Each year our family celebrates the highest of holy days to honor Jewish traditions. As non-observant Jews we have creatively invented our own ways to pay respects to the customs and struggles of the Jewish people. As there are many holidays throughout the year which does call for observance and Synagogue attendance, we select those very few that highlight the most important aspects of Judaism. Going to Temple is rarely or truthfully, never involved. We gather our family and observe with festive, and appropriate culinary foods associated with the respective holiday.
Passover is one of those holidays that require family gathering and specific foods save leavened breads and grains. Our family enjoyed years of Seders together, weathering familial storms, new additions, some good, some not so good, and of course the sadness of those who have departed. So, with the happy compilation of guests and foods and celebratory nature of these dinners came complication and judgments and breath holding….
The high holy day holidays were usually held at my parents’ home on Long Island. They had a beautiful home, large enough to accommodate 15-20 people seated. Their property is set off the main road and heavily wooded. At darkness, it appears ominous as the bare tree limbs cast shadows that create a haunting affect during autumn, the time of this particular celebration.
This Passover Seder created a new brand of dismay. In attendance was my young nephew, Joshua, 10. He was a sensitive child that brandished a roller coaster of emotional behaviors causing a level of concern. Why we picked Joshua to be our special recipient of our “family fun” is beyond rationale. We would come to regret this forever.
Passover commemorates the freeing of Israelites from Slavery in Egypt as explained in the book of Exodus. The themes of springtime, a Jewish homeland, family, remembrance of history, social justice and freedom are all aspects of this holiday. A prophet known as Elijah was said to be a heavenly messenger sent to earth to combat injustices. He was kind, and magical and was known to bring cures to dying children or punish misers. It is believed that on Passover, Elijah makes his way to each Seder. A glass of wine is left on the table undisturbed in anticipation of his arrival.
In addition to the traditional game of hiding the matzoh for children to recover, a few of us decided to add another element to this festive holiday. We thought it would be humorous if Elijah actually arrived.
My husband is a techy kind of person who loves to problem solve especially issues that involve electronic devices. We thought we were so clever as we devised a plan to bring Elijah to life. My dad, my husband and I, convened secretly and conjured up a plan. We were so caught up in the plan that we failed to think beyond the moment of execution. Excitedly we schemed and laughed expressing to each other how great this was going to be.
We set out to create the illusion. We wired the doorbell connection to a wire hidden under the dinner table. It was rigged as a button to be pushed by foot.
My dad sat at the helm and his foot hovered above the button, waiting for just the right moment to press our plan into action.
Dad began the Seder with the traditional prayers. The three of us in cahoots barely able to concentrate just waiting for the moment to arrive. Dad oversaw it all, so patiently and relaxed, it was interesting to observe his ability to look nonchalant. My husband and I did not know the precise moment it was going to happen. Customarily the youngest child who has reading ability will recite the four questions from the Haggadah. (Passover order of Prayer) That child was Joshua. With the staging all in place and Elijah’s glass of wine centered on the table for all to see, the doorbell suddenly rings interrupting Joshua’s part of the ceremony. The guests all deeply immersed in the concentration and seriousness of the moment, were startled out of their readings. Everyone looked up and thought, was this possibly Elijah? Joshua was encouraged to go and see who might be at the door. While Joshua tended to the door, my dad quickly drank Elijah’s glass of wine. Joshua became terrified to see that no one was at the door, just darkness with the eerie sound of wind pushing against those barren tree branches. When he returned to the table wide eyed and pale, we told him, Elijah had not only come but also drank the wine. Joshua overcome with confusion and terror ran screaming from the table in complete hysterics.
As we all recall this dinner gone wrong 35 years ago, I can honestly convey that Elijah was never to visit our Seder again. The devastation and guilt that we felt was indescribable. Watching our silly plan come to life and the affect that it had was never anticipated. It was shocking and a lesson for all. As we tried to console Joshua and explain our stupidity, it did occur to me that perhaps Elijah’s magic did occur. He taught us a lesson about thoughtfulness and consideration beyond our own fun. It made us realize what might seem funny to adults, may terrify a child, permanently leaving a scar. Passover, but especially family dinners in general have challenges at best, but to rob Joshua of what should have been lifelong memories of tradition and unity at family gatherings are forever tainted. Of course, this was never meant to hurt or frighten Joshua, but rather as a moment of comedy perceived by adult humor. We lost sight of what should have been important. A lesson learned forever at poor Joshua’s expense, but I can honestly say, we all consider our actions much more thoughtfully and thoroughly since that experience. Through the years Joshua’s fragile nature may have learned where to emotionally place this hoax within himself, but as an adult, his vulnerabilities remain. Now so many years later, it is inconceivable to think that I, we, could have be part of scarring a young child for life. Elijah, known to protect the weak from the strong, did visit us that night, and he did his job.