Passover with the Marcus Family – Susan Phillips

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“Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?” chanted the youngest boy at the table in a sing-song voice. He paused for a moment and stared at his mother, who nodded slightly. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” He looked around the crowded room.

In the silence Wyatt turned to Sadie. “Do you know why it’s different?” he whispered. Sadie kicked him under the table. “Shh.” Tall, blonde and blue-eyed, Wyatt knew he looked different from anyone else at the celebration. All the Marcus family members had black hair and dark eyes. Compared to Wyatt, all the men were short.

“Sheb’khol haleilot anu okhlin hametz umatzah; halailah hazeh, kuloh matzah,” the boy continued. “On all other nights we eat leavened products and matzah, and on this night only matzah.” Now Wyatt stared. He had no idea what matzah was. What did Sadie’s family expect him to eat tonight?

The boy continued his chant. “Sheb’khol haleilot anu okhlin sh’ar y’rakot; halailah hazeh, maror. On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, and on this night only bitter herbs.”

Wyatt remembered many a hungry day when all he’d had to eat was a strong onion or two. Some had been almost strong enough to bring a tear to his eye. So far tonight he hadn’t really had anything to eat, though everyone at the table had drained a cup of overly sweet wine. Sadie had warned him not to ask for whiskey. Apparently, that would have upset her parents, and he didn’t want to do that, certainly not tonight. Though Sadie had promised they would eat a lavish meal, so far all he’d been offered was a sprig of parsley dipped in salt water.

“Sheb’khol haleilot ein anu matbilin afilu pa’am ehat; halailah hazeh, shtei f’amim. On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, and on this night, we dip twice.” Stumbling over a word, the boy looked at his mother again. She smiled, nodded her head and he continued to chant.

“Sheb’khol haleilot anu okhlin bein yoshvin uvein m’subin; halailah hazeh, kulanu m’subin. On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night, we only recline.” He wasn’t quite reclining, but Wyatt certainly felt more comfortable in his plush chair than he had at many meals. He had squatted near fires in the prairies and had sat on many a rickety wooden chair or stool. Here he could stretch out his long legs.

Sadie’s father, Henry Marcus, a middle-aged man dressed in a somewhat shabby formal suit, nodded proudly at his grandson. “Beautiful, beautiful. Your weeks of study paid off.” Henry cleared his throat and began to read from the small book in his hands. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

Wyatt frowned. Sadie, he knew, had been born in New York and traveled with her family to San Francisco, where the entire family now lived. Her father was from Prussia. He spoke English with such a thick accent that often Wyatt had no idea what the old man was saying. So he would just nod and smile. Well, that was fine. Wyatt had never been a talkative man. Henry kept reading from his tattered book, mostly in Hebrew, sometimes in English. Much of what he read was about slavery. Wyatt had met some former slaves in his life; a few had even fled the South before the Civil War and gotten as far as Illinois and Iowa, when his own family was living there. As Henry read, Wyatt remembered a song one young boy had taught him:

Follow the drinking gourd,

Follow the drinking gourd,

For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom,

Follow the drinking gourd.

The boy had escaped one night and traveled with a group of other runaways. They were following the drinking gourd. Facing the Big Dipper in the night sky, they saw the North Star and followed it north to freedom. Wyatt had loved that song; he had sung it over and over as his brothers James and Virgil left to join the Union army. He sang it each time he tried to run away and join the army himself, at thirteen. He sang it each time his father found him and dragged him back home. He smiled at the memory and unconsciously began humming the tune.

“Shh.” Sadie kicked him again under the table. Wyatt looked up. Everyone else had raised a glass of wine. Wyatt picked up his glass, listened as Henry sang in his off-key voice and then drank along with the rest of the party. Henry sang again and passed around pieces of a wafer that tasted like burnt cardboard. Then came a thin slice of horseradish so bitter its taste startled Wyatt.

The women all stood and Wyatt rose politely until Sadie pushed his shoulder down. The women walked into the kitchen and returned carrying huge platters of meat and vegetables and plates of more wafers, which Sadie called matzah. Wyatt settled down comfortably to eat dinner. This was Wyatt Earp’s first Seder and so far he had enjoyed it.

 

Susan Phillips is a Boston area writer, teacher, photographer and graphic designer, whose work has been published in many newspapers and magazines. Her short stories have been printed over twelve magazines, including Living Text, Red Wheelbarrow, Wild Violet, IdioM, Perspectives Magazine, Poetica and All the Women Followed Her. She is currently working on an historical novel about King Agrippa I and three collections of short stories: one about women in the Hebrew Bible, another about Talmudic figures and a collection of fairy tales.

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