Wine is poured and the son must ask his father the four questions:
Why does this night differ from all other nights? For on all other nights we eat either leavened or unleavened bread; why on this night only unleavened bread?
On all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs; why on this night only bitter herbs?
On all other nights we need not dip our herbs even once; why on this night must we dip them twice?
On all other nights we eat either sitting up or reclining; why on this night do we all recline?'
"Chozzerai!" Everything's shrinking: movie theaters, cars, radios, televisions - the whole thing a fool's paradise," I'd say. "Well, okay for televisions." He sits at our table, elbows up, gesticulating with hands and fingers, shooting the breeze, shouting bravura about sandlot baseball, picking up girls on the east side, sock hops, car-hops, and making out. Later he be-bopped at U.S.O. dances, and once, "I even shook hands with Ike!"
He is my stepfather come late in life, and every year at the Seder table I'm jealous of stories describing his innocent youth. Solley is a Baseball-Jew from Chicago whose family drove to Los Angeles piled in a gas guzzling Buick - thick glossy paint and miles of chrome across America. Automobiles, then, wore eight cylinder engines, iron bolted into heavy steel chassis flogging the asphalt. Life felt solid in those days, radio days: Orson Wells' War Of The Worlds, "The Shadow knows what evil lurks in the hearts and minds of men," the Dorsey bands, and Benny 'The King of Swing' Goodman, before the earth became one violent pit whose every sore spot, every bump and ingrown hair is monitored by mass media.
These are amazing times for Solley: an information revolution, the age of wonder, and at age seventy nothing comes big anymore. Computer chips mean one thing to the Baseball-Jew, a miniature television he carries wherever he goes so he won't miss the game, especially if it's Chicago.
He doesn't know about my life, my youth not yet reconciled, while I sit at the Passover table, beard finally turned white, with first friends plowed under the knees of their grieving fathers by drug madness. Strangely, others survived near asphyxiation by psychedelic speed: Double Cross Whites, Rainbows, Blue Microdot, Yellow Sunshine, Mescaline, a methamphetamine graveyard. Not lucky enough to have died, they roam endless white hallways in bed sheet institutions. Some still rot in prison, and a few bought rice patty death in Southeast Asia. One, in L.A., blew himself to pieces using a sawed-off shotgun. At sunrise the authorities found a dozen empty beer bottles and miscellaneous body parts splattered against the wall.
Solley doesn't know about the morning I turned twenty and awoke in my own alcoholic vomit. Twenty-eight years later, twenty-four of them cold sober, and when it's five p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Central, and Mountain Time - that covers most of the time - I battle, with the softness that distance imparts, religious visions of mind altering substances.
I envy Solley his innocent youth and he doesn't know about mine. This is how we sit facing one another as I'm called upon to ask the four questions.
"And, let me ask you this," he says, "if movie theaters are getting smaller, and we all drive around in junkie little cars built for those tiny Japanese people, but our population is exploding, life expectancy is longer, and the average height is growing, what then?" He shakes his head like a man lost, searching along the pock-marked ridge of his nose with one finger, tracing the vague memory of his life. "Chozzerai!"
"We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt, and the Lord our God brought us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not brought our forefathers forth from Egypt, then we, our children, and our children's children would still be Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt."
Along the other side of the table sit at least three generations of friends and family. I try not making eye contact while I adjust my Yarmulka borrowed from Solley. It's a black one, serious, with a mortuary label printed on the inside. I'm uncomfortable. I feel no tie binding me to an ancient tribe of matzot munchers in exodus. I shift in my chair, ashamed, as if a deserter of the cause, the gift, the honor. With horror I feel my jaw twisting itself into a frenzy. The pressure is on. The ceremony is about to begin. My face flushes, cheeks hold back the Mediterranean; they burst like a dam, "Judaism is constipating, Solley. This is chozzerai." My emotional baggage trots itself out like an old traveling companion. Solley, wounded, stares at me quietly waiting.
When I was young, Judaism smothered my sleep; black and white footage of lives decimated by the Fuhrer, old men dragged across Poland by their white rabbinical beards, voyages in rags to begin life anew without a shekel. Castration and the Mengele nightmare. I wanted to tell Solley how I felt, to say that our history is a long drag through the mud - a shambles saved by glomming onto the Torah and the bitterest sweatshop coolie work ethic. But why lay it on him? His shoulders are only as broad as a man's.
How could I tell him of my adolescence, about the historical, intellectual machine falling upon me like a biological warhead? "Max Greenbaum, we expect you to succeed, to help us get even with every syphilitic, Gentile criminal stalking the earth. You must use your mind, Max - we must use your mind!"
Mom clatters dishes in the kitchen. The oven door flies open and slams shut. Tap water constantly runs clearing pipes of rust and chlorine. She shouts into the dining room, "Solley! If that television's on the table I'll rip your eyes out of their sockets!" He grins at me sheepishly, burying the TV under the table. I hear noise below, something about a line drive.
Tonight, Mom lights candles reciting her part from the Haggadah. This is new for her. During seventeen years with my father she wanted to bring the spirit of Judaism into our home, but he wouldn't hear of it. "Can't we have just one Seder? For your pot-head son. It might help."
"He beat it into me," Dad said. "With a broomstick my father beat it into me, religion and the violin. Not in my house. No violins and no religion."
After the divorce, the escape, the exodus from my father's bitterness, Mom met Solley. The Baseball-Jew from Chicago felt a void in his life, something he always wanted to do but never did. Happens they both had the same empty space to fill.
"What does the wicked child say, 'What is this service to you? To you, and not to him.' Since he removes himself from the group, and so denies God, you in return must set his teeth on edge, and answer him: 'It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt.' "
I don't finish my diatribe. I like Solley, yet can't confide in him. I like him too much and already feel bad about wounding him. How can I sit in my mother's house and say to her husband, "Your religion means nothing to me. The Haggadah falls on deaf ears and you know what, I don't like baseball either." So, I ask him in this way, "Solley, what does the Passover mean to you?" Background noise rises from the television at his feet. He mumbles something about Fernando Valenzuela and a sucker pitch.
"You know who Fernando Valenzuela is?" he asks.
"A taxi driver?" I venture. Everyone laughs. I don't know why they laugh, and I don't know this Valenzuela fella.
"It could've been Fidel Castro," he says.
"He played baseball?"
"He was one helluva Cuban baseball player. The American clubs used to go there to scout. Imagine that - Fidel Castro takes the mound. Yes! Yes!"
"No, I can't imagine it."
"Why not?" Solley's in dead earnest.
"He's got a beard. He smokes cigars. He's the leader of a country, for Christ's sake. At the least, he's too fat to run."
"You figure he was born that way? A fat, bearded leader, I mean."
"No, of course not."
"You don't have history - a sense of the past, of changes. People have history, Max. Each individual has a history of changes, a journey, I'd say. I know a little something about human nature. Most changes in life happen with difficulty, sometimes with pain. Even those changes which are beneficial, especially struggles that are good for us, are often times the toughest. In Jerusalem the Hasidim are trying to redefine who is a Jew and who isn't. That's chozzerai! No matter what they decide, it can't alter how I define myself. I know myself through my journey in a way that no man can know me.
I understand I'm not the same person I began life as. I think God chose a challenge to put before me, and that challenge was how to complete my journey arriving at a place in heart, mind, and soul. I call that place the Promised Land. By enabling me to dream of such a place within myself, and imbuing me with the spirit to run the bases, to reach this place, God has promised me that it exists. I must believe that! The Almighty has charged me with an exodus since the day I was born: to exceed my own limitations, to be the best man, the best Jew, the best Solley I can be."
He glances around the table letting me know with his heavy eyelids and raised eyebrows he's speaking about the others. "I consider not only the Jews of thirty-two centuries ago. I wonder about a God that lays the exact same problem in everybody's path - to create new history, improved history - but in each generation, and for each individual, makes the challenge so distinct and different. That's why I keep the Passover. Because it says in the Mishnah, …'In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written: 'And thou shalt tell they son in that day saying, it is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.' …"
"All that from baseball?"
"From life." so saying, he offers me a glass of Carmel wine. I can't help thinking of the distance traveled, and I tell him ice water will do.
"There's still baseball," I say. "It's not all chozzerai."
He smiles a sly Chicago grin. "A fool's paradise," Solley repeats with religious conviction, and he taps the television under the table with his shoe.