A California Seder
By John Susman
I hate Passover.
Some people think of it as the Jewish Thanksgiving. Not me. I never look forward to it.
You may ask: How can anyone hate a holiday where you drink four cups of wine, eat delicious food, tell stories and sing songs? In a word: relatives. If it weren’t for relatives, Passover would be a different holiday. I might even enjoy it.
Somehow a celebration of our release from bondage turned into an insufferable celebration of bragging rights. This one’s son got into that college, and that one is building a new house, and that one just sold his business and is moving to Florida.
No more Seders, I fantasized, after I got married. But it only got worse.
It happened to be my wife’s favorite holiday. “How can you not like it?” she would ask. But as much as I tried to suppress the distasteful memories, the holiday only became more of a source of controversy and contention. There were arguments over everything--not with me--but with my folks.
Let me explain.
My wife grew up in a more Conservative household and was used to doing things differently. She sang the songs in Hebrew. We sang them in English. She went through the Haggadah from beginning to end. We skipped stuff. She ate brisket. We ate chicken.
And then there were the Haggadahs themselves. My wife didn’t like ours--too much English. This prompted endless discussions over which one to use. This one had too little Hebrew, this one was too modern, that one was too short, that one was too long.
Finally, in an effort to settle the fights (disagreements is too nice a word for it), we all went to Passover Therapy. That’s what my dad called it, anyway. It seemed to be the only hope.
So as we sat there, my wife, my folks, the therapist and I--a strange thing happened. I had gotten about halfway through my spiel to this family counselor (my tale of woe, revulsion and loathing for this holiday and the ensuing fights, controversies, and battles over seemingly trivial stuff), when I realized that it all meant nothing to her.
“It’s only a meal.” I could see the thought flashing behind her eyes like a neon sign in an empty diner. “Why have these people come to me to argue about a meal?”
The therapist had come highly recommended from a mutual friend. “Dr. Goldstein is terrific. If anyone can help solve your problem, she can.”
Only one thing--she wasn’t Jewish. Turned out, she had divorced Mr. Goldstein many years ago, and he had been completely secular.
“I’m trying to understand,” she said. “I’ve never been to a Passover meal.”
“A Seder,” my mother said.
“A Seder,” said Dr. Goldstein. “You eat matzoh.”
My father and mother looked at me as if they were having to explain the facts of life to a child.
It had been a real effort to get them there in the first place. They were not therapy types. Now, with this revelation of total ignorance, they began to lose any faith at all in the process, or that things would ever be resolved.
“The Last Supper was a Seder,” my dad said, attempting to help. I don’t think he wanted to be condescending, but it came out that way.
“Yes, of course. I think I knew that,” said Goldstein, fingering the silver crucifix around her neck.
“It recounts the story of the Jews in Egypt under Pharaoh,” my dad said.
“Have you seen the movie Exodus?” asked my mother, trying to help.
“Mom,” I said, “that’s Paul Newman. World War Two. The refugee ship.”
“Oh, right. What am I thinking of?”
“Charlton Heston. Moses. Cecil B. DeMille.”
“I can’t believe that gun-nut played Moses.”
“We’re getting a little off-track here,” said Goldstein. “I think I’m familiar with the Exodus story.”
“Good,” said my mother. “Now just add food.”
It went on this way for the better part of an hour. Unfortunately, I can’t say any of us felt better afterward.
Ultimately, however, we somehow seemed to resolve the most egregious points of controversy.
Then, as if answering a cry for help, our synagogue offered a one-day Haggadah class, introducing a new, modern Haggadah with lots of pictures and color printing. My wife insisted we go. “You want to fight about this for the rest of our lives?” So we took the class and bought a box of the new books. In a way, it was throwing money at the problem, but now we are a one-Haggadah family. The controversy over food and songs continues, but at least it has gotten more muted.
Perhaps it was this background that led me to adapt Menasha Epstein’s latest novel, The Easter Massacre, for the silver screen. My agent had sent me the book, a dreary historical novel about the Marranos--Spanish Jews who hid their Judaism during and after the Spanish Inquisition. They became New Christians or Conversos, in order to fulfill the edicts of the Alhambra Decree, which made Catholicism the official religion.
I suppose it was the subject matter that attracted my agent. I had mentioned to him the Passover therapy, which he thought hilarious (after telling me about the fights in his own family), and when the book became a project, he immediately thought of me.
My agent appreciated irony.
The novel was based on a historical incident that occurred in Portugal in 1506, when the local populace rose up against the New Christians, Conversos and Crypto-Jews. I opened the book somewhere toward the end and began to read:
The knock came no sooner than had João Rodrigo Mascarenhas begun the Four Questions: Why is this night different from all other nights? The knock came on the front door. His young granddaughter, Cristina, who had just turned eight, had been practicing the Hebrew for weeks, secretly, between her communion lessons, and had repeated the answer perfectly to her mother as she helped set the Passover table, the hand-inlaid mother-of-pearl and rosewood dining table that they had been allowed to take with their personal possessions when they had fled Spain so many years ago. The table had been his grandfather’s, and then his father’s.
João Rodrigo Mascarenhas scratched his silver beard. It was unusual for someone to call after the dinner hour. But there had been rumors, rumors that certain New Christians had slaughtered animals “in accordance with the Jewish custom” and “had prepared unleavened bread and bitter herbs,” as if preparing for the festival of Passover.
The servants gossiped, but then they always gossiped. But there was also the plague that had killed so many. Surely God was resentful and was punishing the people for allowing the Jews to convert to Christianity--or appear to convert--but practice their true religion in secret. Now the Dominicans had begun to incite the people to rid themselves of these heretics.
“Who,” I asked my agent, “is going to pay to watch this?” Not to worry, he assured me. The star who was interested in it was a recent disciple of the Hollywood school of Kabbalah, thus his interest in all things Jewish. After starring in a surprisingly successful pirate movie, he had, on a day off from filming in Jamaica, been taken to a museum and learned that many pirates had been Jewish, including the notorious Jean Lafitte.
But why he had chosen this depressing novel is anyone’s guess. It was slated to be a big Hollywood movie and my agent had lined up meetings with the producer and star. So I flew to California.
Coincidentally, the meetings were scheduled during the week of Passover. Hollywood being Hollywood, and given the nature of the project, there seemed to be a logical disconnect. But then we live in a Gentile world.
For me it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity--to miss our family Seder. My wife was not excited, to say the least, but she understood that it was business. So after much wrangling, arguing, and again--controversy--she decided to join me. It would be the first time we would not have Seder as a family since before we got married. But not having a Seder at all was not in the cards.
“We can’t just go to Spago,” my wife said. “In the middle of a Jewish holiday, do you want to be served by Wolfgang?”
“How about Canter’s Deli?” I asked. “They have good chicken soup.”
My wife rolled her eyes. “We’re not having a Seder with strangers.” So we settled on having our own Seder in the hotel room. Matzoh, gefilte fish, and horseradish from Nate n’ Al’s, and a good Napa Kosher Chardonnay--and of course our own Hagaddah. No further discussion, argument or debate. Such a pleasant change. It might even be fun.
But, as fate would have it, the airline managed to lose our luggage packed with the Haggadahs. Upon our arrival at the hotel, a message awaited us--from the airline, I hoped. It turned out, however, to be from my aunt and uncle in the Valley. They’d heard we were in town. Could we join them for their Seder?
I hadn’t seen my aunt and uncle since high school when, on a cross-country road trip after graduation, a friend and I had shown up at their house, unannounced, and found them in their hot tub with some friends--all nude. The next morning, after we had been invited to stay the night, there were Polaroids scattered from the night before--also nude, of them all.
It was a little surprising, considering their esteemed place in family lore. My uncle was a big-time plastic surgeon to the stars, and my aunt was an interior designer to them. He did the body, she did the house--that was the running line. I guess you just didn’t announce to the world: “Hey, we’re also nudists!” Not that it mattered to anyone, unless you were to show up at their house, as we did, with no advance warning.
Twenty years later, I was hoping it was all a thing of the past and that they had forgotten about it. They’d invited us, after all, which I took as positive.
There would be no Haggadahs this year, my aunt informed us (she had actually misplaced them). All of the guests were to bring a short piece of writing that they would read aloud at the Seder. The piece of writing didn’t have to have anything to do with Passover. Whatever we wanted.
In one stroke, my aunt had solved the Seder controversy. No Haggadah, no service, nothing. Just do your own thing. It was so California, so laid back.
Their house, as I remembered it, was like a mini-castle, with turrets and spires. No dungeon, however. Instead, my uncle had built a full-size hockey rink in the basement. It took up the entire footprint of the house. He had played on the hockey team at Harvard, not unlike Ryan O’Neal in Love Story. He had wanted his son to play, and thought it might help, being in L.A., if they had their own rink. Unfortunately tennis took over, and hockey never stood a chance.
Now, at their unique Seder, the line-up of guests included my other uncle, Harry, whom I also hadn’t seen in years (and there was a good reason for that too), and a couple of ex-cultists my aunt and uncle had befriended. Joel and Renee had made a fortune after leaving the cult, and my aunt had recently decorated their palatial home.
All families have their black sheep. My Uncle Harry had recently spent time in a Club Fed for mail fraud (one of the reasons I hadn’t seen him for so long). He brought along his new Gentile girlfriend, who would later become his fifth wife. His first wife had been a nice, Jewish girl. After her, all Gentile. My aunt called him a serial monogamist.
The other family, the ex-cultists, were Jewish by birth. Joel and Renee had met in the cult. Joel had learned from the yogi how to make their homemade energy bar, which was how the cult made money. Later, after Joel and Renee had been rescued by deprogrammers, he tweaked the formula, and developed it into the most successful energy bar in the country. He had recently sold out to Nestlé.
All of this was related to me by my aunt as she prepared the Seder dinner in her kitchen.
Without a Haggadah, I wondered aloud, how would we pace the four cups of wine? No one drank in their household, my aunt announced, so there would be no wine. Problem solved. But thanks anyway for the lovely Napa Kosher Chardonnay.
There would also be no historical reference to being slaves in Egypt under Pharaoh (not PC). No Four Questions, no Four Sons, or the singing of “Ha-gad-yo.” All gone. In their place were the speeches we had brought, the little scraps of writing.
With no Haggadah, there was no story, which seemed to leave a rather large hole in the evening--not that I’m some religious fanatic. On the contrary, I tend to go in the opposite direction.
Joel and Renee, the former cult couple, having renounced their former anti-materialistic days, had just bought a new BMW. Their son, Randy, had been in the car since they had arrived and would not get out and come into the Seder. So there was an empty seat for him at the table, right next to the one for the prophet, Elijah.
We gave our speeches and finished the meal. Uncle Harry brought with him an excerpt from The Rules of Golf which he read with uncommon vigor (he probably should have been an actor, but then he was one, if you count being a con man a full-time gig).
Before dessert and coffee, Joel went out to check on Randy, and I joined him on the premise of seeing his new car. It was a large black BMW. The new models seem to get bigger every year. The doors were open in the back to let the air in. It was a hot day in April, and the sun in the Valley was unrelenting.
“How’s it going out here?” Joel asked. There was no answer from the sprawled figure on the rear seat. “You wanna come in? Randy? Come on. I want you to meet someone. He’s right here.”
“Hi,” I said, trying to help.
Somehow, this all had to do with the car. Randy had wanted silver, his father wanted black.
Uncle Harry came outside for a smoke. “What’s up?” he asked, wandering over, cigarette in hand. He had a gold case he took it from. Unfiltered Camels. He tapped each end on the gold case before lighting it elegantly with a beautiful gold lighter. He took a long drag before exhaling through his nose. “Nice set of wheels,” he said, indicating the new car. “Yours?” I shook my head and pointed to Joel, who was on the other side of the car. Harry nodded. “You don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself.”
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Bullshit,” said Harry. “You have a look of disapproval. I’ve seen it all evening.” Harry had a fool-proof B.S. meter.
“Okay. It’s a little weird,” I said.
“You didn’t like my excerpt from The Rules of Golf?” Harry gave me a knowing smile, like I was in on the joke. “I liked your poem.”
“Thanks,” I said. “It just feels like something’s missing. And I’m the last person I’d expect to say that. I kind of forget the story, you know, the details?”
Harry looked at me, and exhaled a cloud of smoke off to one side. “When I was away at camp,” that was his euphemism for his Club Fed stay, “we didn’t have a Seder. And you know what? I couldn’t have cared less.” He dropped the butt of his cigarette on the driveway and smashed it out with a tasseled loafer. “We’ve remembered for five thousand years, and what’s it gotten us? The Spanish Inquisition. The Russian pogroms. Hitler--worse than Pharaoh: enslaved the Jews and tried to exterminate us.”
Harry, with his deep baritone, had great authority when he spoke. He also tended to put things in black and white. The combination made him extremely persuasive. I suppose that’s one of the things that had made him such a good con man.
“The walls of the concentration camps never parted like the sea did for Moses. Don’t ask me what my folks were thinking in there while they tried to keep the Seder, ‘cause I haven’t a clue.”
Harry’s parents, now dead, had survived the camps. They had been to all of our family Seders while they were alive. Harry now had the look of someone taken in--a con man conned. “It’s a nice story, the ten plagues and all that crap, if you want to believe it.” Then he smiled that winning smile of his, like you and he shared some special bond. It was a magical smile that inspired confidence, his life’s blood.
“You can keep the matzoh,” he said. “It makes me constipated. But I’m a sucker for gefilte fish and a good bowl of chicken soup.” Harry was still smiling as he walked back to the house.
At least Harry had invited his new girlfriend. The only Gentile, she would experience a Seder--even though all she got was a passage from The Rules of Golf. Maybe that was Harry’s plan. Spread the word. Be ecumenical. Invite a Gentile to Passover.
“That was bizarre,” said my wife. We were driving back to the hotel along Sunset in the dark. “That was like seeing a really bad play and leaving after the first act. It was so… incomplete.”
I mumbled some acknowledgement. Truth is, I was having trouble concentrating on what she was saying. I was driving and trying to remember the story of the Exodus, which had somehow completely floated out of my mind. Having suffered through Sunday school, four years of Hebrew school, a horrific bar mitzvah and untold family Seders, I couldn’t get the details of the story straight, and it was starting to drive me crazy.
In the hotel room would be salvation, I comforted myself. The Gideons would come through for me. When we got to the room, I searched for the Bible like my Uncle Harry might have looked for a desperate smoke, but whoever had stayed in the room before us had swiped it, or perhaps the maid had simply forgotten to replace it. Damn them, I thought. How dare they take my Bible! I was ready to pick up the phone and complain to the management--when my eye encountered the book on the dresser--The Easter Massacre--the very reason I was in L.A. and having meetings all day tomorrow.
I picked up the book and began to page through it, looking for something about the story of Passover.
It was such a depressing read. Why would anyone would want to see this movie? Who would be the audience? Surely, they would have to change the title, which made it sound like a crappy horror film.
It was not so much the story, however, but the tone of the book that was unrelievedly grim. How would I tell the producers? They must have known this, or were they so taken in by the star’s power that they didn’t care? But then, he would do a “pay-day” movie after this to make up for the losses.
I opened the book, paged through it almost to the end, and began to read:
So when the knock came, it was not the surprise it might have been. The large oak door shook with a thunderous fury. João Rodrigo Mascarenhas looked at his assembled family, his three sons, his two daughters, their husbands and wives and children. They had built a life in that house, still one of the largest and most ornate in Lisbon, with its hand-carved wooden ceilings, oriental carpets, and Italian marble fireplaces. He was one of the wealthiest men in Lisbon, and his business supported them all and more.
He was the envy of many, which made João Rodrigo Mascarenhas hated by the less fortunate, the less wealthy, the ones who felt they had been mistreated in his business deals or who had gotten too low a price for their goods which he would later resell at a profit. But that was the way tax farming had been since Roman times. It was his duty, and it was his capital, gold that he had secreted into Portugal after fleeing the Inquisition, and it was a business, like any other. He was tough but fair in his dealings, as one had to be, but there were resentments as in any other business. “Why should this New Christian, this newcomer, gain such wealth so quickly, while we, who have been here for generations, live like slaves?”
João Rodrigo Mascarenhas nodded to the old Spanish servant Mauricio to open the door. He had been with the family since he was a boy, and had come with them when they had fled Spain. Now in his seventies (but no one was exactly sure how old he was), Mauricio limped to the door. He unlatched the sliding bolt and swung the massive door in.
Like a horde of wasps attacking its prey, the crowd swarmed in, dragging the mud and filth of the streets with them. They smelled of sweat and fire and liquor. They were led by a Dominican friar, crucifix in hand who read out the charges in a droning voice: “João Rodrigo Mascarenhas, you are charged with the slaughtering of animals in accordance with the Jewish custom, eating bitter herbs and unleavened bread, also in accordance with the Jewish Festival of Passover--all while being a baptized Christian--heretical acts against our Lord Jesus Christ. Your apostasy and that of your people has caused a great plague to descend on us, killing thousands. We must be rid of you and all your like forever.” He said a few words in Latin, followed by an “Amen.”
João Rodrigo Mascarenhas and his family, his wife, his sons and daughters and their children, even the old servant Mauricio, who was not now nor had ever been Jewish, were dragged into the streets. There the crowd beat them with sticks and stones, while others pillaged the house.
Later, they set fire to the house, where it burned for an entire day. João Rodrigo Mascarenhas and his family and servants were also burned, some dead, some alive, upon a great pyre, along with hundreds of other Marranos, New Christians, and Conversos. The rioting, killing, raping and looting lasted for three days, and by the end of the Easter Massacre, as it came to be known, nearly four thousand had been slaughtered.
I closed the book and put it down softly. Tomorrow was the second night of Passover. There was still time. I would find a Haggadah.
Copyright © John Susman 2012
John Susman is the author of the plays Nelson & Simone (Live Bait Theater), Tiger Treadwell Takes Tinseltown (Uprising Playwright’s Award, Los Angeles Theatre Unit) and Café Society (Heideman Award Finalist, Circle Theatre). A graduate of the University of Chicago, he was Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s first literary manager. He wrote and directed the award-winning film Making the Man, screened in over a dozen international film festivals. His screenplay, Game Day, received an Illinois Arts Council award and was selected into the Independent Feature Project Film Market in New York. He is currently working on a production of the film (gamedaymovie.com).