This story is the first place winner of the 2021 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2021 stories were judged by novelist and president of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Susan Coll. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Coll and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
On the evening of the first Passover seder, traffic on the Long Island Expressway heading east into the suburbs was massive, slow-moving and maddening, just as Martin Weissman expected. “It was probably easier to cross the Red Sea,” he muttered, slamming on the brakes as a monstrous black SUV swerved into his lane.
“Why are we going so slow?” Lisa asked from the back seat.
“Do you see what’s ahead of us?” Martin said. “Just relax. Read Ben a story.”
“I don’t want a story,” Ben said. Martin’s wife, Rachel, leaned over the back seat to soothe the kids, ages 8 and 5. “Why don’t we tell each other the Passover story,” she said, her voice freighted with enthusiasm. “I’ll start. A long, long time ago in the land of Egypt…”
“We’ve done that,” Lisa said.
“Well, tell me what you know about the special matzahs.”
“The komen,” Lisa said.
“The Afikomen. Better get it right. Grandpa’s going to ask you. And you’re going to read the Four Questions.”
“I know…” said Lisa.
“Maybe not,” Martin said. “Maybe the twins will read them.”
“They’re only six. They probably don’t read well enough, and can you imagine David preparing them? That’ll be the day.”
David was Rachel’s brother, her Buddhist brother, and a perfectly nice guy as far as Martin was concerned, but a disconcerting guest when he showed up at the family seder, something he did only in alternate years. “Other years,” according to Rachel, “he ruins his in-laws’ seder.”
David had given up his university position and his practice as a clinical psychologist and moved with his wife, Ellen, to Vermont. For the past five years they had lived near Lake Champlain where they ran a gallery selling American handcrafts largely to the tourist trade, which thronged the area all summer and through the leaf-watching fall.
During the mud-season when the tourists vanished, they lived in semi-isolation, watching deer nibble the yews at the edge of the woods and savoring the quiet.
Martin would not have chosen such a life. He commuted from Westchester to the city every day and liked the buzz and the jostle of strange bodies, the shifting smells of pizza and souvlaki, the snatches of unfamiliar languages—and the faces. Even on his brief subway ride from Grand Central, he could see descendants of the Incas, the Mongols, the Han, the Ibo tribesmen of Nigeria, their faces conjuring the history of the world and better by far, he thought, than watching deer.
“I hope we’re not going to be late,” Rachel said. “Mom will be chewing her nails.”
“We won’t be late. Stop fidgeting.”
Martin was a calming influence. Rachel had always appreciated that. If at times she wished she’d married someone more dynamic, it was only a passing fancy. Martin was exactly what she needed. He was an accountant with a balance sheet sensibility: so many assets, so many debts, keep the cash flow steady. He was not easily moved or easily rattled. He could be counted on to be fair, sensible and loyal, a man who cared about his home and his family, a man she could trust. She watched him now, inching the car forward, a slight frown creasing his brow, but no sign he would leap from the car to pummel someone blocking his way. But a hint of a double chin, she noticed. He was almost 40 and beginning to solidify. That was okay, she thought. Solid is fine, as long as he doesn’t get fat. Rachel was thin and tense. Inner agitation seemed to devour whatever calories she took in. “My wife turns hollandaise and chocolate mousse into leg twitching,” Martin said, when anyone noticed what she ate.
“I’m really going to try to be nice to David,” she said. “For mom’s sake.”
“If he just doesn’t lecture us.”
“He doesn’t really lecture.”
“Of course he does. He raises these questions no one can answer, just to show off, to make us feel stupid and shallow. He knows he’s not going to change anyone’s mind. If he’s so big on compassion, why doesn’t he just be compassionate and shut his mouth instead of implying he’s deep, deep like the ocean and the rest of us are puddles on someone’s driveway?”
Martin had heard these accusations before; he attributed them 10 percent to religious differences and 90 percent to sibling rivalry. “Well, if you didn’t argue with him, the subject would die. So don’t take the bait. You’re the one that keeps it bubbling.”
“What about dad? I only jump in to support him.”
Martin gave her a skeptical look, which she ignored. “Maybe you should speak to Ellen,” he suggested.
“Ellen’s useless. She can’t stop David. She practically walks two steps behind him. She’s in dreamland with her weaving and her hair.”
“What’s her hair got to do with it?”
“If your hair turns prematurely white, you don’t wear it in a ponytail like…like…I don’t know. She looks like the rear end of the Lone Ranger’s horse.
“Why doesn’t she cut it or dye it? Like a normal person.”
“I saw the Lone Ranger on Debbie’s TV,” Lisa said.
Martin and Rachel exchanged glances and fell silent.
As Rachel well knew, her mother, Bea Hirsch, was in the kitchen watching the clock and listening to the traffic reports on the radio. Delays at the Whitestone Bridge.
Delays on the Triborough. Delays on the Throgs Neck. The dinner she had worked on for three days was ready. In the refrigerator, the strawberry applesauce was well chilled. Two sponge cakes wrapped in linen towels waited on the breakfast room buffet. The gefilte fish sat in a Tupperware bowl. Next to the stove, the chicken soup stood ready for reheating, and the matzah balls rested in a metal bowl. In the oven, chickens were roasting. On the back burner, a brisket simmered in its rich gravy.
The dining room was ready for guests. Candles stood tall in their silver candlesticks, and the ceremonial plate with its bitter herbs had been placed near the head of the table, where Sam Hirsch sat with a pile of Haggadahs, leafing through the pages.
“Don’t make the seder too long,” Bea said from the kitchen door. “The children will get restless and the chicken will dry out.”
For Bea, the seder was first and foremost a gathering of her family, and if kindness and good cooking could bind them all together, tonight they would be as perfectly blended as her sponge cakes. To that end, she had not stinted. By herself she had done all the shelling, peeling, chopping, beating, mixing and baking required for a traditional four-course seder meal. But she was not confident her efforts would suffice. She worried that some key ingredient was missing. Not that her family had any terrible problems, and for that she was grateful. No divorces, thank God. No strange stepchildren from a second marriage or ex-spouses making trouble, no feuds or scenes with shouting and doors slamming. But not like the family when momma and papa were alive, not like that.
“These new Haggadahs have nice pictures for the children,” Sam said. “But they changed some things here I don’t like.”
“So use the old ones.”
Sam frowned and continued comparing Haggadahs.
“And just read in English,” Bea said. “Otherwise it’s too long.”
“What do you mean? The children have to hear Hebrew. Lisa’s learning Hebrew.”
Bea sighed, but she never pursued arguments with her husband on matters Jewish, because she could never win. On this subject, he was adamant and also knowledgeable. Although Sam Hirsch was a successful periodontist, in his own mind he was more importantly a pillar of the Porthaven Jewish community, president of Congregation Beth Emeth, active in B’nai Brith and a generous contributor to the UJA. Some people had suggested he become a rabbi. But that was ridiculous. Sam wasn’t religious. Although he no longer called himself an atheist as he had in his younger, more radical days, questions about God had never interested him. He had more important things to think about.
“Oh, it’s getting late,” Bea said. “I’m worried about the chicken.”
Ellen, David and their six-year-old twins, Josh and Ethan, arrived first, carrying several shopping bags and bringing a measure of commotion and noise. The kids had been cooped up in the car for too long, and after the first round of hugs and kisses, Ellen took Josh and Ethan into the basement rec room to try to get them in the proper mood for the seder. Sam returned to examining the Haggadahs, and David followed his mother into the kitchen.
“Smells good,” he said, putting a large shopping bag on the counter and then hugging his mother again. “Are you exhausted from all this cooking?”
“I just hope there’ll be enough for you to eat,” Bea said.
“What do you mean? There’s matzah balls, asparagus, salad, applesauce, sponge cake. What more could I want?”
Bea smiled wanly, thinking of her brisket and her chicken, but it was hard to be disappointed when David was around. She’d thought Rachel was a beautiful baby until David was born. People used to stop her in the supermarket to comment. Such dark, sparkly eyes. Such a smile. And a good baby too. Ate well, slept through the night before he was four months old.
To Bea’s great satisfaction, David had grown into a handsome man, tall and lean, with a strong, bony face and those same sparkly, dark eyes. Not that Rachel was unattractive. Bea always reminded herself of that. Rachel was sleek and fashionable, although a little too thin, and she’d adopted that trendy, spiky hair, which Bea hated.
But David was always a pleasure to see.
Of course, she was not happy that he’d left his university job or that he called himself a Buddhist. How could he be a Buddhist? He’d had a proper bris and a wonderful bar mitzvah. He’d married a nice Jewish girl under the chuppah at Temple Emanuel. So why make a fuss because he meditated? Weren’t they teaching yoga at the Jewish Community Center? Wasn’t her friend Irene Goldfarb doing tai chi? It’s America, she thought. Everyone’s doing everything. Sam was needlessly upset. His concern reminded her of an argument she’d had with him years ago when Rachel was in fifth grade and wanted to give a St. Valentine’s Day party. “Now we’re celebrating saints?” Sam said.
“It’s little girls eating cookies and sending cards with hearts on them. It won’t make her a shiksa; I promise,” Bea insisted, and she was right. So now it was Buddhism.
What’s the difference?
David was taking things out of the grocery bag: containers of organic fruit juice for the twins, four bottles of wine, a tin of macaroons, a box of chocolates in the shape of matzahs, a bottle of soy sauce, and, finally, a container of tofu.
Serious questions are often terrible. That’s why you have to ask them.
Bea looked uneasily at the tofu. “I don’t know how to fix that.”
“Ellen will do it,” he said. “Only takes a few minutes.”
The Weissmans arrived a few minutes later and the family assembled in the dining room. The children were seated apart from each other at the four corners of the table, which placed Rachel, David and their spouses face to face in the middle. How well everyone looked, Bea thought, relishing the sight of them, healthy and happy, and successful. If only momma and papa could see this, she thought, remembering for a moment their hard, narrow lives.
“Come, Lisa,” she said. “You’re going to help me bless the candles.”
“I can do it by myself,” Lisa said, joining her grandmother in front of the buffet.
“All right. You say the blessing, I’ll light the candles.”
“I can light the candles,” Lisa said.
“She can do it,” Rachel said. “Let her do it.”
Lisa took the matches from her grandmother’s somewhat reluctant hand and in a soft clear voice began, “Baruch ata Adonoy, Eloheinu Melech ha-Olam…”
At the head of the table, Sam Hirsch smiled. He nodded approvingly at the halting Hebrew, at the sight of a new generation learning the ways of his people. Rachel caught his eye as if to wiggle beneath that smile.
“Very nice, Lisa. Good job,” he said as she took her seat.
Despite his criticisms of certain parts of the new translation, Sam had chosen the Haggadah with the dramatic pictures for the sake of the children. In fact, he ran the seder, as he always had, like a professor leading a class, and although he read portions in both Hebrew and English, he also skipped sections, “moving now to page 63…”
Lisa read the four questions in English, “Why is this night different from all other nights…” and Sam, with great pleasure, gave the answers, doing his best to include the children, addressing age-appropriate comments to them, one by one. “Ben, do you understand why we eat unleavened bread?” “I don’t like matzah,” Ben said.
Bea, who had one ear tuned to the soup simmering on the stove, thought the seder was going well, and not too long, thank God. The children were still behaving, although Ben slid under the table several times and had to be retrieved. Fortunately, everyone liked the wine.
“Remember when we used to drink that Manischewitz,” Martin said, making a face. “That was always my fifth question. ‘Can’t we get some decent wine?’”
When Sam finished the last prayer and everyone murmured a final amen, there was a palpable sense of relief around the table. The children could get up and move for a few minutes, and Bea headed for the kitchen and what for her was the centerpiece of the occasion.
“What can I do to help?” Ellen asked, following her to the stove.
“The gefilte fish has to go on those plates,” Bea said. “Let’s see, we’ll need four portions. I don’t know whether Lisa and Ben will eat the fish. Ask Rachel. And you and the boys…?”
“No fish for us,” Ellen said softly, although she hated to say it. Despite being a vegetarian, she would have eaten the soup, the chicken, and even the brisket if it had been up to her, because it was so important to Bea. She and David had argued about it all week.
“Your mother will have cooked for days and then you want me to walk in with tofu and a bottle of soy sauce. It’s insulting.”
“So we won’t bring tofu. We’ll just eat the vegetables.”
“Great. Everyone else is eating a four-course meal and we’ll sit there with our asparagus. Your mother will love that.”
“We shouldn’t change what we do to please other people. What does that say to the kids? And mom knows we’re vegetarians. She won’t even be surprised.”
Rachel and David had left the table and taken the kids into the living room for a brief break, where they were now sprawled on the floor with the crayons and coloring books Bea had provided.
“The seder went well, don’t you think?” Rachel said.
“Please, don’t start that.”
David smiled because she was using her executive voice, a cover, he thought, for an ocean of uncertainty. “Well, nobody spilled the wine, if that’s what you mean. Nobody said anything inappropriate. But if you were looking for a serious religious ritual you might find it lacking.”
“Because we weren’t sitting cross-legged?”
“Because the inner meaning of the Passover was missing.”
David didn’t want to argue with his sister, but she seemed always to be prodding him, trying to push him into some aggressive, proselytizing stance where he had no wish to be. “Dinner’s ready,” Bea called and everyone reassembled at the table, where Martin assumed his usual role of gourmand, tasting the fish and licking his lips.
“At how many seders do you think there is homemade gefilte fish like this?” he asked, and Bea smiled with pleasure.
“I don’t really like this new translation of the Haggadah,” Sam said. “What do you think, Martin?”
“It’s just that the old version is more familiar.” “I like its modern connections,” Rachel said. “It’s important to keep up with the times.”
“Why?” David said.
Ellen quickly put a hand on his knee and squeezed hard, but to no avail. “Because it’s important to remain relevant,” Rachel said. “Isn’t that what Reform Judaism is all about?”
“That’s true,” Sam said, “but tradition is also important. We have to move forward, but we must never forget the past.”
“Tradition is important only if it sustains a living inner connection with the truth,” David said, looking intently at his father. “Otherwise it’s just conformity and habit.”
“Habit?” Sam said. “You think habit has sustained the Jewish community for 5,000 years, despite hatred and exile and pogroms and…”
“I think prejudice and observance have held it together while its true religious core leaked out.” “Leaked out!” Sam yelled. “What do you know about its religious core? You study Talmud? You know the Kabbalah?”
“I may not be religious enough for you, but I know what held Jews together. And it wasn’t prejudice and habit,” Sam said.
“What was it?”
“God? I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
“Rachel, hand me those plates,” Bea said, rising from her seat. “We’ll serve the soup.” This discussion made Ellen uneasy. She was glad the children were asking about the plagues. “Frogs everywhere?” Ethan said. “In the beds, under the covers?”
“Boils, yech,” said Josh, sticking out his tongue. Sam and Martin began to explain, which gave David and Ellen time for a whispered exchange. “Please don’t pursue this,” Ellen said. “You want me to treat my father like a child? He wants to know what I think, and he has a right to know.” “He doesn’t want to know. You just want to tell him.”
Bea and Rachel returned with the matzah ball soup, and for a few moments there were the pleasant sounds of eating.
“Wonderful kneidlach, even without the soup,” David said.
“No one makes kneidlach like Bea,” Martin said. “Not even my mother.”
“You know, Ellen, you could put them in vegetable broth,” Bea said.
Rachel’s fingers drummed restlessly on the table as though she were marking time. “The wonderful thing about Reform Judaism,” she said suddenly, “is that it takes the wisdom of the Bible and the ancient traditions and connects them with what we face today. The section about the Jews who don’t have the freedom to hold a seder…that’s more meaningful to me than what happened 5,000 years ago. They’re still in bondage. We need to remember them.”
“Yes, yes,” Sam said. “We take our freedom too much for granted.”
David looked down as his soup plate, now empty of matzah balls, as though by avoiding everyone’s eyes he could refrain from speaking, but it welled up in him, as it always did in these circumstances, a ferocious impulse to make them take religion seriously or to drop it. He knew it was useless to say anything. Every time he opened his mouth he only convinced them he was a renegade, but his mouth kept opening.
“What we need to remember is not the bondage of others,” he said, “but that we’re not free. Passover is not about political freedom. It’s about inner freedom.
“That’s the only way to understand freedom in religious terms. Seen that way, we are all enslaved by our fears and desires. We should be worrying about our own bondage.”
“I think that’s very selfish,” Rachel said.
“Without political freedom, you have nothing,” Sam said.
“Not so. You can be free in a jail cell. You can be in bondage on the golf course.”
“That may be true in Buddhism,” Sam said.
“No, no!” David said. “It’s not just Buddhism. ‘I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other Gods before me.’ You’ve heard that? You think it’s just about idols?”
“Well, I certainly don’t worship false gods,” Rachel said. “You won’t find any graven images in my house.” “No false gods? You don’t worship success, money, fashion, comfort, pleasure? Excuse me; I thought you were my sister Rachel, the All-American girl.”
“Hold it!” Martin said. “Ordinary human impulses are not false gods.”
“They are if you worship them.” “Rachel, please clear the soup plates,” Bea said. “I’m ready to serve the brisket.” David was grateful for the interruption. He’d obviously taken a wrong tack. Somehow he couldn’t find a way to reach them. Everything he said was like an alarm bell triggering their defenses, because it sounded like an attack.
He had to be more positive. “Ritual is the door to silence.” That’s what he should say. Open the door. Let silence swallow you. Let it swallow the known world. Then you’ll see that “Have no other Gods before me” is good and practical advice, the key to understanding, to sanity, to happiness. That’s what he had discovered. That’s what he should say. There was a brief commotion as the soup plates were gathered. Bea hurried to the stove and began arranging the chicken and brisket on platters as Ellen slid in beside her to sauté the tofu. Rachel moved quickly back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room carrying bowls and platters. The men remained seated and seemed to be continuing the conversation, which annoyed Rachel; she didn’t like being left out.
“This is a wonderful meal, Bea,” Martin said, when everyone was seated and food again became the center of attention.
“Enjoy,” Bea said, leaning over to cut Ben’s meat into small pieces. “Rachel, give Lisa a piece of chicken.”
Bea never ate much at these meals; she merely tasted a bite of this and that to make sure everything was all right. Her pleasure came from seeing her family fill their plates.
She kept her eyes off those that held only tofu and asparagus. Was that food for growing boys? How could a nice piece of chicken hurt them? “I don’t know what you said while I was in the kitchen,” Rachel began, “but you seem to be criticizing Judaism because it’s life-affirming.” “I’m not criticizing Judaism,” David said. “I’m criticizing what I see as a deep indifference to what religion is all about.” “And you know what that is?” “Lots of people know. It’s not a secret.”
“Uch, David, David,” Sam said, shaking his head. “For all your years in Sabbath school and all those bar mitzvah classes, you never understood Judaism. There’s a lot more than theology here.” “There’s a history and a living tradition and a commitment to an ethical life…to repairing the world.” Rachel’s voice trembled with emotion. David studied the little pile of matzah crumbs by the side of his plate, searching for a way through what seemed impenetrable barriers. They cared about being Jewish, but not about the questions religion illuminated.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked Rachel.
“Yes, of course.”
“And what do you mean by that?”
For a moment, she stared at him angrily. “God is the ruling spirit of the universe,” she said. “That’s what I believe.”
“And the ruling spirit of the universe permitted the Holocaust?” In the silence that followed, even David thought he had gone too far. Passover was a happy occasion, and the faces around the table suddenly darkened.
“It’s a terrible question,” Sam said.
“Serious questions are often terrible.” David said. “That’s why you have to ask them.”
Ellen didn’t like the pained look on Sam’s face or David’s foolish persistence. For some people these questions were real, she thought. For others, they didn’t exist, and you’d think a psychologist would understand that.
“Is everyone ready for dessert?” Bea asked, rising from the table. “Ellen, will you bring the tea?”
As always, the seder meal ended with Bea’s famous strawberry applesauce and large slices of golden sponge cake, treats that quickly changed the mood.
“Oh, I ate too much,” Martin said.
“But everything was delicious, Bea, as always. The wine was good too. You brought the wine, David?” “Yes, from a little shop in Shelburne.” “Write the name down,” Sam said. “So we’ll all remember for next year.” “Mom, don’t clear the table,” David said, getting up. “Just sit there. I’ll do it. You did enough, more than enough.”
The evening ended in a bustle of activities, including chores in the kitchen. David, whose family was staying overnight, stood at the kitchen sink washing pots. Bea was packing food to be sent home. “Rachel, you’ll take the brisket. I’m going to give David the applesauce.” Martin was readying his children for the drive home.
As she led the twins upstairs to bed, Ellen was relieved at the amiable tone everyone was taking, although it wasn’t really a surprise. David caused chasms to appear in this family, but they always seemed to close again, like the parting and closing of the Red Sea. Rachel and Martin, concerned about the traffic, had collected their children and stood in the foyer for a last round of goodbye hugs before piling into the car.
“You’ll call me when you get home, so I’ll know you’re safe,” Bea said from the stoop.
As the Weissmans turned onto the Southern State Parkway, Martin was relieved to find traffic moving freely. “Nice seder,” he observed. “Don’t you think?” “Except for David. I don’t know why he has to act that way.” “It’s a disease of PhDs,” Martin said.
“You know, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ He thinks he’s Socrates.” “He’s a horse’s ass,” Rachel said and turned on the radio.
What contest judge Susan Coll has to say about this story:
“Like all good fiction, ‘Why Is There a Buddhist at This Seder?’ operates on multiple levels: On the surface it is a funny, sharply observed story of a single Passover seder and its various shades of barely contained family dysfunction. From the traffic on the Long Island Expressway, to the quality of the wine, to the changes in the new Haggadah, the story covers the familiar seder tropes. Read on deeper level, however, it captures the subtle conflicts of family—sibling tension, generational disconnect, and judgments about the choices that we make on matters of faith, and on the ways we live our lives.”
Anne Schott has had a long career in public relations, working first at SUNY Empire State College and then at the New York State Nurses Association, a professional organization for RNs, and winning awards at both institutions for news and feature writing. This is her first published story.