Photo of Nicolas Maury and Carmen Maura in Let My People Go! (Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films)
The friends who show up for our Seder meals talk about late-Regency furniture, business ventures, and which rabbis’ beards were most impressive. Yet, all I want to talk about is one whole man.
Being gay at what amounts to a Jewish coming out party, I knew what I was in for among the suburban Jewry: too much weird food, awkward queries about girls, and the 50 shades of upper-class Jewish disapproval that can be held in a single nod. As I stared out of the windows of the train, planning to tell my parents—who already knew I was gay—about the man they’d never heard of, but who had just exited my life, I hoped that four cups of wine would be enough to anesthetize.
The night of the Seder, my mother was a nervous hostess. She wore a white caftan, gold necklace set with lapis lazuli, and sandals. At 50, she was still beautiful and slim, a community figure, known for her weekly ladies’ discussion circle, which held, by far, the juiciest conversations—on scripture, philosophy, who was single, and who wouldn’t be for long—in Bergen County.
For the festivities, mother prepared 10 Ziplocked bags containing the miracles of Passover in bite-sized replications: a vial of food dye for blood, a wind up frog for, well, frogs, poppy seeds for lice, etc.
“Cute, don’t you think?” she asked.
When the Rosenthals arrived, I was decked out in my best clothes, a party of one, while my older brother had his pretty, Jewish date sit beside him. I took my reserved seat (next to the children) at the far end and fiddled with my spoons. On the other end of the table, my parents negotiated the appetizers and aperitifs according to biblical law—an uncomfortable etiquette all its own—before settling at the chanting and group Exodus-exegesis portion of the evening.
We went around the table. Each person read a paragraph of the Haggadah aloud in a slow rhythm that filled the room with the nasal annunciation and pitchy diction of East Coast Hebrew. As we arrived at the plagues, mother released them one by one from the bag, with a rolling sense of glee. The Rosenthals bowed their heads and grinned. We arrived at the Dead Sea, and made it across, trekked through the desert, and reached the Promised Land. By then, even I was ready to celebrate.
Then, however, the Rosenthals unsheathed from their own bags a slew of polished musical instruments. Around the table, they sat strategically positioned. Like a slow horror film, they rose in place and began to circle the table with grand, historic timbre, to each a lyre, harp, or flute.
The silence that met their music was symphonic, orchestrated not by mother alone. “That’s not completely kosher,” she said. An ancient Talmudic law expressly forbade the playing of musical instruments on holidays. The Rosenthals whined to a halt, looking around the room desperately. (They were never invited over again.)
Although I’d planned to provocatively mention my own lost boyfriend, I felt the wind sucked right out of me. Later, inured to silence, I found myself leaving great pieces of my life out when my mother finally asked, after the Seder, “So how’re things?”
As I said goodbye that night, she caught my forearm, looked me in my bright, gay face, and said, “Does everything happen for a reason?”
I looked back at her thin, immutable eyeliner, and said, “For a thousand reasons, Mom.”
The ride back to the city that night was windows coated in black ice, my iPod blearing electro-house, and all the while my reflection recalling my parent’s sharp features. Maybe there is something to learn from Passover about pride and sacrifice and family. I looked at my phone, read one new text: Andrew – 3:00am: “Pride this year?”
My own exodus could wait till June.