Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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According to the story, the Jews had ample warning. Using the blood of a four-legged animal sacrificed especially for the job, they scrawled huge Xs on their doors and rooftops.
Seeing the bloody marks, the angel of death passed over, careful not to disturb the trembling inhabitants. Thus spared, the Jews breathed relief, hugged their sons, and planned their exodus. Finally freed from the hand of the Pharaoh, they set off into the desert — forty years of hardship, with God as their guide and nature their newest enemy.
I can’t make it through a Seder without laughing. Across the table, my sister makes faces at me and walks her parsley across her plate. The balls of gefilte fish quiver on the good china, dressed in a suspension that we call “snot” and carefully scrape off with our forks. My father reads from the Hagadda, retelling the story of escape. It was a good story the first few times I heard it, but this makes the eleventh time, and, frankly, the suspense has gone out of it. I now know the Jews will get their revenge on the evil Pharaoh — frogs, gnats, slaying of the firstborn — and make it into the desert with their flat-bread crackers. They will endure uncertainty as they wander, but God will come through for them in the end. They will thank Him profusely for all He’s done, never feeling quite worthy, but with a perverse sense of self-righteousness, as well.
My sister’s parsley has made a wrong turn and hits the floor, narrowly missing the dog, who scrambles to see what flew past. He sniffs the sprig, licks it up, then works his tongue around to get the distasteful greenery out of his mouth. We watch this through the glass-topped table, stifling giggles. Then, in an act of sheer brilliance, my sister retrieves the parsley from the floor, waits for a distraction, and lays it deftly on my brother’s plate. Without missing a beat, she finds her place in the Hagadda and reads thoughtfully, flawlessly. When she finishes, it is my mother’s turn — only she is busy making her napkin into a swan and has to be nudged.
“Oh!” she exclaims, and then reads her part dispassionately while my sister and I sneak furtive glances at my brother’s plate. Then my father is reading again, pretending not to notice that he has lost his audience. He trips over a word, and my mother starts to laugh, which makes him look up sternly. My brother, too, looks up from his place.
“Sweetie,” says my father to my mother, “please.”
“Yeah,” says my brother, looking around. “What is wrong with this family?”
“You’re in it,” says my sister.
“Rebecca!” says my father.
“Is that necessary?” asks my brother haughtily. He is only sixteen but has a unique sense of morality. He believes he is the principled one among sinners.
My sister rolls her eyes and repeats his question in a nasal tone: “Is that necessary?”
I am eleven and thrilled that the service has been interrupted by a little levity, but my father has already resumed reading. When he finishes, there is a guilty silence. We’ve lost our places again and don’t know whose turn it is to read.
“Sweetie,” says my father tolerantly, and my mother bolts upright and begins to read.
When it is time to “partake” of the parsley, my sister and I hold our breath. Forget the plagues of flies and locusts: watching my brother eat something covered in dog spit is just about the best revenge I can imagine.
My father reads that the parsley represents the first signs of spring; the horseradish, the bitterness the Jews endured; and the salt water we dip into, the tears shed. We partake of the bitterness and tears so as not to forget the Israelites’ struggle for freedom from religious persecution. The salt water is passed around in a gravy boat, and we each ladle a spoonful onto our plate. My father recites the appropriate prayer, and my sister and I watch quietly as my brother picks his parsley up by the stem, dips it, and then crams it into his mouth.
After my father died, my brother took over the Seder. There was no vote; had there been, I’d have voted for my sister, and she’d have voted for herself, as well. But nobody asked us, and the April following my father’s death found us listening to a man who, fourteen years earlier, had eaten parsley from the mouth of a dog. He had gone on to find a pretty Jewish wife and a job that earned him more respect than we would acknowledge.
My sister had a one-year-old, but despite being a parent herself, she still made faces across the table, and this was the only thing that kept me coming back. By now, the story was twenty-five tellings old, and in the interim my parents’ unhappiness with each other had turned to bitterness. The idea of an exodus followed by redemption was my mother’s fantasy, but ultimately she was afraid to be alone. She had no faith in guides and less in luck, and so she stayed on through the plagues — loneliness, fear, cancer — until my father finally died.
It is Passover again, and I have not spoken to my brother for almost a year. I have never married, and when I have sex it is not without the memory of him exploring my ten-year-old body: A knock comes at his door, and we scramble to dress. My mother peers in, asks a question, leaves. The smell of sex permeates the air. The first time I have sex with a man other than my brother, I think about that smell and wonder how my mother could have walked away, but I also wonder what she could have said: “Don’t have sex with your sister”? I suppose it would have been a start.
“So, what’s going on with you?” my brother asks paternally as dinner concludes. The question catches me off guard. My brain flutters like a slot machine, images from my life falling into place in mismatched sets. Anguished, I will the slots to register a single picture so I can dutifully report something, anything noteworthy that I am doing with my life. But when I look up, my brother is staring past me into space. Apathy, boredom , emptiness.
My sister doesn’t come to Seders anymore. She lives only twenty miles south of town but claims that traffic is too heavy. If I want to see her, I have to go to her house, which adds forty more miles to a two-hundred-mile round trip. Once I am there, it’s obvious something is wrong, but it’s hard to know what. She is tired, too tired to leave the house. Last week, she called an ambulance because she thought she was having a heart attack. It was the third time she’d done this. The medics were annoyed. They told her it was just anxiety, that she needed a psychiatrist, not a doctor.
“Duh!” she says. “A psychiatrist is a doctor.”
“I don’t think that’s the point,” I say.
“How was Passover?” she asks.
“The same,” I say. “Mr. Morality led the way. It would have been better if you’d been there.”
“Too much traffic,” she says.
I suspect that my brother beat my sister, too, but she won’t say as much — only that he was a “bully” and that he “beat up on” her, which is different from beating her. Nevertheless, she is resentful about the fact that there was no protection from his rages.
“How come Mom and Dad never did anything?” I ask.
“Maybe they thought it was normal,” she says derisively, and it is not until I am a few years older that I suddenly know: They could have stopped it. They could have stopped it when he was thirteen or fourteen or fifteen. I suspect that by the time he was twenty-two — the last time he threw me against a wall, for flicking a light switch too many times, and beat my breasts until they were black-and-blue — it was past the point at which they could have said, “Don’t beat your sister,” even if they had wanted to.
My brother doesn’t remember any of this. He says I am making it up. With that, my mind immediately starts to play with the images, to move them around, clean them up, jumble the time frames until I am uncertain. Maybe those weren’t my breasts. Maybe it just looked like a penis.
I sit at the opposite end of the table from my brother, next to my mother, making swans with my napkin. My brother reads reverently, which annoys me, but I keep quiet because his children are present. He patiently explains the passages they don’t understand, making reference to what they have learned in Hebrew school. His oldest daughter, who is five, watches his face carefully. Later, she will climb into his lap and put her head against his chest. I haven’t seen them since last Passover, haven’t seen my sister since she moved halfway across the country two years ago, claiming anything less than a thousand miles was “too close.” When it is my mother’s turn, she holds up the lamb shank and reads about the sacrificial lamb. My niece asks whether the lamb got hurt.
“The lamb wanted to die,” explains my brother.
“I’m not sure the lamb had a choice,” I say.
My brother shoots me an angry glance and tells me he’ll educate his own children, thank you. Behind him, the light outside has faded, like a long, lingering Western sunset. I miss my father. I miss my sister. We bless the wine and eat our bitterness with tears.