Why This Night is Different
By Shani Chabansky
The congestion got to her consciousness first. Then came the afternoon sun, staring at her through the slats of the venetian blinds she’d forgotten to shut before her afternoon nap. When she reached for the clock on her nightstand, she felt the sweat that had seeped through her clothes and onto her bed sheets. 5:00 p.m. Sophie Reznik still couldn’t breathe through her nose, but the lack of tension in her neck and shoulders and the ease with which she could move her limbs told her that the fever had broken.
“Soph, are you awake? I need your help in the kitchen!” Her mother had been bustling about all week long, preparing for the seder. Watching her multitask was like watching a professional circus clown, juggling her zillions of post-it notes and to-do lists.
“Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute!”
Wading through the mountain of used Kleenex, damp pajamas, and piles of half-highlighted social theory articles ripped unceremoniously from school readers, she tossed on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and shuffled into the kitchen.
The pre-Pesach preparations dance began. There is no professional choreographer in the world who could match the elegance of a mother and daughter symbiotically concocting a meal. It was pure telepathy, the way they skirted around each other like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
In many ways it was sure to be a typical seder, nothing special. It would be just as anxiety-inducing and potentially explosive as the years before. The subjects of tonight’s arguments would be the only variable to set this seder apart. It was her stepfather’s first Passover experience, as her grandmother would be sure to mention. Although she claimed that she’d made peace with her daughter’s newly acquired Italian husband, Bubbe’s subtle little comments about the “unconventional” relationship gave her true feelings away. And then there’d be her father, who was quite the character himself—an Israeli, obsessed with the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. He was sure to bring his latest toy, this time a tiny digital video camera to record the evening and share with the chevrei in Ramat Gan. And then there’d be Rosa, Sophie’s first girlfriend.
The doorbell interrupted their trance-like preparations.
“Hello?” A septum-pierced nose followed by a pair of brown eyes peered around the door.
“Hey!” Sophie said. “Mom, I’d like you to meet Rosa.”
When she came out to her parents back in high school, she didn’t have any proof to support her claim that she was a lesbian. As much as she enjoyed the bi-curiosity of the girls in the drama department, an actual lesbian relationship seemed as impossible as acceptance into a Haredi community. But during her first quarter at UC Berkeley, she enrolled in FMST 1: Introduction to Feminist Studies, and that’s where she met Rosa. When she informed her parents that she would be accompanied by her first girlfriend at the seder, they supported her (albeit with raised eyebrows and tones tinged with skepticism).
More than anyone, it was Bubbe’s reaction to Rosa that Sophie was concerned about. Radical in all senses of the word, Bubbe was the kind of grandma your friends envy, while you’re stuck coping. Sure, her noodle kugel made Sophie’s house the high school hang-out spot and, once in a while, the old jewelry she gave Sophie for birthday presents would come back into fashion. But somehow, dinner conversations with Bubbe always involved a half-hearted attempt to avoid anything remotely controversial, the inevitable slip, and then the plunge into the political whirlpool (no snorkels involved).
She could just imagine the dinner conversation unfolding. Her father would inevitably tell the story of when his mother bought a live carp and kept it in their bathtub for a few days before the seder. He and his sister grew attached to the fish, then were forced to witness the death of their pet when their mother turned the carp into gefilte. Bubbe would be white-knuckling her walker while Sophie and Rosa discussed the prison industrial complex. Having had enough, Bubbe would open up the floodgates, arguing that, in fact, slavery is a thing of the past and that, in fact, the United States is a post-racial society. What do undocumented workers in Los Angeles have anything to do with Moses and the burning bush?
“Let’s turn now to the first page and begin with the kadesh,” her mother announced.
Sophie grabbed Rosa’s hand underneath the table and gave it a reassuring squeeze. The first cup of wine, as always, went down silently. Sophie wondered why they always sang “Ma Nishtana” before they were sufficiently sloshed. By the time they’d downed the second cup, Sophie’s congestion came back with a vengeance and her patience for Bubbe’s wisecracks started waning.
“Well, I’d ask you when I can expect grandchildren, but now that you’re lesbian, things are different…”
“You want different?” Sophie exploded, blowing a wad of phlegm into her napkin and tossing back her second second cup. “I’ll give you different! How about the difference between an egalitarian, agrarian society and a colonialist, capitalist enterprise? You wanna talk differences? How about the differences between a progressive Judaism driven by social justice and a conservative Judaism blinded by faith?”
“Progressive Judaism? You’d be happier in a Marxist system where, as we all know, Jews are treated with the utmost respect,” Bubbe sarcastically spat. “I’m sorry to say, sweetie, that you should get a life and step outside your crazy leftist echo chamber.”
“Banot…” her father interjected. “We haven’t even hidden the afikoman yet! Nu? What’s with the pause? Save the fireworks for the dinner. Yalla!”
“What’s the point of finding the afikoman? I know what’s coming. What’s the prize this year, a new freaking iPhone?” Sophie demanded. Rosa squeezed her hand under the table and Sophie sighed. “Okay, okay. What’s next? The Four Sons?”
“Let’s see, let’s skip ahead to the plagues,” her mother
finally spoke up. “Let’s start with dam, sephardaya, kinim…”
They managed to get through the first half of the seder without any further interruption. Well past midnight, Sophie toyed with the half-eaten macaroon on her plate. Between the wine and the fever that was claiming her mind, it was getting extremely difficult to recall the lyrics to “Chad Gadya.” Bubbe was nodding off into her Nescafe. She looked across the table and found her
“Well, I guess it’s about that time, folks,” said her mother. “Don’t worry about the dishes, just leave everything where it is.”
Sophie walked around the table and touched Bubbe lightly on her shoulder. “Hey Bubbe, it’s time to get up. The seder’s over.”
“What’s that? Oh, thanks Soph. You’re a good girl,”
“Thanks, Bubbe.” Sophie helped her out of her chair, called a taxi, and waited with her in the living room.
“I think we forgot to let Elijah in,” Sophie murmured. The prophet’s absence was the least political thought she could muster up. She hoped Bubbe’s exhaustion would prevent another
“Serves him right,” Bubbe replied. “Seventy-five seders and not once have I seen the guy lift a finger around the house.”
Outside, the taxi honked. Sophie helped Bubbe into the car.
“Are you sure you don’t want to take home any haroset?”
“No, no. I’ll be fine. Thank you, sweetheart.”
“Lyla tov, Bubbe.”
“Good night, Sophie.”
Published on page 11 of the Spring 2012 issue of Leviathan.