Disclaimer: The resemblance of any characters in this sketch to real persons, living or dead, is purely intentional.
The doorbell rings as Reuvein (formerly “Richard”) Friedlander, just back from a year in yeshiva in Jerusalem, winces visibly. Auntie Zelda, early 50s recently divorced, and still wearing her yoga outfit, hands a box of non-Kosher-for-Pesach nougat to Reuvein’s mother and joins the rest of the guests around the Seder Table.
She takes her seat next to her “favorite nephew” Greg (formerly “Greg” – though there was brief mention at his bris of a “Gershon”), first-year BA student at UCLA, two years Reuven’s junior, and completely uninterested in being where he is at this present time. Next to him is their nine-year-old brother Jason, who currently isn’t having too much of a say in proceedings beyond answering the usual questions from his aunt about how he is getting on at school and (to his mother’s mortification) whether he has started “noticing girls’ bodies”– but for whom that state of affairs will change drastically as the evening progresses.
At the head of the table is their father, Larry – a mildly successful accountant, resplendent in the quiet comfort and contentedness of his existence, and like all family men, thrust into marriage and fatherhood without being properly prepared, or even remotely qualified, for the roles, but usually managing to put up a decent front.
At his right-hand side sits his wife, Michelle – the actual head of the household, a well-liked high-school English teacher, and someone equally equipped, if she had the time for such trifling pursuits, to be the CEO of a major multinational corporation or a UN expert on global conflict resolution.
The gathering is rounded out by Grandpa Cyril – fearsome chairman of the Gleneagles body corporate, longstanding synagogue committee member and honorary president of the local bridge club. He is also someone prone to extraordinary exaggerations and often outright lies about the accomplishments of his grandchildren…
LARRY FRIEDLANDER: Lovely service. Great to see a decent crowd in shul for a change.
GRANDPA CYRIL: I didn’t enjoy it. With all those frummies singing, I could hardly hear the choir. I’ve told them before – if they want to sing in shul, they need to join the choir.
LARRY: “You know dad – not everyone views a situation where there’s more people on the bima than sitting in the seats as ideal.”
MICHELLE FRIEDLANDER: If you went back to your beloved shtetl, Cyril, you wouldn’t find giant cathedrals with crystal chandeliers, and choirs, and men in top-hats and coattails. Going to shul shouldn’t be a visit to Westminster Abbey or a night at the opera.
GRANDPA CYRIL (ignoring the preceding remarks): …and then that bloody Morris Green tries to steal my seat again. He knows I’ve been sitting in that same seat for more than 50 years, but suddenly he ‘forgot’. I told him – ‘I may be six years older than you, but I’m not gone yet’. Remember that time he got the rabbi to announce in shul that his grandson was running for Ward District Councilor for the Democratic Party? Some verkakta political institution run by that Communist Barack Hussein Obama who is basically handing his Muslim brothers in Iran a nuclear bomb on a platter. Not many people shouted “mazeltov!” I can tell you. And what’s so special about running for Ward councilor. It’s not as if it’s next stop, the Oval Office. Do I ask the rabbi to make an announcement whenever Jason keeps his bed dry? Of course, if I sponsored the Kiddush to mark the occasion, he probably would.
MICHELLE (looks at the one empty seat): Greg, I’m not sure what time you’re expecting your girlfriend, but I think we should start. (Under her breath, turning to her husband): I’m not sure how much more of this I can take on an empty stomach.
REUVEIN: Mom, I have a special someone popping by later as well.
(His mother looks at his father with a look of happy surprise)
Larry recites Kiddush. Encountering the familiar blessing on wine, he starts off relatively strong, but starts to falter when it comes to the verses specific to Yom Tov and Pesach. He soon has his finger on the page, reciting the words syllable by syllable, mostly incorrectly. Afterwards, Reuvein decides to say his own Kiddush. His mother looks on proudly, and his father, though initially irritated and slightly injured, ultimately decides to see it as a passing of the baton.
LARRY: Right, Urchatz – washing the hands. Now I forget, do we say the blessing on this washing or the next?
GREG: You’ve done the same thing for the past 30 years and you still can’t remember?
LARRY: I recall hearing somewhere that every year should be as if you are experiencing the Seder for the first time. Isn’t that right Richard?
REUVEIN: Yes dad, that’s exactly what the rabbis of the talmud meant – that you’ve got to have early-onset Alzheimers to experience the true power of the Seder.
MICHELLE: Don’t be rude, Richard. Are you too frum to remember the Ten Commandments – ‘honor your father and mother’.
LARRY: Luckily my boy, it’s not Alzheimers. I’ve had a bad memory since I was a kid.
REUVEIN: Baruch Hashem.
GREG (turning to Reuvein): ‘Baruch Hashem’ – is that all you can say. ‘Baruch Hashem this, Baruch Hashem that’. No one can have a normal conversation with you anymore. Mom wants to know what you’ve been up to for the past year, how you spent your time in Israel, and all you can say is ‘Baruch Hashem’.
REUVEIN: Greg, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t begin to describe the voyage of discovery I’ve been on, the transcendent things I’ve learnt and experienced. Words are an imperfect medium. They always lie. At best they are a shallow approximation of reality.
GREG: Yadda, yadda, yadda. You probably got that from one of your rabbis. Don’t you have an original thought of your own anymore?
MICHELLE: Ok, boys… Lar, what’s next?
The Seder continues. Larry falters along, struggling to hold people’s attention or really bring any coherence at all to proceedings (even Reuvein can’t help stifling a yawn). He ends up skipping over large chunks. Greg remains with his head down throughout, absorbed in the phone on his lap, while looking up every so often to roll his eyes. At “The Four Sons”, Jason asks his father whether Greg is the wicked son. Greg secretly enjoys the question. Meanwhile Reuvein tries to slip in droshas at every opportunity, much to everyone’s chagrin. After “vehi she’amdah”, the second cup is drunk.
JASON: Mommy why is the table spinning?
AUNTIE ZELDA: Oh s&%t…
It transpires that Auntie Zelda accidentally poured Jason a full glass of wine instead of grape juice. And not Rashi Light – the Medium-Dry Manischewitz 16,5%. Jason begins hurling matzahs around like frisbies and karpas like confetti. The situation reaches breaking point when he empties the bowl of charoset over his head. Eventually, the young boy is slung over his dad’s shoulder and unceremoniously carried off, kicking and screaming, to bed. Everyone sighs with relief.
Finally, after navigating the Plagues; Pesach Matzah and Maror (“the chrein was stronger last year”); and “Dayeinu” without any further incident, the meal is in sight. The mood lifts dramatically, as the rich, delicious smells emanating from the kitchen become no longer torturous but inviting. The soup course is taken up by long discussions about the consistency of the kneidlach (and how they measure up to the Rambam’s elusive Golden Mean – “soft yet firm”), before Cyril returns to his favorite subject.
GRANDPA CYRIL: Did I tell you that my ulcers flared up last week? Morris Green told me to go and see his grandson, who is supposedly some hotshot specialist, and to say he sent me. Anyway I went. He was ok. Not great. But the pischer ended up charging me for a full-price consultation. What did that sheygetz Morris mean, ‘tell him I sent you?’. Was it wrong of me to expect even a small discount on those meshuganah fees? Why else would Morris have wanted me to say such a thing? Hmmm… could be he is getting kickbacks for these referrals. Wouldn’t surprise me, that ganif…
LARRY: I think it’s enough about Morris Green, dad.
GRANDPA CYRIL (moving on to his next favourite topic and turning to his grandson): So, Greg, what building are you working on at the moment? There’s a big glass skyscraper going up across the road from Katz’s Deli. Is that yours my boy?
(Greg is baffled)
MICHELLE: Cyril, Greg is in first-year varsity, doing a BA in social anthropology.
GRANDPA CYRIL (not even making an effort to disguise his disappointment): But my boy, you told me you were going to be an architect!
GREG: I was in second grade, Grandpa.
GRANDPA CYRIL: Well I told Solly Hirschowitz you were an architect. And now what am I supposed to say? That you’re studying Indian war dances? You know Solly’s grandson is in fifth-year medicine, specialising in neurosurgery?
LARRY: He’s also lying, dad.
GRANDPA CYRIL: …and his other grandson who is playing quarterback for the Knicks?
GREG: Let me explain something, grandpa – when you name your child ‘Samuel Hirshowitz’, you’re basically saying to him: ‘son, you can be whatever you like in this world – doctor, lawyer, business tycoon – but you’re never going to be an world-renowned sportsman.’
(Laughter round the table)
GRANDPA CYRIL (somewhat mollified): And what about you, Richie? How’s rabbinical school? My cousin Marvin says their shul in Park Avenue NY is looking for a new rabbi…
REUVEIN: Gramps, I’ve been studying in yeshiva for a year and I’m not even sure I want to be a rabbi.
GRANDPA CYRIL: What! What the hell’s the point of that?
REUVEIN: It’s about truth, grandpa. It’s not a means to an end or a career opportunity. I’m studying in yeshiva because I want to get closer to God and ultimate truth.
GREG: Here we go again…
JASON (who, seemingly recovered, has rejoined the company for a bite of supper before bed): I want to be an astronaut, grandpa!
GRANDPA CYRIL: And with your brains and ability, who’s going to stop you, boy!
There’s another peal at the bell. This time, Reuvein isn’t the only one wincing, as in walks a girl in her early twenties, with a shaved head, dressed head-to-toe in leather and with more metal in her face than Robocop. But it isn’t the piercings or the shaved head or the clothes people are wincing at; it’s not even the tattoo on her left arm of some sort of winged creature captioned in Chinese. It’s the big, fat spiky cross tattooed on her upper right arm. Even Auntie Zelda’s mouth is hanging open.
GREG: Hi everyone, this is Christy.
CHRISTY: Merry Passover Ya’ll! And please call me Daisy.
REUVEIN (quietly, to Greg): ‘Daisy’? Is that some hipster, ironic thing?
GREG: Does she look like a hipster to you? Get with the real world man, you’ve been living away from actual society for too long. Daisy is her astral name.
LARRY (whispering to his wife): we can give the nougat to Daisy.
MICHELLE (hissing back): Please don’t call her that, Larry. And what do you have to say about our son dating a shikse?
LARRY: I’d say it’s the “shikse appeal”. But I mean… well… look at her.
DAISY: Do ya’ll mind? (Takes out her cellphone, leans back into grandpa Cyril, and takes a selfie. Reuvein excuses himself, says he needs the bathroom)
GREG: Well at least she’s leaning.
MICHELLE (diplomatically): Why don’t you have some dessert, Christy… err, Daisy.
A détente settles on proceedings, as everybody eats their dessert in silence. Cyril shakes his head every now and then, thinking this is something he won’t be telling Solly Hirschowitz or Morris Green about. Larry announces it’s time for bensching.
DAISY (puzzled): Benching?
GREG: It’s ‘Grace after Meals’, sugarplum.
DAISY: Oh… ‘Grace’. Can I say it! (Eyes closed, brings her hands together in supplication). ‘Bless us Oh Lord Je…’
MICHELLE (cutting her short): Greg….!
Greg ends up leading the bensching. Afterwards, his father remembers they haven’t yet done Elijah’s Cup. Upon filling the cup, there’s a knock on the door. Nobody gets a fright.
MICHELLE: That must be your girlfriend, Rich.
REUVEIN (hastily): “No mom, it’s not what you think…”
Before he can explain further, a spectacled, respectable-looking bearded man in his early forties enters the room.
REUVEIN: This is Chaim, my chavrusa.
Reuvein’s parents exchange nervous glances. ‘His what??’
CHAIM (noticing the puzzled expressions): Oh, a chavrusa is a partner for life – or used to be before we all got so busy.” (Chaim and Reuvein look at each other and smile.)
Incriminating information begins piling up.
REUVEIN: No of course my rabbi doesn’t approve of all the things Chaim and I do together. We have to be discreet. (Referring to the weekly Farbrengen they attend at the nearby chabad yeshiva.)
CHAIM: I’ll admit, it’s hard leaving my wife and kids for long stretches of the evening. But this guy (looks affectionately at Reuvein) always makes it worth my while. Luckily, my family knows how important this is for my sanity, and – Baruch Hashem – I have a very understanding wife.
(Chaim continues): I’ve had so many chavrusas in my life. When I was a young bocher, I even tried girls – though my rabbi didn’t approve of that! I guess Reuvein’s the first chavrusa I’ve had who really understands me.
REUVEIN: Of course, we’re different in many ways. I just want to plough through it, whereas Chaim is happy to take his time. He likes to examine it from every angle; sometimes he’ll blow it out of all proportion…
(Reuvein’s mother chokes over a mouthful of rugelach)
(Reuvein continues): But we complement each other so well. We’re more than chavrusas – we’re best friends. Sometimes, after pounding it in the beis midrash for seven hours straight, we just go out and chill and have a beer together. As I said, though, we do have our differences.
CHAIM (chuckling): Someone once told us we argue over the Gemara like an old married couple.
AUNTIE ZELDA: Wow, you’re already thinking about marriage… Is it legal over there?
REUVEN (confused): is what legal?
MICHELLE (quickly trying to change the subject): How are your ulcers holding up this evening, Cyril?
AUNTIE ZELDA: Don’t change the subject, Michelle. I think it’s wonderful. In this day and age, why not? Why shouldn’t they be happy?
MICHELLE (losing control for the first time this evening): God help me! My nine-year-old boy is an alcoholic, his brother is dating someone from the Osbourne family, and my eldest son is a religious homosexual!
At this, a piece of the afikomen goes flying out Reuvein’s mouth, as the current misunderstanding in all its horror and magnitude suddenly dawns on him. Fortunately, Chaim remains calm. He clears away the confusion, carefully explaining the concept of a chavrusa in Torah, and that he and Reuvein are learning partners. For a moment or two, the table falls silent as everyone realises the mistake. Then, suddenly, simultaneously, everyone explodes into laughter. It’s the highpoint of the night, and a magical family moment that they’ll recall at every Seder for the next 50 years.
The merriment is still in the air as the concluding prayer, “L’shana ha’ba b’Yerushlayim ” is sung, and the Seder fades out with high-spirited renditions of echad mi yodea, chad gadya and adir hu…
Ten years later, “Daisy” – who now goes by her Hebrew name, Dalia (and whose infamous tattoo was later revealed to be a stick-on-and-wash-off devised by her boyfriend to give his parents a fright) – is living with Greg, the newly appointed community Rabbi of grandpa Cyril’s shul, and their new-born baby girl, Batya, in Borough Park. Reuvein is a successful accountant, and teaches a daf yomi class in the evenings. Having woken up with a splitting headache, Jason, a freshman-year architecture student, hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol – or rather, a drop of Manischewitz Medium-Dry – since. His parents now attend a weekly Hebrew class, Auntie Zelda has discovered transcendental meditation, and Cyril, who tells everyone Jason is an astronaut, is still locked in mortal combat with his best friend, Morris Green.
Or, more to the point, he isn’t. There is no “ten years from now”. The story is made up; it’s all in my head. Why is everyone so obsessed with closure in these things anyway? Just move on with your sad, pathetic lives, and resist the urge to invest your emotions in fictional characters. Walter White, the Lannisters, Mario Balotelli, the Ayatollah of Iran – none of these people are real. So stop watching TV and go for a walk. Or read The Economist. Or learn to play the banjo.