15 March 2011

Hamlet's Father's Ghost

I remember clearly one especial Passover Seder. Of course, the phrase ‘Passover Seder” seems to me somewhat of a redundancy; to my knowledge there is only one other time during the year when a Seder is celebrated and that is Tu b’Shevat, and I think only Jews would have any awareness concerning the means or meaning of this revel. Indeed, I suspect that only a small number of Jews have any familiarity with the Tu b’Shevat Seder. 
Anyway, there was this one Passover Seder celebrated in Rego Park where my parents had lived for several years almost in hiding from the suburban world they had had to flee for having insufficient funds to maintain the house and life style requisite to acceptable residence there.  It was a small gathering this first night of Passover: my parents, myself and two siblings, and my mother’s parents, Grandpa Murray and Nana Rose. They spent many weekends at our house, and all of the Jewish holidays were celebrated in their presence. I was about twenty or so, and probably home from college; my brother would have been sixteen years old and my sister twelve. Or may be we all were older though none the wiser. Of tonight’s ritual celebration we knew the order but we did not know the script, and I don’t think we really cared very much about it one way or the other. But it was ritual to be there. 
Usually the first Seder was held at the home of an aunt and uncle on my mother’s side of the family, but for some reason—death or animosity, I can’t recall—and was led by my mother’s father. That custom had ceased, and so we gathered as a nuclear family this Passover evening, and for the first time in my memory, my father led the Seder. Even when the second Seder had been held at his family’s table in the Bronx, his older brothers were the designated leaders. My father always played his assigned role as the younger brother. 
My father had studied at yeshiva until his father had died, and he had not a little knowledge of the Seder service and Jewish practice. Though my father’s eldest brother had been ordained as a Rabbi and admitted to the bar as a lawyer,  my father had felt it necessary to drop out of school when his father died and go to work with his other brothers in the family firm. He might have preferred to become a Rabbi. Next he was drafted into the Army at the beginning of World War II, and when he returned from overseas he married my mother and took to making a living. He struggled always to effect some independence from family, and at various times he was relatively effective in this endeavor, which is to say that though he (too) often started his own businesses, and though we never missed a meal, he suffered more failure than success and scrambled inevitably to earn the dollar he had already spent. His family often came to some rescue. 
Anyway, this night the Seder moved along laboriously, as usual, with my father moving through the order rapidly and almost without comment. He read through the Hebrew without pause though few of us knew a word he spoke. Several years earlier I had introduced to our Seder the words of Eldridge Cleaver I had discovered in the Freedom Haggadah, but this addition was intolerable to my father. I never attempted to offer any emendation to the traditional liturgy, all in incomprehensible Hebrew that it was.  
Then, and I don’t recall exactly what happened or the precise order of events, but in the midst of the service my grandfather corrected something my father had done or said. Abel, my grandfather’s brother, had been ordained a Rabbi in 1908, and I think my grandfather assumed his scholarship upon his death in 1935. My father, I recall, responded politely at first, but my grandfather reiterated his critique, and added coincidentally, that my father was wrong. 
I had never seen my father lose his temper. But this night unlike on all other nights, he exploded, and he threw down his napkin, looked across the table at my grandfather and cried out, “In my house at my Seder you will not correct me.” And then my father stood up from the table and left the room. I sat for a minute a bit stunned, and then I got up from my chair and followed behind him. I found him pacing the floor smoking a cigarette in my bedroom. He turned to me as I entered the room, and he threw up his arms in frustration, in exasperation, and I think, in defeat. He didn’t say anything. I approached him, and perhaps for the first time in my life, maybe even for the last time, I hugged him. 
I think that there are few emotional wounds more painful than those inflicted by being disappeared. This was not what I was conscious of then, but it rests now forefront in my mind.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hurt people hurt people.

16 March, 2011 13:07  

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