Kadesh and Urchatz: Wine, Hand Washing
I’m making 25 an hour plus tip, but I forgot seder starts with a cup of wine. Now they’ve said the blessing and I’m still fumbling with the cork. While they found seats, they argued about the Hebrew pronunciation of “egg.” Up here, people tread Jewishness like solid ground. Not like home, where it’s fluid and marshlike, something you made up as you go. These people do stumble a little, know how to say “egg” but aren’t quite sure how to pronounce the vowel (“betzah?” “No, baytzah,”). It’s a hint of that searching I’ve seen a billion times in Jackson. Arching in to test the space. Every time my dad says hamotzi at Shabbat dinner, his face brittle, halfway between ironic and tender, impossible to look at.
I see shoulders, hand gestures, a strip of person-ness between counter and cabinets while I check the gefilte fish and the salad for the vegetarians. Melanie’s at the head of the table. Then there’s their daughter Ilana, and her boyfriend with his resonant voice, and Anne who worked with Melanie. The Russian woman from across the hall, the vegetarians from upstate. Dave rules the foot.
“So, Sophie, you Jew or gentile?” He’d asked me before the guests came, while we carried chairs.
“Jew.” I felt breathless, unfinished.
Karpas and Yachatz: Dipping herbs, Breaking the middle matzah
The Gulf Coast gets swallowed sometimes: hurricanes mingling salt and freshwater on the street, against the windows of parked cars. Saltwater. Is it the tears of the Israelites? The Egyptians? I can’t remember. Would I know if I’d grown up here, instead of down South singing “Silent Night” in the school Christmas concert?
“Okay!” Says Dave while bowls of saltwater clatter to a stop, “Now we break the middle matzah!”
You can tell Melanie is still in love with him, the way she inclines her head when he talks. When I got here, Dave showed me his liquor cabinet, and the laminated list of whiskeys and rums. “Can you spell obsessive,” Melanie had clucked.
“Who’s gonna find the afikomen?” Dave asks.
“Me,” jokes Ilana. “What’s my prize?”
“What about dinner with your dad on Monday?”
“Dad! We’re already doing that!”
“Well, I’m cheap.” Says Dave. Everyone laughs. I catch my mouth smiling behind the counter, then feel perverted, partaking of this moment that isn’t mine.
Maggid: The Story
“We’re doing the abridged version of the story,” Dave declares. Good. You can’t trust people who don’t rush on through to eat. The dishwasher steams on my glasses when I open it. Back home, we do seder on the porch. Mosquitoes swoop. The air is steam, not empty space.
They sing Dayenu in Hebrew and then English.
“had he led us out of Egypt,
only led us out of Egypt,
had he led us out of Egypt
Mawmaw knows the chorus, only because it’s just that, “dayenu” repeated five times. It would have been enough it would have been enough it would have been enough. Her accent cradles each word, rocks it back and forth. I curdle when she bounces the Hebrew on her tongue with that same mushiness my dad has during hamotzi.
My friends talk about Jewish ancestors marching for justice in the streets and sweatshops of Manhattan, but my family didn’t join unions in New York when they came over, didn’t come after the Holocaust, either: they slipped through the port of New Orleans and scuttled as far as they could into Southernness. Had friends with last names like Goldman and Rabinowitz but first names like Nancy and Diane. Saved up to put an organ in the synagogue. Mawmaw was as shocked as anyone when my mom announced she’d Bat Mitzvah Leah and I and keep kosher.
Still. You aren’t meant to teach your parents tradition. We’re backwards— if I lean too far they won’t pull me back, might not even notice. I’ll tumble.And it’s my own heart that folds when my dad stands for an aliyah and gives the gabbai a fake Hebrew name for his father. He says his gravely. His parents didn’t have Hebrew names and mine plucked theirs from books.
Rachtzah: Ritual Hand-washing
Everyone rises except for the Russian woman, who smiles at them all like children going off to sleep. I step aside and feel warm bodies while they crowd the sink and mutter a blessing. There was the time my mom went to the rabbi’s for shabbat dinner and realized that all these years we’d neglected washing, gone straight from wine to challah. She tried to cram it into our routine. Leah and I declined. We nested in candlelight with Dad, complaining about dress code and driver’s ed while Mom sprang up to wash. Probably without the blessing.
Now here I am thinking: they neglected this tradition! Had a two-handled hand-washing cup hanging, unused, over the sink! Yet next time I’m in Mississippi I’ll cringe when she goes to wash. Angry for being raised without tradition embedded in the floorboards, then embarrassed when she tries to put it there. All for the want of a few frayed memories (a step stool to reach the sink, hands clasping a too-big cup).
They sit, silent. Except one of the vegetarians, who says
“Did anyone see about that Kushner kid-” and his wife stage-whispers,
“You can’t talk until the matzah.” He claps a hand over his mouth. But Melanie says,
“What a shanda, hmm?” As if that Jew in the White House, (kippah pebbling the front page while he sits beside his father-in-law) needs to be scrubbed from our lips this second while we wash the skin of their hands. This boiling-red vein coursing from Jackson to Manhattan, this shame we share, settling on the seder plate.
Motzi & Matzah: Blessing and eating the matzah
Dave’s throwing matzah fragments, trying to get them into his daughter’s mouth. He’s undeterred, though she has yet to catch one and has bonked heads with her boyfriend trying.
Shame’s dripping down the sink now. I run the garbage disposal to shove it down until the night ends, but even at $25 an hour I don’t think I can keep it from congealing again, arriving on the table with dessert. We all know it’s here, are just ignoring it for now—right? They must hear it too, quivering and smelly like a scared animal. And it’s stinking up my parents’ table down in Jackson.
Maror and Korech: Bitter Herbs
“Just a little. I fucking hate maror. Should’ve left it in the shtetl.” Says Ilana.
Her boyfriend laughs, spoons a miniscule bit onto her matzah. “You’re ok with gefilte fish but you won’t eat a little horseradish?”
The Jackson rabbis, imported from New York, were the only ones to care about kashrut. Couldn’t eat a thing: no shrimp, no road trips to New Orleans for Gumbo. The kosher hot dogs at baseball games came on dairy buns— so none of those. I pitied them but now I see they were holding out to come back home to New York or L.A. They have kosher restaurants here, not just one but a few, pizza places, Chinese food, bakeries.
What I know about being Jewish I learned in slivers. Like the Four Questions, in second grade— Ms. Ellen saying, “again… one more time… !” in the back of the synagogue. I recited them in the kitchen like I’d brought home a gift, whatever Mom missed in the ‘50’s hoisting Christmas trees up in the living room. It’s only tonight I think: her amazement had to have been feigned, for my benefit. Yet it’s hard to tell what they’re faking as they go along.
Anyway, after a few hours of blessing and eating watterlogged parsley, the maror is the best thing anyone’s ever tasted; the table clamors in delight. Jews are all about delayed gratification— a feast from a cracker and a bitter herb. The South’s for living to eat, planning dinner over a long lunch. I mean, who wouldn’t be confused?
Shulchan Orech: The Meal
And here’s the gratification! Ok: put the gefilte fish on the table, and the sad salad. When they’re done passing those, grab the chicken. The pieces pile in an earthenware bowl— I’ve been pretending to be a vegetarian lately, but these jumbled parts look so motherly. I want to wrap the oily skin over my shoulders and sleep.
Ari will be asleep when I get home; he’s in a rebellious phase and is skipping seder. When you’re the son of a rabbi, that’s not unsafe to do: you can’t really fall. So I’ll nudge him and climb in, shivering, and when he wakes he’ll say, “How was it,” and I’ll say, “weird.”
Tzafun: The Afikomen
Dave is pretending to hide the afikomen behind his back, and everyone pretends not to know, laughing and plunging their heads up and down in a dance of searching. Melanie kills the game. Snatches it on her way back from the bathroom.
That weekend last summer with my parents, my mom quizzed Ari in the backseat— how was it keeping Shabbat growing up? Does he have tips? I stayed quiet. We’d never kept shabbat, I’d never heard “You can’t go to a movie, it’s shabbos,” as Ari had. Wasn’t Mom supposed to have done that? Yet her empty-nester’s desire to collect Jewish restrictions felt wrong. She and I envy the way some people weave them seamlessly into their weeks, but our envy means it can’t be seamless for us.
“Sorry,” I said to him, when we’d parked.
“Happens all the time,” Ari told me.
Barech and Hallel: Grace and Songs
Dave’s leafing through his haggadah again. Are they really going to get all the way through? He lets it fall closed, though, leans over to chat with Anne. Time to clear. Melanie jumps up to help, and once Melanie’s up they all are, crowding the kitchen, stacking their plates. Doesn’t matter where you are, Jews can’t stay put. Ilana’s boyfriend clutches Melanie’s hand near where I scrub.
“I always feel so welcome here,” he says. They hug. Then he and Ilana squeeze out the door; Dave stands over me to dump farro salad in the sink, over shreds of that old shame. He rumbles, “Tell old farro… let my people go.”
“Shit.” Says Melanie.
I look over. She points to the candles stubs. They’ve oozed wax over the tablecloth so it’s woven into the fabric. I walk over and give it a few tugs but it’s stuck. She grabs ice cubes from the freezer and hands me one, sits across the table and holds the ice to a chunk of wax. Dave’s in bed. Everyone’s in bed, or on the subway, swaying in late-night stillness.
“This makes it brittle, and that makes it easier to get it off,” Melanie announces. “I’m a cell biologist, you know, so this is just like the lab.”
“Oh, wow. That’s so cool.” I feel bad for assuming she was just a sweet Jewish grandma. I still can’t talk to her without a kind of cooing, which also makes me feel bad, so we fall to focus, chipping at the white mounds. We’re the only people in New York, afloat in a fourth-floor cube of light with ice melting on our fingertips.
When we’ve done all we can, Melanie hands me a check for $200, a tupperware of potato kugel and a Duane Reade bag full of plastic cutlery. The kind you get with takeout, in the plastic pouch with a napkin. “You’ll use plastic forks, right?” She asks.
“Absolutely,” I say, because it’s a gift. She slips me, too, a little of that shame jiggling in the drain. Carving it up so nobody feels its weight too much, but it tugs from the bottom of the Duane Reade bag. I’ll be home soon, wake Ari, but I’ll leave the shame in the bag for a bit.
The elevator carries me. We’ll microwave the kugel, eat it in bed and watch Lost. A seder of our own, our order laid out unspoken each night. Three floors more. Dayenu. Dayenu. Dayenu. Dayenu.