Passover starts in an hour or two. Jewish families everywhere will arrange the seder plate, turn down the heat on the matzah-ball soup, and set a Haggadah in front of each seat — more likely than not, the Maxwell House Haggadah. Ever since Abraham Cahan described the holiday as a “feast and a family renuion which form the greatest event in the domestic life of our people,” Passover has been a fixture on the American Jewish literary calendar.
The theologian and novelist Arthur A. Cohen explains why in The Tremendum (1993), his book on the Holocaust:
The Passover Haggadah commands that every Jew consider himself as though he had gone forth in exodus from Egypt. The grammatical authority of of the Haggadah makes clear that this is no metaphor, whatever our wish to make apodictic language metaphoric. The authority is clear: I was really, even if not literally, present in Egypt and really, if not literally, present at Sinai. God contemplated my virtual presence then, thirty-odd centuries ago. The fact that history could not prevision and entail my presence is irrelevant.
Cohen goes on to argue that what is true for Sinai is true a fortiori for “the death camps,” and perhaps that is so: but the literary and moral imperative derives from Passover. Jewish fiction adopts this apodictic mandate. For it places the reader at far-flung and distant events of Jewish life — really, if not literally.
Cahan explicitly invokes the grammatical authority of the Haggadah in his novel The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). The Yiddish poet Tevkin, although a “free-thinker since his early manhood,” celebrates Passover every year as an expression of his Zionism. Raising the first glass of wine, he tells his children (who are treating the seder as a joke) that “Scenes like this bind us to the Jews of the whole world, and not only to those living, but to the past generations as well.”
Cahan’s poet insists that the seder is not a “religious ceremony” but a “national custom.” Over the years, however, the significance has deepened for him. “He was bent upon having a Passover feast service precisely like the one he had seen his father conduct,” the book’s narrator observes, “not omitting even the white shroud” — the kittel worn by the master of the seder for at least ten different reasons. “Father looks like a Catholic priest,” his Communist son cries. Undaunted, Tevkin lowers the first glass of wine and says: “This is the Fourth of July of our unhappy people.” At the end of the seder, Eastern European Jews used to shout “Next year in America!” instead of “Next year in Jerusalem!” In The Rise of David Levinsky, the next year has come.
Allusions to Passover are not uncommon in American Jewish fiction — David Schearl learns the words to Had Gadya, one of the seder’s concluding songs, in Call It Sleep (he is his parents’ “one little goat”), Augie is caught by the gangsters he tried to double-cross just as the synagogues are letting out on the first night of Passover in The Adventures of Augie March (“I was not permitted to pass by,” he remarks), Frank Alpine makes atonement for robbing Morris Bober’s store in The Assistant (“After Passover he became a Jew,” the novel concludes) — but full-length seders are fairly rare.
“Passover has always been my favorite holiday,” says the narrator of Isaac Rosenfeld’s novel Passage from Home (1946). The reason Bernard likes it so much is that he gets to drink four cups of wine — “and it was to wine, rather than the history of my people,” he says, “that I owed my sense of reverence.”
The day before Passover, “when the house was undergoing the annual cleaning in preparation for the feast,” Cousin Willy comes to visit. Strictly speaking, Willy is not really a cousin; even more strictly, he is not even a Jew. He is a “hillbilly” from Tennessee; he had been a “miner, a newspaperman, a sailor, and had seen the world.” He and Bernard are fast friends. Willy slips him extra cups of wine.
“The first of the ‘four questions’ asks why this night of Passover differs from all other nights of the year,” Bernard says. But the real question was: “how did this Passover differ from all other Passovers of all other years?” The Haggadah furnishes a “lengthy answer” to the first question. Bernard’s answer to the second is shorter: at ten years of age, he gets drunk for the first time. In the middle of the seder, he rises unsteadily to his feet and tries to explain the true meaning of the holiday, but the words spill out “thick and silly, ending in a laugh.” Many years later, apparently writing an autobiographical novel, he recalls the moment as the beginning of his life as a sensualist:
[I]t occurred to me that this holiday, which we celebrated in such worldly fashion with chopped liver and gefülte fish and chicken soup floating a thick scum of yellow fat, the droplets winking like the glass grapes — even the matzoh had such a lively, freckled brown face — this holiday, I suddenly felt, was something my family could not understand, a celebration not even of this earth, its meaning lying beyond the particular individual. . . . It was an event only I could understand.
For Rosenfeld, in short, the holiday commemorates both a personal deliverance and the acceptance of a literary rather than a religious obligation: to tell the story of the young American intellectual, “sensitive as a burn,” whose independence from Jewish tradition is narrated in language deeply embedded within the tradition.
I am going to pass over in silence the wacky 65-page interfaith seder in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (1995), because I have treated it at length elsewhere, in order to conclude with a writer I much prefer. Dara Horn’s third novel, All Other Nights (2009), may be the first American novel to acquire its theme and structure from Passover.
Horn’s title comes from the first of the four questions — the same question Isaac Rosenfeld turned back onto himself. Horn turns the question back onto history. Her novel, the story of a Jewish spy in the Confederacy during the Civil War, finds the place where Jewish history and American history are knotted together — namely, in the experience of slavery.
Jacob Rappaport begins his career as a spy at a Passover seder in New Orleans. Every moment of the service has a double meaning for him. The meal is served by slaves while Southern Jews “sang the Hebrew hymns thanking God for freeing them from bondage.” His host, a Confederate patriot, recites the imperative passage: “In every generation . . . each person is obligated to see himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt.” The Southerners around the seder table smile and nod, confident they will soon “come out of” bondage to the North. “Pour out Thy wrath on the nations that do not know Thee,” Jacob’s host drawls slowly, drawing out the words with passion. To which the assembled company responds: “Death to the Union! Death to Lincoln!”
In every generation, Horn implies, the imperative of freedom must be followed, because in every generation, the Jews must free themselves again — from their ignorance of their own religion, from their dependence upon other people’s thinking, from the mental slavery that holds them in irons. Next year in America! Next year in Jerusalem! Hag kasher v’sameyah!