“There goes that song,” Evelyn whispers to CC and Jay.
“And that’s my favorite one,” Jay adds. Jay and his wife, Dora, look at each other, not knowing whether to strike back.
Ira takes over. “So, not just America is an imperialist nation. The ancient Jews were.”
He hesitates before continuing. “They were slaves. They defeated their oppressors. God did it.”
Everyone is waiting for fireworks.
“And we go wahoo. That’s terrific.” Mark snaps at his father.
“It is,” Ira snaps back.
“So the road to Vietnam is ancient.”
Everyone in the room is staring at Mark angrily.
Ira’s voice is raised. “You are full of it, Mr. Pacifist. I’ve seen you watching war movies,” Ira retorts. “When the good guys wipe out the bad guys, I saw how happy that made you.”
“That was before. I don’t watch them anymore.”
Ira voice is raised. “ What you told me yesterday. ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is a war song.”
“It is! Why do we glorify war? There is nothing else to celebrate?”
“Let me tell you something. During the war, the copilot on my plane was from a French family. He used to sing the ‘La Marseillaise,’ France’s national anthem, before every flight.”
Badly mispronouncing his French, Ira sings the refrain:
Aux armes, citoyens
Formez vos bataillons
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!
“You ever watch Frenchmen singing it? They’re not like us with Hebrew. They understand every word. You know what words are making him proud?”
To arms, citizens
Form your battalions
Let us march, let us march!
That their impure blood
Should water our fields!
CC takes Mark’s hand and her father’s.
“Let’s just sing it again. The heck with the Egyptians. The heck with the French.”
“The heck with war,” Mark says to her, demanding seriousness. She drops their hands.
Ira shouts at him, “We were having a nice happy celebration. You’re the one who is the warrior.”
They all look around the room, checking one another out, anything to avoid looking at Mark. They don’t look at Ira, either. As New Yorkers with subway experience, they are well practiced at seeming oblivious. Jay starts singing “Dayenu.” The rest join him, at first tentatively, but by the end the usual gusto returns.
They’re happy they have weathered the storm. Mark is still in the room. But soon they come to the part of the Seder where they are to dip their pinkies into their wineglasses and ceremoniously let a drop of wine land on their plates as they pronounce the 10 plagues. They usually chant this in Hebrew, but Mark repeats the ritual with a loud voice. Chanting in English, he calls out each of the ten plagues that God rained down on the Egyptians as he drops the wine from his pinkie as if it were blood.
Mark throws his pinkie at the plate so that his drop of wine splatters. The others at the table do not continue. They stare at him.
Another drop of wine.
A drop of wine
Ira stops him. “We get your point.”
Mark continues: “Killing—of—their—firstborn,” he chants, as if it is a song.
A drop of wine.
There is nervous silence at the table. When the food comes, the spell continues. No one is hungry with the celebratory hunger they have known. The uncles and aunts and cousins try their best to recapture the holiday spirits, joking and talking like nothing has happen. There is the usual discussion about the matzo balls. Light or heavy? There are proponents of both. Nanny’s were always heavy, substantial—a meal in themselves. Evelyn’s are modern. Hers are light. She explains to her sister-in-laws that otherwise, starting out the meal, they are too filling.
Until now, even with Mark’s irreverence over the last few years, the eating part of the Seder has remained a happy occasion. He could be ignored. It was possible even to laugh at his jokes. This year also, hoping to rescue the evening, there are satisfied expressions on everyone’s faces as they taste the soup, eat the brisket, finish up with honey cake, and, best of all, pass around the candy that only appears after the Seder. Barton’s and Barricini’s chocolates, chocolate-covered jelly rings and marshmallows. Ira watches the children gobble it up, taking special satisfaction that he can afford such luxuries. When he was growing up, his parents’ table lacked these goodies. Once or twice, there was a box of Barricini’s. They were each allowed one chocolate, so he had learned what the cherry-filled chocolate looked like. No such problem here. Even Mark is happy with the abundance of delicious candy.
Seeing that he has calmed down, hoping the worst is over, Ira makes one final attempt to enlist Mark. He speaks with kindness in his voice. “Mark. If you want to be part of the family, you need to embrace us. That includes our Seder.”
“But it’s all about war.” Mark answers, trying to be reasonable and fair.
“No, it’s about us getting freed from slavery—God coming to our rescue. Like Hanukkah. The Maccabees fought and won, and God made the oil last seven days. It was a sign from Him that He was there. He been with them all along. God’s being there for you means everything to a soldier. It did for me when I was flying during World War Two. The miracle of the oil lasting seven days told the celebrating army that God had guided them to victory. It’s always been a happy holiday. Can you get into the spirit of that?”
“Yeah, Purim. Another war holiday. It wasn’t just Haman who got foiled. The Jews killed seventy-five thousand Persians. Happy? Yeah. Killing our enemies.”
“Where did you get that?”
“Look it up!” he shouts.
“Your grandmother is here. Can you think of her for a moment?”
Nanny is sitting silently. Her handkerchief dabs at her lips.
Silently, the thought flashes through CC’s mind. Mark, don’t do it. Don’t do it.
“Why, is she going to pinch me?”
“That is quite enough for one evening,” Ira tells his son. “If you don’t want to celebrate Passover, stop coming to our Seder!”
Mark gets up from the table and heads for his room. Evelyn is not far behind.
“I won’t,” Mark shouts from the staircase.
“Good!” Ira shouts back.
And he doesn’t for many, many years.