The Passing of Passover
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Varda Hurvitz
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
It was Passover eve.
Cries of childish joy echoed up the stairwell and into Julia and David’s apartment. Many guests had visited them there. In the tenement opposite ours, Bracha’s seven-branched menorah had been lit, as if in defiance, and we could see that only three guests had walked through their door. Chaim, my little brother, looked at me in silence, his brown eyes darting, pleading with me to be the one to speak. I silently traced the number two with my fingers, and, holding our breaths, we told Dad, in unison and with utter certainty, that Bracha and Schuster had only had two guests. The difference between two and three doesn’t sound like much, but I knew it would offer enough comfort to Dad, who has never been in the habit of asking people how many guests they were having over for the holiday. It’s a typical Jewish inquiry, especially before the Passover Seder:“How many for the holiday?”
Dad was out of a job during those months. And he hardly spoke to a living soul.
Two days before that holiday eve, I was standing on the balcony hanging the laundry out to dry, and suddenly I saw Dad with his bicycle by the neighborhood advertising pole, staring at the posters pasted on the round stone surface. Charlie Chaplin was showing in our local theater again. I watched as Dad lowered his head and slowly started to circle the thick stone column as if he was hiding from someone. Then I saw Julia, our neighbor, carrying shopping baskets as she walked towards Abu Eliyahu’s grocery store where the Mizrahi Jews bought their groceries. That was the morning I realized that Dad was ashamed to be seen at home in the daytime. When he came home, he smelled like the sea. I told him that someone had telephoned but had immediately hung up.
“Maybe some construction company’s secretary,” I lied, wanting to make him believe that potential work places were looking for him. “They heard my voice and immediately hung up.” The lie was better than the awkward silence.
That evening, when Julia’s David came home, his clothes caked with plaster and paint, like a real man’s clothes should look when he comes home from work, Dad shouted at him, demanding that David put his cans of paint in the storage room, with all the other cans. That day, Julia’s David had decided to leave the cans by the entrance to the building.
“Imperialist!” Dad raged. “You’ve turned the yard into your personal playground.”
“Ptui!” Julia’s David spat. “Hitler should have done a better job and burned all you Ashkenazim to cinders.”
Even Lizzie, Julia and David’s dog, who was crouching in her doghouse in the yard, was shocked. Or maybe it was just because of the puppies she was about to have.
Dad’s face flushed deep red. He looked as if he was about to attack David, but Mom, by some miracle, was suddenly beside him and prevented him from doing so. She stroked his face as you might stroke a baby.
“Those people don’t know what they are talking about,” she murmured softly to him. “They don’t even know who Hitler was.”
Then she asked him to go into the front room and play something for her. Dad played happy songs. Maybe what she’d said was what he had really wanted to say to Julia’s David. Mom sat beside him, swaying her head from side to side like a metronome. I knew she wanted to get back to her small service balcony and finish the pleated skirt she had been sewing that week for Mrs. Matuszkiewicz in return for three piano lessons. I suggested to her in pantomime that we trade places, that I take her place and sit beside Dad.
“Go outside and keep an eye on Chaim,” she said to me.
I found Chaim by the trash containers located on the edge of the neighborhood. His hands were resting defiantly on his hips. Goel, David and Julia’s son, and Rubik, “The Horse,” who was at that time a high school junior and today manages the municipal welfare office, were in front of him. They were sitting on the fence, looking like two tall palm trees beside Chaim.
“As if we don’t know that your family is buying bread for Passover and putting it the basket, under the matzo,” Goel teased Chaim.
“Well, Goldstein is a goy, too,” Rubik said. Goldstein, the owner of the grocery store where most of the Ashkenazi Jews bought their groceries, always prepared in advance of Passover loaves of “forbidden” bread for his clients.
“Even on Yom Kippur you shut your curtains so no one can see you eating. But we know you people aren’t fasting,” Goel said, and imitated a pig chewing and made disgusting noises.
I went and stood beside Chaim. I saw how he shut his eyes for a second. Once, Mom had explained to us that when you close your eyes, even for “a quarter of a single second,” you can see everything clearly, without the dirt that is all around. Then everything you say comes out exactly as you wanted to say it. As if in that quarter of a single second, in which heart and head are joined in darkness, the thread between the clean and tarnished truth is suspended. “It’s like they tell us we are here now,” Mom had further elaborated, “and we can see it all, because no one has yet confused us.”
Chaim opened his eyes and said to Goel and Rubik, “My parents have fasted enough for a lifetime.” That was what Mom used to say on Yom Kippur when she closed the shutters and the windows and silently put the washed dishes to dry, far apart from each other, so as to maintain the silence and not to arouse the anger of those who were fasting on the other side of our wall. “We were hungry enough!” That’s what she would say.
Goel struck a match and lit the half-cigarette he’d pulled from his shirt pocket.
“You lowlife!” I hissed at him.
“White trash.” He puffed smoke rings into the air.
“Don’t you talk to my sister like that.” Chaim swung his arm.
“Well, look here: Snow White’s little dwarf is making threats.” Goel chuckled, and then coughed.
“Forget about Chaim, he’s just a goy. He hangs around with Russians.” Rubik was referring to the Russian woman with the gold earrings and her albino son.
I immediately caught at Chaim’s sleeve and tried to drag him away, but he yanked his arm away from me and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Rubik’s a goy! Rubik’s a goy! Rubik’s mother is a Christian!” Rubik’s mother is a Chris-ti-an…!”
“That’s the last thing I’ll ever tell you,” I hissed. “You stupid idiot.”
I had made him swear not to ever tell anyone what Mom had told me. Bracha, Rubik “The Horse’s” mother, had immigrated to Israel as “Brunislava”, and had Hebraicized her name to “Bracha” as soon as she set foot in the Holy Land. She’d spent years pleading with the clerks at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior and the primitives at the Rabbinate to add the word Jew to her ID card. She was actually a Jew whose grandmother had been forced to be christened, fearing the pogroms. From Mom, I also knew that when the Nazis came to the village where her family lived, and Bracha, born Brunislava, and her mother, both forced converts to the Christian faith, had looked out their window and watched the Jews being ushered to the large transit vehicle. Her mother had put her hand on little Bracha’s mouth so she wouldn’t shout “Shalom!” or some other farewell greeting to her cousins on her father’s side.
“To this this very day,” Mom had secretively told me, “Bracha still sleeps with her finger in her mouth. Like this!” She had demonstrated. And I had told this story to Chaim only after he had sworn on the holy Bible that he’d fall dead on the spot if he ever told anyone. This secret story swelled with further details as I once described to him how, out of her deep yearning to have the word Jew written on her ID card, Bracha would pray to Jesus, the only God she’d known in childhood. Dad said that Bracha had become a more pious Christian than she’d ever been before. Chaim didn’t laugh. I think it scared him. And on the day that Bracha came out onto the little balcony and opened wide her now converted ID card and crossed herself with happiness, and Mom shared tears and laughter with her, I ran to the tunnel Chaim dug in the dunes to tell him how Mom was laughing and crying with Bracha. Chaim was so happy for this newly-stamped Jew that he’d been quick to swear, without me even asking – like people who, in a time of great joy, are generous with their promises – that he wouldn’t ever tell anyone. Ever.
“Only God. Because He knows everything…”
When Chaim now shouted that Rubik’s mom was Christian, Goel immediately tried to pacify Rubik. He had seen Rubik’s shorter arm starting to twitch nervously, which was always a bad sign.
“Don’t pay attention to them,” Goel said quickly. “Snow White here will end up marrying an Arab.”
Chaim lunged at Goel like a wounded tiger cub. I tried to separate them, and Goel and I fell to the ground with me on top of him. From the corner of my eye I saw Rubik’s shorter arm flailing in the air, and the loudness of his voice shook the neighborhood.
“Look everyone: Goel and Naomi are fucking! Goel and Naomi are fucking!”
When it was all over, I sat alone in the stairwell, my heart racing. I knew I had to calm down, had to go home and pretend nothing had happened, so Mom wouldn’t worry. A thin trickle of murky water scummed with white foam cascaded down the stairs. The water slowly flowed down from the topmost floor, gathered at the end of each flight, then meandered in a fine trickle to gather in a formless puddle. I squeezed against the wall, afraid I would get wet and dirty, and peeked through my tears at David’s paint cans. Someone had already managed to mark them with a black marker Filthy Amalekite and Pharaoh.
My head started to spin and I felt myself heaving like a locomotive as I breathed in the smell of turmeric, cumin, and lemon, mingled with the acrid tang of fresh paint coming from the two cans. There was the smell of rancid water, too. I started breathing quickly, panting, just like I had done that day, a month ago, when I arrived home from Mrs. Matuszkiewicz’s, wearing my yellow pleated skirt, just as Julia’s David had finished painting our building entrance. Then, too, the smell of fresh paint coming off the entrance walls caused me to experience a little dizzy spell that stopped me from going indoors.
As I stood then beside Julia’s David, savoring the smell of turpentine, Julia’s David noticed what I was doing. He motioned to me to follow him down to the shelter where he stored his paint cans. I was actually happy when he started opening can after can for me, like uncorking wine bottles that have to “breathe” before being decanted into glasses. I moved closer to one of the cans and bent towards the thick paint that brimmed the lid, and dipped the tips of my fingers into it. I closed my eyes, focusing on the mixed smells of paint and turpentine, momentarily addicted.
Then I felt my hair gripped by a strong hand preventing my head from any movement. My body froze. The next second I turned around wildly and saw Julia’s David’s hollow eyes, his flaring nostrils, his gaping mouth breathing in the scent of my hair. His hands were sticky with paint as they gripped the edges of my curls for long seconds. I saw beads of his sweat trickling from the skin of his neck and splattering on my face, he was grunting short breaths in an escalating rhythm, and the smell of paint was replaced by the sharp smell that came out of his mouth. I kicked at him, releasing myself from his grip. I ran to the entrance, leaping up the last three steps in a single bound. I didn’t look back. On the doorstep, I paused to get my breath, and then I went into the house like nothing had happened.
I saw Mom, sitting on the small balcony, still sewing Mrs. Matuszkiewicz’s skirt, gnashing her teeth like castanets. I rushed into my room, lay on my bed, and burst into tears, but with my head buried in my pillow so Mom wouldn’t hear. From the other room I heard the sound of sewing machines, Mom’s and Julia’s – Julia was a seamstress, too. Both machines rustled and rattled like two racing cars competing to be first to reach the final seam in the holiday clothes they were sewing. Inside me, bloody, bitter wars were being fought – with Goel, with Rubik, with Julia’s David, even with Ruthie Lerner, the most popular girl in the class. The day before, I had seen her and her mom carrying bags and bags of gifts for the Passover holiday. I hated them all. And there were other new and still alien invaders on the battlefield, who were using my body and soul as their playground. Hormones. It was not until the following day that I emerged from my room, when Fania Malgusho finally came to visit us, and the mood in the house settled somewhat.
It had been almost two weeks before that holiday eve since Fania Malgusho had set foot in our house. And all because of a needle. Mom always had a small needle stuck in her robe (after all, who knows when someone might need some urgent mending?). Fania had come into our house one day, all excited by something that had happened. She rushed to Mom and hugged her. Of course the needle had pricked her, and she left our house in a rage. But whenever Dad was out of a job, Fania would say to Mom, “You call me. Just in case.” I don’t remember if Mom had called her that Passover eve to tell her about the fight with Julia’s David, or if Fania Malgusho had just shown up out of the blue, just because she possessed a keen sense of smell for perfumes, men, and trouble. I was happy to see her.
“You look so festive,” I flattered her, at the same time feeling a little pincer nipping at my larynx. Mom was still in her robe, her hair gathered carelessly, while Fania Malgusho looked regal and ready for the holiday. She wore a burgundy dress with white polka dots that Mom had sewn for her using a dressmaking pattern from Burda Style magazine, with her own creative addition: a white fabric butterfly with the wings gathered in a button covered by the polka dot fabric of the dress.
“Thanks, you little shiksa.” Fania Malgusho kissed me and gave me a new hairpin. Then, with a wide motion of her arm, as if tracing the passage of the Hebrews from bondage to freedom, she opened the shutters.
“That maggot… His wife had better pray for him this Passover for all the things he’s said!” And she spat a gentle “Ptui” for emphasis.
We all knew that each morning Julia would give God a list of chores to do, as if He was working for her. She asked for good health for her husband David, prosperity for her children, children for her sister Mazal, and also for Him to wreak punishment on Mrs. Nasochesky’s head for closing her balcony. And when Fania Malgusho voiced her own wishes for Julia’s David, Mom smiled. “Maybe you and Pinhas could come over on Passover eve, for the Seder meal. It would make my Iche so happy,” she hesitantly suggested.
“Moishe Groys” – the big shot – that was what Dad derogatorily called Pinhas, Fania Malgusho’s third husband. Pinhas had come from urban Vilna, and had always maintained a certain cold, aloof attitude towards Dad, who had come from a shtetl, and was thus considered, by Pinhas, provincial. Not a man to associate with. I sometimes wondered how the deep plowing that the war had caused had failed to knock all the Pinhases from Vilna, and the Matuszkiewicz survivors from Krakow, off their high horses. And how come the war had actually deepened the divisions between those who considered themselves part of the Polish aristocracy, and people like Dad, whom they thought of as peasants and commoners?
That morning, all Mom wanted were a few brief moments of happiness: a table surrounded by people, and a family hubbub. But the axe was hovering, like the sword of Damocles, over those dreams. The apologetic smile was already tugging at Fania’s burgundy lips, which perfectly matched her dress, yet her nostrils did not flare and her eyes remained steady.
“I’m sorry,” she said sweetly, “but we can’t. It’s just that we’re invited to Pinhas’ daughter’s, and all his grandchildren will be there, too.” Fania was very detailed with her descriptions, especially when it came to her children and grandchildren. “And I have a headache already,” she muttered with just a hint of enjoyment.
“I knew it,” I whispered sadly.
“How did you know?” Chaim asked me.
“I just did.”
Our PassoverSeder ended up being quite nice, actually. Mom started leafing through the Haggadah, pronouncing the words, as if preparing for the moment that her turn would come to read the lines aloud with perfect articulation. When we came to the Four Questions of Ma Nishtana, she said that we had to register Chaim for the Tsadikov school.
“Exactly,” Dad agreed. “That’s the one place he’ll learn to open his mouth and sing when he needs to.”
My stomach churned. I hated it when Dad talked about Chaim in the third person.
“I don’t want to be a choir boy,” Chaim said. That year he had left the school choir, frustrated that he hadn’t gotten his own solo to sing, even though I tried to tell him that Shlomi, the choir teacher, simply hadn’t found the right song for him yet.
“I don’t want to, I don’t want to,” Dad imitated Chaim mockingly. “Why is it that everything you do, you do just to spite me?”
Mom burst into the song Echad Mi Yodea, melting away the tension of the moment. When we started laughing, she went further, deliberately exaggerating her Russian accent as Dad poured vodka for her and for me. Chaim had to settle for grape juice. He asked when we were going to look for the afikomen. We ended up finding that hidden piece of matzo between the Burda Style magazines and Mom’s Pushkin books on the shelf on the balcony. Then we, Chaim and I, decided the time was right to claim our reward for finding it. I asked for a new vest to be sewn from plaid fabric remains left over from a jacket Mom had sewn for a young client. Chaim asked for a gift that would not cost any money.
“I want a dog.”
“Don’t worry,” I told him confidently, as I moved the matzo balls from my bowl to his. I broke some matzo and scattered it on my own soup, then added a spoonful of horseradish and chewed the spicy, soupy mix with pleasure. I kept my mouth closed as I chewed, and without raising my head from the bowl. I was afraid that Mom would suspect I had been plotting for this moment since the day I’d found out that Lizzie, Julia and David’s dog, was carrying puppies in her belly.
Our Passover Seder was over pretty quickly. They were still reading the Haggadah at David and Julia’s and, mixed in with the loud voices, we could hear Lizzie howling, which made me happy.
Dad went out onto the little balcony. He tossed over the railing some chicken remains for the cats, then came back inside and put on a record by Yiddish comedy duo Dzigan and Schumacher. He laughed. Mom did, too. I suggested to Chaim that we pretend we had our own house under the table. I wanted us to keep our distance from Mom and Dad, so that the bubble of serenity they had cocooned themselves in wouldn’t burst. Chaim was happy. From the kitchen, he had brought some lemon wafers and four chocolate sweets that Mom had wrapped in the gold paper we found in the back yard, which made them look like rich people’s sweets, and made them taste even better.
Then, suddenly, before we could crawl under the table, Dad took the record off the record player and quickly turned on the radio, as if he had just remembered something important. True enough, the Search Bureau for Missing Relatives program then began. We all knew what it was designed to do: help Holocaust survivors locate lost relatives and acquaintances. We also knew that while the names were being read out, there had to be utter, deathly silence. Some relative’s name might be mentioned while we were making a noise and Dad wouldn’t hear it. God forbid! Under the table, in our imaginary house, the long terylene tablecloth cast soft, protective shadows.
“It was all just make believe. The Prophet Elijah never came. I saw how Dad moved the table,” Chaim whispered.
“Are you crazy?” I made a cuckoo sign. “Of course Elijah was here.”
‘So, counting the prophet Elijah —” His voice rose in his enthusiasm.
“Shh,” I quickly shushed him. “We should have been five people.”
“Would have been five,” he corrected me.
“You’re a pain,” I said.
That year, Chaim had started doing multiplication tables, and was considered the class genius. Just like Akiva, Dad’s brother, whom Chaim “physically resembled,” as Mom sometimes says. She also says that if they hadn’t killed Akiva, he could have been a great professor.
Chaim and I knew them from the stories Mom and Dad told us. All of them. The color of their eyes, their hair, their talents, and what each of them could have been, had they been allowed to live. Mom was the one who told Dad’s story from “before”; Dad rarely talked about it. About Akiva, he spoke a little more. And once, just once, he angrily said that Chaim liked to spite him, just as Akiva had.
That evening, in our “house” under the table, Chaim started calculating. “If they hadn’t died, then Dad’s eleven brothers and sisters, with their husbands and wives, would have made us twenty-two. And let’s suppose they’d each have had two children. So, all together, we’d have about… um… more than sixty relatives coming to our house for Passover.”
Suddenly his eyes narrowed. “But we wouldn’t have room for all of them.” With his own words he’d ruined the joy that had started to fill him. A moment before that vibrant holiday table he’d created in his mind vanished completely, I decided to tell Chaim a secret.
“May I drop dead right here and now if I ever tell anyone,” he swore, and stuck his thumb in his mouth. I angrily pulled his thumb out, warning him, once again, that if he sucked his thumb, he would end up having horse-like teeth like Gershon, who couldn’t find a girlfriend because of them. Then I put my mouth close to his ear. “Ruthie Lerner asked me who we’re having for the PassoverSeder, and I told her our grandmother was coming.”
Chaim looked shocked.
“I told her we have a grandmother in Safed, and that she’s sick, which is why she never comes, but that we may go visit her in the summer vacation.”
Even in the dim light under the table I could see the pupils in Chaim’s eyes dilating. Safed, in the north of the country, just like towns in the south, might as well have been a far-off country to which only Fania Malgusho and Pinhas could travel for some fresh air.
“But you lied! God will end up punishing you.” Chaim gripped the edge of the tablecloth, as if doing so would help him overcome his sudden dread.
“But maybe we actually do have a grandmother living in Safed,” I said. “And maybe Dad and Mom don’t even know about her themselves, and maybe her name will be read on the radio one day soon.” I said it with such conviction that I almost believed this myself.
Chaim seemed convinced. “And maybe she has blue eyes, like yours?” He was so fascinated by the possible existence of a grandmother in our world that he accidentally tugged on the edges of the tablecloth.
The sound of the crash was horrible. Strands of horseradish invaded our little world under the table, along with tiny shards of glass. Chaim’s shirt was suddenly sullied by large, red stains.
“What happened?” Dad cried.
Chaim immediately covered his ears with his hands, as he always did, protecting them from Dad’s screaming. Dad lunged at him as if Chaim were some kind of hooligan, a bully or a burglar. I pulled at Dad’s pants, begging him to stop.
“It was me. Let him go, it was me.”
A single drop of blood fell from Chaim’s upper lip. He was crying. Mom took him by the hand and started to lead him away to the bathroom. Just before she left the room, she looked back at Dad and said quietly, “There is someone up there who sees how you beat your little boy, and He will have a reckoning with you.”
I shuddered to hear her talk like that. Mom only mentioned God on the days when she had more work than she could handle, or when Dad rode his bicycle on roads that were wet with rain, or on the scorching days of high summer which brought migraines in their wake. But never, ever, had she mentioned Him as being a constant presence over our heads, seeing all, hearing all.
Fearfully, I started whispering to myself, “There is no God! There is no God!” And the more I whispered, the more my fear of Him intensified. Later, I tried to comfort Chaim. “There is no God. He’s never punished a single soul. Elijah didn’t really come, and the noise of the plate breaking reminded Dad of something scary from long ago.” I told him this, while, inside, all the anger and fear and hatred and pity tossed and turned and swirled. All in the chaos of the end, the passing, of that Passover Seder.
Chaim didn’t answer. I could hear the tearful, breathy, little sobs that marked the end of his every breath. I think it was during that particular Passover that everything changed.