Photo: Erica Moffitt
By Brian Schwartz
Max and Josephine hosted a Passover Seder in their Tribeca apartment every year. Although Josephine insisted on playing the role of chef for the holiday, working from an old set of recipes she’d inherited from her South African Jewish mother, Max and Adam helped out as much as they were permitted. Max took care of the guest list, bought the groceries and the wine, rented tables and chairs, and rooted around their apartment until he found the cardboard box full of dusty haggadah volumes. For the past few years, Adam had begun helping Josephine in the kitchen before these annual gatherings, dicing and chopping and blending under his mother’s supervision. Last year Adam had prepared the matzoh ball soup from scratch entirely by himself. Thankfully, as the holiday drew near and Josephine asked their son for his assistance with the food once again, Adam agreed.
Max was especially glad to see Adam and Josephine in the kitchen together, murmuring back and forth about recipes and measurements, sharing information; the civility of the exchange lifted Max’s heart. The night before the Seder he interrupted his wife and son in the kitchen because he had to see this wonderful, peaceful, loving détente. If only the apartment could sound like this more often. The three of them wouldn’t have to navigate around each other so gingerly. Max had seen almost every movie ever made about troubled families and the angst of domestic claustrophobia, but still he couldn’t understand: Why did the members of a family find it so difficult loving one another in the brief time they had together under the same roof? He could not understand the root of this dynamic, but Max had noticed it in other families, and since Adam had become a teenager Max had lived with it in his own home as well.
In the kitchen, Adam had his hands in a bowl of matzoh meal. Slushy streaks of matzoh meal stuck to his wet fingers. Max, momentarily entranced by the image of his son’s brown hands speckled with flecks of floury mash, was reminded of the past. He thought of his own parents, both gone now. He thought about what it meant to be Jewish back when his parents were young. Jews in America were different in those days, more insular, almost always marrying within the tribe, sending their kids to Jewish summer camps. No questions about Israel or its policies.
They’d adopted Adam as a baby. In those days Max and Josephine had been more adventurous; when they learned Josephine couldn’t conceive, they’d decided to look for a child abroad—this was years before they began hearing about other Manhattan couples traveling to India to find reasonably priced IVF clinics and surrogate mothers. Josephine and Max went backpacking together through Ecuador in the late ’80s; they enlisted help from the proper agencies there. They became familiar with the country, hiked along the edges of jungles, visited villages that were bordered by tropical trees with emerald green leaves. After their third trip south, they came home to New York with a baby boy. Then their small two-bedroom, two-bath apartment housed a family. Years passed. Adam grew up; Max built his business. Josephine seemed superhuman: she mothered, worked an early shift at an emergency room in Queens, cooked. She made their life together work. She didn’t shy away from difficulty.
Now Max watched his son press together a matzoh ball, cupping his hands, then rolling the globe of dough between his palms. Adam set the matzoh ball onto a plate and reached his white-crusted hands back into the bowl of meal.
“Looking good in here,” Max said to his wife and son in the kitchen.
“Leave us alone, Max,” Josephine said. “We’re just beginning to get somewhere.”
On the night of the Seder, they welcomed friends into their home—five friends, to be exact. Once everyone had arrived, they sat together around two rented tables that had been pushed together next to the floor-to-ceiling bookcases in their apartment’s cramped living room.
On Max’s right sat Frank Mandel, followed by Frank’s wife Diane. Though Frank was one of Max’s best friends, Josephine had never learned to like Diane Mandel. Max understood this was mostly Josephine’s fault—she couldn’t stand Di’s flirty effervescence, especially after Max made the mistake years ago of asking, “Don’t you think Di Mandel is an uncommonly fun, funny woman?” Frank and Di had no children, and over the years they had become like uncle and aunt to Adam, always remembering his birthday, buying him fun little holiday gifts, offering to keep an eye on him whenever Max and Josephine wanted to go out for a date night or a special occasion.
Their other guests, the Rosenthals—Jay, Amy, and their son Doug—had been neighbors for nearly ten years; they lived two floors down in the same building. Doug Rosenthal sat to Max’s left, and Adam was sandwiched between his friend Doug and Doug’s mother. Directly across from Max, down at the opposite end of the table, was Josephine, flushed and excited, chatting with curly-haired Amy Rosenthal, beaming at their assembled guests. “Max!” she called to him across the table. “Let’s get underway; people want their cups of wine!”
“I second that,” said fourteen-year-old Doug Rosenthal, eliciting an enthusiastic guffaw from Adam, the kind Max rarely saw from his son.
“Take it easy down there, Doug,” Jay, Doug’s father, called from the other end of the table. Jay had approached Max earlier and told him to watch out for Doug’s wine-related shenanigans: “He seems to be going through a phase where he’s very focused on ‘partying,’ whatever that means,” straitlaced Jay had worriedly whispered. To be honest, though, Max welcomed the spectacle of inebriated teenagers if it distracted the adults from engaging in a political debate. Because they’d been neighbors for many years, Max knew Jay tended to be conservative in his outlook about everything (including the subject of Israeli politics—a subject Max avoided at all costs). Anyway, from Max’s perspective, if the boys had a little too much to drink, was that so bad? They were among family. It was a Jewish rule to imbibe on Pesach; let the boys be boys.
Max knew only one way to run a Seder: encourage everyone at the table to do a little reading, keep the Hebrew to a minimum, and always tie participation to reward. Sing a Hebrew prayer, drink a cup of wine; read a Hebrew passage, eat a snack from the official canon of Passover tapas. The challenge was finding the balance between ritual and regular conversation. You wanted to leave space for spontaneity. Max began the meal with the bitter herbs, as his haggadah directed. Having encouraged the gathering to bite into pieces of matzoh smeared with pink store-bought horseradish, Max could pause and listen to conversational snippets from different parts of the table. At one point, he heard Doug cry out to Adam, “Yo, this horseradish is hotter than wasabi!” This seemed an apt comparison, especially coming from Doug Rosenthal, a Manhattan youth who probably knew more about sushi than about Passover.
Adam laughed and reached for his wine, then took his hand away from the glass when he noticed his father watching. But Max wasn’t trying to supervise anyone. He smiled at the boys’ wide-eyed reactions to the heat they were chewing, and found it oddly affirming when Doug chose to spread a scoop of horseradish on a second shard of matzoh. Yet Max also felt doubt in that moment: Is this the best I can do to teach the next generation where we Jews come from? It was a conundrum. He knew he could have done more to pass on his Jewish learning to his own son—could have set an example by taking the religion more seriously, celebrating holidays with a greater awareness of tradition. Then again, too much ritual was a liability.
“Now we’re coming to the Four Questions,” Max announced at the appointed time. “Last year at this part of our Seder, Adam and Doug performed an amazing rap version of these questions… you guys remember? Will you do those again for us?”
“No, Dad,” Adam shook his head.
“How did it go, again?” Max tried to recall. “Yo! We got four questions and this one is mine: Why on this night do we all recline?”
“Dad, stop!” Adam pleaded. “That’s embarrassing. Can we do it the normal way?”
After the second cup of wine, Max began flipping through his haggadah, calling out page numbers and names, getting the guests involved in the evening’s storytelling. He continued to spontaneously assign parts more or less at random, and eventually picked out a passage next to an illustration of a pink-skinned baby in a basket of reeds.
“Josephine,” he said. “Could you read for us from that page?”
His wife read up to and including the part that went, “And the woman conceived, and bore a son, and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could no longer hide him, she made for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and pitch, and put the child therein, and she laid it in the reeds by the river’s brink.”
“Thanks, Josephine,” Max said. “That is really quite an image.”
“Can you imagine what she must have felt in that moment,” Frank Mandel said, “giving up her child?”
“Wait,” Adam said. Max could see that his son’s eyes were drooping a bit. By his count, the boys had managed to swig at least two cups of wine already, thinking they were getting away with it when the adults weren’t looking. “Wait, did Moses ever meet his mom again, after she set him in the river?”
Max’s heart was like a burner on their gas stovetop, love for his son a neat circle of flame igniting within. “What an interesting question!”
“Yeah, because it’s—like she’s his birth mother,” Adam said. “Moses becomes this great man, and he never meets his birth mother.”
Josephine addressed the gathering of friends. “I mean if you really think of it, half the heroes in the bible, we have no idea who their mothers were. It makes no difference. Why do you think so many stories and myths have orphans in them? Because children have to find their own way, that’s why. They need as much support as they can get from anyone who offers, and then they find their own way. The writers of the bible didn’t care about genetics, you know. Genetics, for them, it’s just a part of God, isn’t it? And real parenting is something totally different. Of course Judaism is patrilineal, too. So the women who do the real work don’t get credit for it anyway.”
“Wow,” Amy Rosenthal said. “That was almost a critical feminist perspective on the faith. I like it.”
“Sounds to me like left-wing rhetoric,” Jay Rosenthal joked.
“Great perspective, Josephine,” Max called out to his wife.
But something was wrong. Josephine was up from her chair. She turned, took a few empty plates and walked away from the table without another word. Max watched her leave, wondering if anyone else could sense that she was upset.
When Max’s attention returned to the table, he heard Jay Rosenthal recollecting the first Seder they’d had after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “It was half a year after the towers fell,” Jay said. “Down in this part of town you could still smell that smoke in the air—and that was only, what, four Seders ago?” Max scanned the faces of his guests; were they avoiding his eyes? Had anyone heard Josephine crying? As Max wondered how many minutes would pass before his wife returned, Frank Mandel asked him to tell the story of the award he’d received months before. “The award was presented by George Clooney!” Frank proclaimed. “Isn’t that right?”
“No, but we met George Clooney at the ceremony,” Max said. “I shook his hand. Josephine practically fainted. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her swoon like that.”
“I’d be swooning,” Di Mandel said. “It’s not just his looks, you know. You can tell he has this wonderful integrity.”
“In other words, it’s his looks,” Frank Mandel said. Frank had a lumpy, bearish body and, though he looked nothing like a movie star, he exuded the charm of a confident man. And Frank was strong: Max had once seen his friend carry a queen-sized mattress up four flights of stairs, gripping the rolled fabric edges in powerful, hairy-knuckled hands. A mischievous kid’s smile always played within the boundaries of Frank Mandel’s stubbly face.
“What did you win, Max?” Jay asked. “I know you’re in the movie business somehow, but I never understood the particulars.”
“He’s an importer, Dad,” Doug Rosenthal explained, his voice slurry from the wine. “Foreign films. I’ve told you this.”
“The award was for a film I brought to the States last year,” Max explained. He went to the bookcase and brought down the trophy he’d received, a six-inch-high, gold-colored replica of an old-fashioned film camera. As he showed the award to his guests, he remembered the way the little sculpture’s round reels had flashed in the lights on the night of the awards ceremony. And since Josephine hadn’t made her way back to the Seder table yet, Max decided to keep talking. “They said it was an award for career achievement, but I think they gave it to me because of a particular movie I imported from China. You know, the Chinese government can be sensitive about filmmaking, not shy about censorship. I’d heard about this young director in Shanghai, and I was able to get in touch with him. It took months of persuading Chinese media officials but eventually we got the thing released here, in New York and L.A. Beautiful movie. The Chinese government claimed there was too much sex, that the story was indecent and degrading to women. What they were really upset about, though, were all these little allegories in the movie about what it’s like to live under a communist regime that limits free expression.”
The first questions had surfaced in September, after Adam’s fourteenth birthday. Initially he approached Max. “Dad, now that I’m moving up in age, you know, getting to be almost an adult, I’ve been thinking about family.”
A curveball in the early evening. Josephine wasn’t home from work yet; Max was looking through that day’s Times—he still had the paper delivered every day. Being able to hold the ink-stained sheets in his hands helped him rest.
In his half-waking state, Max could sense that his son wanted to discuss something difficult. At the same time, though, Max’s drowsy mind led him to believe that perhaps Adam wanted to hear funny stories about his Jewish ancestors—starting with Max’s mother and father. For a moment Max dazedly wondered where he’d put the old photos of his zayde’s kosher butcher shop. He kept telling himself to scan those pictures, get them on the computer; why hadn’t he done it yet? One picture showed his father as a teen standing in a stained white apron outside the shop’s front window; next to him stood one of Zayde’s regular employees, a younger black man with a playful expression on his face. What could Max tell his son about that picture? What would the picture help him teach his son? Max remembered asking his own father once, “How much did Zayde pay you for working in the butcher shop when you were a boy?” His father laughed and finally said, “Are you kidding? I got nothing!” Max could remember the sound of his father’s voice as though they’d spoken together on the phone a few days before. Adam, though, remembered very little of Max’s parents, who’d been dead for years now.
He made room on the couch, and Adam sat down and folded his hands in his lap, a habit he’d picked up from Josephine. A slightly effeminate habit, but Max was moved whenever he saw his son unconsciously imitating his wife.
“I’ve been thinking about my birth family,” Adam said. “My birth mother. Where I’m from.”
“Oh,” Max said. “Right. Right.” Another family entirely. And this seemingly sudden curiosity—how was Max supposed to feel about it? His son wasn’t only his son. This had been true from the very beginning.
“You and Mom,” Adam said, “would you be able to help me find my birth mother?”
“I don’t know,” Max told his son. “It’s been a long time.”
After that, Adam routinely asked them about getting in touch—perhaps even meeting—his birth mother. This interest in his biological family and heritage seemed to dovetail with their son’s pimply post-pubescent metamorphosis: he had a favorite band, he had a preferred haircut (and a baseball hat he liked to wear over it), he had a girlfriend, and this girlfriend had encouraged him to find his roots. Recently the girl’s mother had driven the teen lovebirds upstate to an apple orchard, and Adam had returned from the trip with three heaping bags full of apples. The red fruit was like his budding infatuation for the girl, spilling out everywhere, uncontainable. Josephine had taken one of the overflowing bags to work, given away the apples to people at her school. When Adam found out, he was outraged. He called his mother at work to yell at her. Max heard about the whole thing at the dinner table that evening.
Josephine had said to Adam, “What could you possibly do with three bags of apples?”
“Eat them,” their son had said. “Freeze them. I was going to bake with them!”
“We’re not keeping seventy apples in our freezer!”
With the exception of Adam’s bar mitzvah, Josephine had shown little sympathy for the rites of passage involved with male teenagedom—especially puberty, which, when you got down to it, none of them could control, Adam included. “Everybody calm down,” Max said when the argument resumed that night at the dinner table. “Adam, I think what your mother’s saying is that, just logistically, it’s too many apples. Once you pick
“You always take her side… Screw this!” Adam said. He left the dinner table, turned his back to them, and walked out of the apartment.
Josephine wept. “I’ll go pick him another bag of apples, if that’s what he wants.”
For the next couple of days, Max’s son and his wife barely spoke to each other.
One night during this domestic cold front, Max wrote a note to Adam’s birth mother asking if she’d be open to some sort of correspondence. He wrote out a carefully worded draft of the email before going to bed, realizing the whole time that he had no idea where to send it. He and Josephine had adopted Adam in the days before the internet, and even now you couldn’t expect everyone in the developing world to have reliable email addresses. Adam’s Ecuadoran birth mother may not have regular access to the internet, or she may feel conflicted about reconnecting. She might be dead, or missing, she might have joined a cult, she might have been featured in a low-budget documentary about microfinance. Max was accustomed to tracking down films that had delighted people in faraway places, reading and listening and finding out which stories had left impressions on particular audiences. He wasn’t used to locating actual people, though. A good movie got passed around, copied, shown and shared—it had a certain organic persistence in the world. An individual person, though… In some cases he or she could just disappear.
That night Max’s sleep was troubled and restless. For weeks, he didn’t mention the unsent email to his son.
On the night of the awards ceremony, Max wore his tuxedo (it wasn’t that old), Josephine wore a wonderful blue gown, and they sat two tables away from George Clooney (who, it seemed to Max, was somehow more dapper in person than he was on the big screen). The room was elegant, intimate—the ceremony was a cozy gathering for New York critics and filmmakers—and it was easy to feel a sense of belonging. If Max and Josephine had been sitting in some grand auditorium in Los Angeles instead, they might have felt erased by celebrity. But in this small space they seemed to belong to the club. Max knew in advance that he’d won the award, so no one could tell him he didn’t fit in with that clubby crowd of screen actors and powerful filmmakers.
“It’s not fair, you know,” Josephine whispered to him after the first glass of wine. “These actors are all young and they’ve had plastic surgery.”
“Josephine, you look beautiful tonight,” Max told her. It was the first time he’d said that to his wife, in years, probably. Given the abundance of firm, youthful flesh in the room, the words seemed significant. Not long after he paid his wife this compliment, Max heard his name called from the modest lectern at the front of the room, followed by the category of his award: “Achievement in the Importing of Films.” True, the phrase was stiff and ridiculous (for weeks he and Josephine had made fun of it at home, goading each other to attain Achievement in the Folding of Laundry and Achievement in Cleaning the Bathroom), but in that moment the name of his award category sounded to Max like an uplifting passage from the Brandenburg Concerto. Though he believed himself to be a humble man, Max shook his fist in the air triumphantly as he walked to the lectern, buffeted by applause.
“I want to thank my wife and my son,” he said into the microphone. He looked out at the faces in the audience and added, “The people in this room know what it means to labor on a film, to pray that something beautiful comes out of the process. I feel very privileged to do what I do, trying to distribute and promote the work of our foreign and international colleagues in this business, and support their hearts’ labors.” He thanked the audience again, lifting the trophy he’d received, which gleamed in the light that poured down over the lectern.
As they were leaving that night, George Clooney shook Max’s hand and congratulated him. Max introduced Josephine who, despite being taller than Clooney, blushed girlishly and was unable to speak.
When they got home, Max and Josephine had sex. Actual sex. It was pretty good, too. They may have woken up Adam, although they did their best to keep the noise down. It was as if the award had touched them with grace, the smallest infusion of energy from the zeitgeist; the taste of victory had tingled their loins. It was enough.
“Aren’t you supposed to explain what everything on the Seder plate means?” Josephine asked when she finally returned to the table. “Have you done that yet? Don’t forget to do that.”
“Oh yes,” Max said. Though Josephine had composed herself, he could sense their guests’ eyes searching her for clues to what had gone amiss. Why had she been gone for so long? Max said, “Here. Of course. Let’s look.”
The shank bone alludes to the special paschal sacrifice Jews made before their exodus from Egypt.
The letters of the Hebrew word karpas—vegetable—can be rearranged to spell another word that means “backbreaking work,” so the root vegetable we place on the seder plate represents the crushing labor forced on our forbears in the land of Egypt.
The paste made from wine, apples and nuts reminds us of the mortar and bricks Jews fashioned as they labored for Pharoah, building cruel monuments for him in the desert sun.
When the Seder was over, Max found a message in his inbox from Adam’s birth mother. He’d tracked her down and finally found the courage to send the message he’d composed without his son’s knowledge. It took her a full week to respond:
Thank for your note, please show this direct to my son: Adam I think about you every day. I feel so much love even though I never met you since you were a baby. I’m proud to hear your father says you are fine young man. I am very proud. If you want, email me any time. I promise to always write back. I know already you have a mother in your country who loves you, I am so happy, so grateful. I hope you remember, you are in my heart the rest of my life.