Why on this night do we have only three questions, and does that make us bad Jews?

There are supposed to be Four Questions. Four. Everyone knows this. If Passover was a Jeopardy! category, this would be the $100 question. So I count again, because maybe my eyes are deceiving me, or maybe I’ve hit the wine a little too hard.

There are only three questions. This is a problem, and soon it’ll land in my lap, if I know my dad.

I am 30, but at this Seder I qualify as a kid for the purposes of reading The Four Questions. Dad has never called on my younger sister, Allison, to perform this part of the Seder, and I doubt he’ll start tonight. The other “kids” are two friends. My friend is Curious Goy, who just wants to know what a Seder is like. Allison’s friend is a Jewish woman from back east. New York expats are as common in Los Angeles as cars; my mother insists on a leave-no-Jew-alone policy for the holidays, even though she worries our “meshuga Seders” might not be up to par. My dad, a jolly man who looks like Winnie the Pooh, is our leader, despite the fact that his childhood Seders skipped the bread along with every vestige of ritual the service entails.

“They just sat down and ate,” my mother recalled of her first Seder at her in-laws, the shock in her voice as fresh as the Karpas, despite the passing decades.

Dad leads the newcomers and about a dozen family friends who, over the years, have made semi-regular appearances at our Seders. He moves at a brisk, decidedly un-Moses-like pace. Instead of going around the table in order, dad is like a conductor and we are his orchestra.

Marty, who wears a blue and gold UCLA Bruins yarmulke, blesses the wine. Thankfully, he has also brought the wine, something decent, he insists, “not that Manischewitz cough syrup dreck.”

Allison competes with our mom’s friend, Lynne, to see who can speed read through their sections faster. Lynne mumbles terribly, and so, without bothering to enunciate each word, she edges Allison by a few seconds. It doesn’t matter: Allison’s vital contribution is a flowerless chocolate cake that’s worth a 40-year schlep through the desert.

Mom gives a running color commentary throughout. But she begs off reading, not because she is skeptical of the great Jewish escape from Egypt, but because she keeps needing to check on the soup.

“Larry, just skip me, will you? I’ve got soup to deal with.”

Dad acquiesces. He knows better than to risk the chance of the matzo balls turning as hard as hockey pucks, so he calls on Ann. As she reads, I can tell that Curious Goy and Back East Jew are impressed. Ann’s British accent is glorious. She makes the story about how the Jews did not have time to wait for the bread to rise sound like Game of Thrones.

When it’s time to make the Hillel sandwich, dad shines. He knows Jewish food the way rabbis know the Talmud. Leading by example, dad schmears a thick layer of white horseradish onto his matzo, then spoons out an even thicker layer of haroset, before completing the sammy with another piece of matzo.

“Woo! That horseradish is hot,” he exclaims with a sneezing-cough. “Someone want to get me a club soda?”

I am grateful for the delay. Maybe while we take turns nuking our sinuses with horseradish, the fourth question will just materialize, a late arrival, like that drunkard Elijah.

But dad downloaded this year’s haggadahs from the Internet and printed out a dozen copies; if one of us has a misprint, we all have it. For some Jews this would cause a mistrial, or whatever you call it when you have to call off your Seder because of a matzo ball-sized typo. But we are the type of Jews who Google what it means to be Jewish. And long before the Internet, we were Maxwell House Jews. This was because the coffee company had thoughtfully included haggadahs with each tin of coffee they sold.

Richard Perry / The New York Times

As a kid, I liked to imagine that a Jew named Robinowitz in the Maxwell House marketing department had seen an opportunity the goys had not.

“Trust me,” Robinowitz said. “Our sales will have sales, that’s how many sales we’re going to make. A Seder takes forever. Let my people caffeinate!”

There were probably also spreadsheets involved. But the numbers added up. We bought enough coffee to a dozen Jews up all night, and the Maxwell House people threw in our prayer manuals.

But the Keurig people? Not so much with the haggadahs.

“Michael, read the four questions,” dad says.

Suddenly, I long for the Maxwell House haggadahs of my youth. Maybe they weren’t authoritative in a religious sense, but they had color illustrations and they were easy to navigate, which is important because you read the book backwards and skip around some, especially if the holiday falls on the Sabbath.

But these Internet haggadahs? Dreck.

“Dad, where did you get these haggadahs?”

Without an ounce of embarrassment, dad says he Googled “free haggadahs.” There is laughter, but if anyone else has spotted the problem with our Seder, they’re keeping quiet.

“Read the four questions,” dad says.

“Come on, Michael, I don’t want the brisket to get cold,” mom adds.

“I can’t.”

The table groans. Even Curious Goy knows that there is nothing worse than a 30-something man-child balking when it’s his turn to read the Four Questions.

“The English is fine,” dad says.

“But Hebrew would be better,” Marty adds.

I look down at my free Internet haggadah, a glorified handout. The only way out of this mess is to recite the Four Questions from memory. I consider faking it, but I draw a blank. This is the age of Google; I can’t even remember my own phone number. Maybe our collective digital amnesia will work in my favor. Maybe they won’t notice the missing question. But I will know, and I just can’t do it.

“Dad, this haggadah is bullshit,” I say. “It’s only got three question.”

I feel bad throwing dad under the bus, but even at our easygoing Seders, some things are sacred. Suddenly, there is a rush to check the manual. In a moment, we go from Seder to shonda.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Larry!” mom yells. “What kind of farkakte Seder are you running?”

Oy,” Allison says, her hand firmly planted on her forehead.

Dad is red-faced once again, but this time it’s not the horseradish.

“Aren’t there supposed to be four?” Curious Goy asks.

The answer from the table is unanimous: “YES!”

Someone Googles The Four Questions, but this time the result is more authoritative. With laughter, we stumble through the quintessential portion of the Seder. Mom shakes her head with embarrassment, begging East Coast Jew not to tell her folks about our Seder. Everyone agrees that the soup is “better than last year” and that the matzo balls are just right. Marty is liberal with the wine refills. Our Internet haggadahs, it turns out, don’t have any more errors, at least none that this bunch of Jews and a Curious Goy can spot.

Over brisket and roasted vegetables, the table grills dad, who insists he downloaded the haggadah from a “good website.” But we know the truth—dad can’t resist a deal, which is how a free Internet haggadah came to displace our free-with-purchase coffee brand haggadahs. Our best guess is that some third-rate content mill without Jews or scruples copied and pasted together a slapdash haggadah and rolled their budget into a search engine optimization campaign that caught deal-hungry Jews like our dad. So Allison and I tease dad throughout the night, not so much because he is a bad Jew, but because he is a bad Googler.

We ask questions at the Seder, in part, to celebrate our freedom because slaves are not free to question anything at all. But it’s been nearly a decade since my dad led our Seder with a shoddy Internet haggadah, and in that time I’ve wondered why we bother at all? If we’re free, why on this night do we feel obligated to go through the motions of a ritual we suck at? Aren’t we fooling ourselves? Using an incomplete haggadah isn’t much better than using one that’s really just a brilliant piece of marketing for a coffee company, is it?

The truth is, I am free to do better. I can do Passover by the book, and the book doesn’t have to come from Maxwell House. I can do Passover this year in Jerusalem. Or, I am free to skip Passover altogether.

But none of those choices feel right. I am free, but I want something in the middle. I want the half-assed Seder of speedy readings, missing questions, and constant chatter. I want to celebrate with the people I love, even if those people are Curious Goy and a bunch of Google-dependent Jews. Our Seders have always been meshuga—like the time a drunk uncle mixed three flavors of Manischewitz into what can only be described as an unholy concoction, or the year dad forgot to hide the Afikoman and bribed us kids with silver dollars to keep quiet. These may not have been good Seders in the religious sense; but to us, they were great Seders.

Meshuga is our tradition, and it’s the main reason I celebrate Passover. It’s not so much about getting it right as it’s about getting it done, or rather keeping it going, from one generation to the next. So I will keep that lesson in mind this Passover, our first without dad. I will do my best to carry on a tradition that has been passed on from parent to child for millennia. I will do my best to honor my father’s example, or at least the spirit of his example. Because when it comes to the haggadah, I will go with the Maxwell House people.

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Why on this night do we have only three questions, and does that make us bad Jews?”

  1. Cathy Wood says:

    I love this Michael!

  2. Marty Cooper says:

    Loved this piece. Thanks for:
    1. Making me a wino.
    2, Commenting on my (non-exhaustive facility with Hebrew.
    -marty

  3. Christina Ferguson says:

    What a great story!

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