Part one of a two-part post. Part two will post tomorrow.
No matter how lapsed, no matter how agnostic, no matter how many Christmas trees and Easter egg hunts, there is one chant that every adult Jew knows. There is a sentence that brings back a flood of childhood memories. All we need to hear are those first few opening words, sung to the same tune no matter which branch of Judaism we fall from, and we are transported back to sitting on stacks of telephone books on a folding chair in someone’s living room, not quite tall enough to reach the kids’ table, unsure what to do with the empty plate in front of us, wondering when the next cup of grape juice will shoot down the pike.
“Mah nishta nah…”
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” The preview question that leads into the Four Questions. Four questions about the Passover Seder, the foods we eat and the way we sit. Four questions traditionally asked by the youngest capable child.
This year, Benjamin was still too young, and although Zach probably could have memorized them all in Hebrew, the cousin hosting our Passover Seder wisely suggested he just do the opening and the first question in English. He cannot yet read, but he can sure memorize. This is the child who has hundreds of children’s books memorized, presumably because he is not wasting energy trying to figure out the health care crisis. We practiced regularly, and he knew his lines perfectly.
“Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, we eat bread and matzah. On this night, we eat only matzah.” (Technically, not a question, but the inquiry is implied.) We rehearsed this at the table and in the car, and he was confident in his ability to recite the lines.
When the time came, J’s cousin turned to Zachary. He was not ready. He needed more advance warning. There were twelve strange adults in the room. And he wanted to know why he couldn’t have more grape juice. But, instead of turning quiet or refusing to ask his question, which we would have handled by reassigning it up the line to the eight-year-old across the table, Zachary got hysterical.
He wanted to ask that question. He wanted to perform his lines. He just couldn’t. And he was furious. Furious with me for being unable to arrange things to his liking, but mostly furious with himself for his stage fright. He did not want the Seder to continue till he asked his question, but he could not find a way to ask it. While his father frantically searched for the beloved Taggie, I offered to say it with him or to skip over it, but that just drove him into a frenzy of screaming.
“You do not have to ask the question,” I told him, “but you do have to behave yourself at the table.” Removing him only made matters worse, because he desperately wanted to be a part of the action, to play his role. If only he could do it without people stopping to listen to him.
Taggie finally arrived, and Zach calmed down enough to hear my voice. “I’ll say it with you, OK?” I figured I would stop before the last word of the first sentence, giving him a chance to fill in “nights.”
“Why is this night different from all other…”
Zachary remained silent, trying to compose himself and not able to process the agitation he was feeling. Benjamin, however, had heard the lines rehearsed time and again. He knew what came next. From behind his grape juice stained lips came “NIGHTS!”
Everyone laughed and clapped, which just made me feel worse for my older son. His brother was the cute one, the performer, while he was the one who knew the answer but just could not get the words out of his mouth. When the adults quieted down, I asked Zach a question.
“On other nights, what do we eat?” This he could handle. It was not a recitation; it was just a question.
“Bread and matzah.”
“But what do we eat tonight?”
As the Seder continued and drowned out our voices, I hugged him, feeling that familiar racing heartbeat that was beginning to slow. “You did it, Zach. You said it.” I wanted him to know we hadn’t moved forward at our speed; that we had given him space and he had done a good job.
But we hadn’t really. The world moves on past our sensitive child. He is not shy, and he will talk to almost any stranger. But groups overwhelm him by their very nature, and anytime he feels put on the spot, he recoils into himself. And there is precious little I can do to help him.