John North Radway
Posted on May 6th, 2020
Next Year in Person
I’m typing this hastily and I may not edit it much. Several things have changed lately—you’ve probably noticed—and somehow the idea of aspiring toward any sort of polish feels not only disingenuous but also unkind.
Throw together what you can, hastily if you must. Keep your people near and don’t turn away the stranger. Staying put will feel a lot like running.
“It’s getting to my head,” I tell a friend on the phone. “I swear I’m getting more Jewish the longer this goes on.” I mean it. There’s a pot of kasha varnishkes on the stove. Noodles, buckwheat, and enough schmaltz to hold it all together. It’s the ultimate Ashkenazi-American comfort food, and I’ve never had it before. I barely know how to spell it. But somehow I need it that night. My friend understands. I don’t know why my friend understands. And it occurs to me that this might be a deeper sort of understanding than I’m used to.
The same surreal epigenetic hunger strikes again a day or two later. I’m out on a walk. I suddenly want brisket. Maybe I just want to say the word brisket. “No, not barbeque,” I try to explain. It’s the idea of brisket I want, the kind of brisket they make sitcoms about, served up at the kind of childhood holiday table that hasn’t existed on that branch of my family tree for generations.
The day after that, it’s pastrami.
Maybe longing for what I actually know is too much work right now. Maybe I’m tired from telling myself I don’t already miss every member of my sprawling, ecumenical, pagan-ass tribe. Maybe that hollow ache in the middle of my chest is from the strain of packing bags in my sleep, in my mind, waiting for whatever exodus we’ve already begun.
Then it’s Passover. It almost sneaks up on me this year. Maybe I’ve read the calendar wrong. Maybe we’re just all a little unstuck in time. It doesn’t really matter.
I catch my breath. I’m enough of a holiday prepper that I have everything I’d need for twenty guests. I’ve hoarded matzos the way some people hoard toilet paper. (Don’t think too hard about the implications.) I can grind out charoset in my sleep. But I haven’t found time to grieve the cavernous emptiness that I realize will flood my apartment on Wednesday night when the holiday begins and the raucous, joyful, baffled seder that my sister and I have made for years just doesn’t show.
The whole point is to gather your loved ones and shut out the Angel of Death. This feels like the other way round.
So how does one cope with a holiday that isn’t happening?
I haven’t had this problem since Christmas of 2008. (We do not talk about Christmas of 2008.) But I have a power, a shield, a mighty hand that has guided me through dark times: denial.
I wake up Wednesday morning and my hands begin to cook on their own. A vaguely Russian kugel that serves two dozen. Eggs boiled for an hour in salt and onion skins. A stewed tzimmes of sweet potato, prune, pineapple, ginger, plantain. A tub of apply-nutty charoset. A pile of asparagus and enough horseradish sauce to drown the field it grew in.
I’ve done this before, but I’ve never had to time it around teaching online classes.
As I’m cooking, every guest I know isn’t coming is with me, somehow. I only wish that did them any good.
I hope somehow it does.
I should probably tell them.
I set the table for three. I’m going to have this damn seder even if I have to have it alone. One chair is for me. One chair is because who wants to eat at a table with just one chair? And one chair, the extra chair, is left empty because this is what we do. A cup of wine will sit before the empty chair, a cup of water beside it. They’re there for those unexpected guests, Elijah and Miriam, those mythic heralds who may come to our doors to announce something wonderful. It seems we need them more than usual right now. It seems I should have left them each an extra chair, but four chairs at a table for one feels eccentric.
I lay out the seder plate as carefully and as beautifully as I ever have. A lump of charoset gritty as mortar sits there as a reminder of generations who spilled their labor and bent their backs for someone else’s profit. I look at it and think how current it seems in 2020. And a bare, charred bone stands in for all the rites and dedications we struggle to remember in a world whose sacred spaces have been ploughed over by empires, swords, smallpox, power looms, and the Yankee dollar.
Or something like that.
I don’t eat alone that evening. Something wonderful happens: an unexpected guest, a responsible backyard campfire, low seats set six feet apart, a deep, slow talk about ritual and memory, divinity and magic, family and love and food and time. I bring down the feast from upstairs. I planned none of this. We eat cold matzo ball soup and discover that tzimmes is the same color as dusk. No one counts the cups of wine. We’re moving through space and time, sheltered and exposed, running toward and away all at once, and maybe that’s the world.
Sometimes the rites we don’t plan are the truest ones, and the glow from the fire tells me there will be a next year.
It’s late into the night now. I’ve had my giddy little seder upstairs, back indoors, alone but not alone. I’ve gotten into the slivovitz, and my cat has jumped up into the empty chair that I’ve left at the end of the table in case this is the year some shadowy Iron Age prophet materializes at the porch door and wants a cup of wine. When he comes he’ll come with bags under his eyes, rubbing his numb hands together, shivering in his felt boots. He’ll come reciting Pushkin. It’s time, my friend, it’s time. He won’t need to say what for. We have a hunch already. Me, though, I’m waiting for Miriam, that mythic dowser who could witch a well in the middle of the desert. There’s a gulp or two of water for her in Great Aunt Paula’s Waterford crystal rocks glass. I don’t think she’ll need it. She won’t come thirsty.