After a long drive, my parents and I arrive at Tenth and South Streets in downtown Philadelphia. We’re right on time so we won’t upset Poppop. My stomach’s already tight as a fist. I check my mother: no lipstick, of course, and no one’s wearing red. We don’t want Nana to get whipped with Poppop’s belt for our mistakes.
I fidget on the white marble steps that Nana scrubs weekly on her hands and knees and watch Negroes walk past. My father has told me that this is a “changing neighborhood,” meaning that a few very old Jews are holding onto their shops and houses as more and more Negroes move in.
At the door, Nana crushes me against her soft bosom. “Hurry up, don’t keep Poppop waiting,” she whispers, and we immediately go in and sit down at the table.
Poppop starts complaining. “Sarah, what kinda matzah you got? Lookit all these crumbs.”
“Ben, matzah always gets crumbs,” she answers.
“There’s no wine in Elijah’s cup. You can’t do nothing right?”
“Oy, vey iz mir.” Nana jumps up to get the wine.
Poppop scowls at us, then reads the Haggadah at 400 miles an hour. He points to the seder plate. “Zeroa, roasted bone. Karpas, parsley. Sarah! Where’s the karpas?” he thunders. “There can’t be no seder without karpas.”
Nana puts both hands to her cheeks, which turn scarlet, then white. “Oh, my God, it’s right in the kitchen, I forgot to put it on the plate, Ben.” Poppop glowers at her, his blue eyes hard as marbles. Then he scolds her in a stream of Yiddish. He continues reading and we sit in silence, as though the strange Hebrew words have cast a spell.
Finally it’s time to open the door for Elijah. Thrilled, I run towards the front door, but Poppop catches my arm.
“Where d’ya think you’re going?” he spits at me through his naked gums.
I’m stung and shaking, deathly afraid to cross him.
“Open the front door? Whaddaya, meshugenah? Siddown! You want some shvartse to come in, rob all the silver, and kill us in our chairs?”
I don’t know exactly what shvartse means, but I think it’s a nasty word for Negro, and my father told me never to use it.
“But, Poppop,” I protest, my throat aching with tears, “how can the Prophet Elijah come to our table if —”
“Forget the goddamn Prophet Elijah! He don’t live at Tenth and South in downtown Philly no-how. What does he know?”
Tears climb over the ache and spill out of my eyes and nose.
“Aw, Ben,” my father says. “The kid just learned about Elijah from a book Pearl read to her.”
“You’re the one who insists she get a Jewish education,” my mother says tearfully to her father. “And now, when I teach her something —”
“Ah, shaddup!” Poppop slams the flat of his hand on the table so hard that Nana’s gold-rimmed dishes jump. A delicate wine glass teeters for a long moment, then falls, spilling wine as red as Egyptian blood across the white damask tablecloth.
I’m so frightened my tears dry up.
“Ben,” my father says. He pauses, then speaks calmly. “Ben, why don’t you pour some schnapps for us? I’ll open the alley door for Elijah. The gate’s locked, the dog’s there, nobody can get in. Ellen, get a dish cloth from the kitchen.”
When I return, my father suggests I inspect the silver cup. Before, the wine touched the top of the engraved star; now, it barely reaches the bottom.
“He came,” I say in wonderment. “Elijah came here, to Tenth and South.”
Ellen Schecter survived the only seder of her childhood and went on to write The Family Haggadah for her children, later published by Viking. She has written many books for children, and her memoir, Fierce Joy, is due out in March.
by Susan Schnur
The biblical Elijah is said to visit Jews on two occasions — circumcisions and seders — and he does so because he is tasked with “reconciling the hearts of fathers to sons and sons to fathers” (a job so difficult, according to the prophet Malachi, that it will be the penultimate “miracle” before the coming of the Messiah). The rabbis understood that competitive male tensions, even trauma, undergird the acts of generational transmission at the heart of both the bris and the seder. At the bris, there’s the foreskin thing, of course; at the seder, there’s the hierarchy of the Four Sons and the core injunction to “teach your sons” — which, the 12thcentury Rashbam explained, means “using words as bionic as sinew.” Indeed, the Haggadah instructs the father of the “wicked son” to “knock out his teeth” [“hakhay et sheenav”], a metaphor of violence.
Elijah, interestingly, is a man’s man in the Bible, not only inciting carnage and often in a rage, but also immortal and capable of bringing the dead back to life. It’s funny how the more contemporary, folkloric Elijah has shuffled off to become a kind of zeyde in bed slippers.
Knowing these alpha-male memes adds a lot of resonance to Ellen Schecter’s “Redemption.” So does the fact that Schecter — a granddaughter rather than a grandson — went on to perform her own heartfelt “reconciliation” by authoring the classic Family Haggadah.