By Varda Fiszbein
Translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
Intuition or luck? The opportunity was in his hands and he knew how to seize it.
The fact is that he guessed someone like my grandfather could only react as he did.
In a God-fearing man, one respectful of Mosaic Law, the sense of tradition prevails even above feelings.
He may not have been rich, but every year when the Pesach festivities rolled around, he would conduct his Seder surrounded by his family like a king.
Elegant in his dark suit, with a gold chain draped across his chest, he sits in an armchair at the head of the table as if it were a throne, his head resting on a cushion designed especially for that day, a cushion on which the Star of David, delicately embroidered, stands out against a blue velvet background.
At the other end of the table, wearing an expression that betrays the fatigue resulting from the turmoil of several days’ preparation, sits his wife, wearing a soft, black silk dress. She has chosen the correct place, opposite her husband and close to the door, because throughout the course of the evening she will make many visits to the kitchen, hurriedly transporting bowls and trays laden with steaming mounds of delicacies. Comings and goings that will leave damp little tracks on the skin of her décolleté and accentuate the tense furrows beneath the rice powder with which her daughter has tried to conceal the intense redness of her mother’s cheeks. The three older sons will occupy their customary seats, accompanied by their wives and offspring. They will look happy and well-groomed.
Perhaps at some point in the evening one of the little ones will lift the hem of the embroidered linen tablecloth, squeaky with starch, confirming that this year, once again, nearly all the women have called a truce with their feet by slipping off their new shoes.
Raquelita, the youngest, will sit to the right of the head of the table, as befits the princess of the house. Light of their eyes, balm of her father’s old age, flower of her mother’s yearnings. An unexpected, only daughter on whom she has bestowed the name of the Patriarch Jacob’s wife.
Many are the expectations her progenitors hold for her. Intimate, unconfessed illusions: that her lovely dark eyes, her slender fingers, trained through long hours at the piano, her wispy, almost adolescent figure might succeed in attracting a young man from a wealthier family than her own; though, should the situation arise, a somewhat older, but wise, gentleman, well-connected in worldly, cultured circles, would not be frowned upon either.
The unmarried son will sit beside his mother. On this occasion it will be his honor to fulfill the duties of hospitality, which are regarded so favorably in the eyes of the Almighty. With his sister’s joyous complicity, he will be responsible for choosing a guest. Someone who – poor soul – does not have the good fortune to share the Pesach meal with his own people. The son will count on his family’s approval because the guest will have already visited their home and shared moments of leisure with the youngest sons and exchanged polite greetings with the parents.
Forty light bulbs on the enormous chandelier suspended from the middle of the ceiling illuminate its carved crystal arms, projecting line and color, hitherto unremarked, on the silverware, an effect achieved thanks to the diligence of the daughters-in-law, who came over the night before to help with cleaning.
The delicate aroma of gefilte fish and stewed meat blend together and waft toward all corners of the house, caressing the diners’ senses along the way.
In his role as king, my grandfather presides over the rites with great precision, ensuring that in the middle of the table, equidistant from all the place settings, meticulously arranged on porcelain dishes, are the bitter herbs that must be eaten as a reminder and a lesson for the youngest ones of the hardships suffered by the Hebrew people when they were forced to live the bitterness of exile and slavery at Pharaoh’s court.
The glorious saga will be read from the Haggadah, which tells of how the Magnanimous One sent Moses to liberate his brethren, for which we must be eternally grateful, since otherwise we would not yet be free.
The celebration proceeds uninterrupted with the reading of the Haggadah, followed by everything from soup to nuts and topped off by exquisite desserts, gladdening flesh and spirit.
Four times the glasses will be raised in unison, the last time to welcome the Prophet Elijah , encouraging his spirit to visit such a pious home.
Just as tradition demands, after dining my grandfather will give the order to search for the afikoman that he had hidden earlier that evening. A rectangular piece of unleavened bread, the whitest and crunchiest, the most delicious part of the matzoh, evoking the kind of bread the Hebrews were obliged to take with them when they hurriedly fled Egypt, as they did not have the time necessary for the bread to rise. In order to get it back, he must pay the price demanded by the finder.
Although everyone present will participate, the adults will only pretend to search so as to give a greater chance to the little ones, who will return it in exchange for a sweet, or possibly a few coins.
After the afikoman is redeemed, he will break it into enough pieces to distribute all around. He will act in a generous and just manner, just as He Who redeemed us from our long, sorrowful captivity is generous and just.
And so the first night of the Pesach celebration will come to an end.
At that dinner in the year 1940, I, like everyone else, thought that the invariable ritual would be repeated. However, neither I nor anyone else had anticipated that the guest would take it upon himself to make a change.
I was only thirteen and felt slightly out of place. I was the oldest of the grandchildren, no longer of an age to participate in the commotion produced by the younger cousins as they stampeded through the house in search of the piece of matzoh, but not yet old enough to join the adults who took advantage of the occasion to chat about this and that while pretending to look for it.
I remained in my chair, feeling uncomfortable, until, at the opposite end of the table, my grandfather, who hadn’t moved from his seat either, beckoned me with his hand, and understanding my state of confusion, hurried to my rescue, pointing out the circle formed by my two youngest uncles and their friend.
Prepared to accept his suggestion, I started to stand up in order to join them, but at that moment the group dispersed.
I didn’t know then, as I still don’t know today, what my uncles did or where they went. From that moment on, and until the end of the evening, all my attention was focused on our guest’s actions.
He folded his napkin before depositing it next to his unfinished glass of wine, and, noticing a loose thread on the cuff of his shirt, yanked it off brusquely. Once on his feet, he deliberately walked toward the head of the table.
He had a kind of languid gait that called attention to his misshapen jacket pockets. A careful look revealed that the jacket had originally been the same color as the pants he wore.
He asked permission to take the pillow on which my grandfather’s head had been resting all night long. He unzipped the cover.
Intuition or luck? Inside, wrapped in tissue paper, was the object to be redeemed.
The opportunity was in his hands and he knew how to seize it.
He returned to his seat at the table, indifferent to the disappointed ruckus of the children.
On the adults’ faces, the abundant dinner, drawn-out evening, and many toasts, both ritual and spontaneous, were now beginning to leave their first traces.
My grandfather tapped the edge of his glass with a spoon to call for silence before turning to the young man, who awaited his words with apparent nonchalance, and simply said:
“As tradition demands, now we must fulfill the obligation of sharing the afikoman. To reclaim it, I will give you something in exchange . . .”
The addressee was as familiar with the tradition as was the speaker, my grandfather. In our family, redemption of the white piece of matzoh was governed by strict rules: no price limit, refusal, or bargaining was possible.
For whatever reason, something in the atmosphere changed. The distracted silence in which we awaited the game/ceremony that was carried out in almost identical form year after year and which concluded the Pesach dinner, suddenly turned attentive, expectant, perhaps more profound, as if silence could grow in cadence or degree.
There was not a trace of insolence or challenge in his face or in the tone he assumed:
“I want to marry your daughter,” we heard him reply in a quiet, but clear, voice, as he gently slid the product of his search across the table toward my grandfather, and we broke out in goose bumps at the sound of the tissue paper softly scraping against the tablecloth.
For the first time I noticed the many broken, overlapping lines that time had etched on my grandfather’s face. I saw that the silver on his chin had long since won the battle against the original dark brown of his carefully trimmed beard.
His clear-eyed gaze bared none of the emotion that his soul must have harbored at that moment.
No gesture violated the purity of his aquiline profile as he turned his head, while at the same time his hand reached for the cane he used to stand up and walk out of the room with at his usual, measured pace.
That night a rift opened up in the tradition. It was the guest, not my grandfather, who distributed the pieces of the afikoman among us, standing beside the woman who was already his betrothed.
Three months later he married Aunt Raquel.
Copyright © Varda Fiszbein 2014. Translation copyright © Andrea Labinger 2014.
Varda Fiszbein was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but has resided for many years in Seville, Spain. She is a professor of Hebraic Studies, Hebrew and Yiddish, and edits and translates works from those languages, as well as from English, into Spanish. In 2013 she published her Spanish-language translation of Reza Aslan’s biography of the historical Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In addition to her many translations, Fiszbein has authored children’s fiction (for which she has won numerous prizes), literary reviews and critical studies, and adult non-fiction. Her new short story collection, Asuntos de Familia (Family Matters), which includes “The Guest”, was published by Sefarad Editores (Spain) in 2013. Fiszbein is a regular contributor of original fairy tale to the Spanish monthly series Agenda de las Hadas.
Andrea G. Labinger (the translator) has published numerous translations of Latin American fiction. She has been a finalist three times in the PEN USA competition. Recent titles include Ángela Pradelli’s Friends of Mine (Latin American Literary Review Press, 2012) and Ana María Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (Nebraska, 2012). Her translation of Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis, 2012) was included in World Literature Today’s list of the “75 Notable Translations of the Year.” In 2014 Wings Press will publish her translation of Alicia Kozameh’s Eni Furtado Has Never Stopped Running.