Editor’s Note: Dave Lucas is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Granta, The Nation, The Paris Review, Poetry, Slate, The Threepenny Review, VQR, and elsewhere. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
I never met them. But on this night, two years since our last Seder, I realize I have missed them.
I know that Rudolph and Clara Komerofsky came to this country from Romania in 1902, that they brought almost nothing with them but the candlesticks on the Seder table.
I know their descendants – their faces, anyway, if I struggle to remember their names. One turns her head and I almost mistake her for Arin, Rudolph and Clara’s great-granddaughter, and one of my closest friends. But Arin is already at our side, about to introduce us all again.
For more than 10 years my wife and I have joined Arin and her family at their Passover Seder. We have shared the table with Arin’s parents, Jay and Linda Miller, her grandma Birdie, and dozens of cousins and in-laws and once-removeds.
Through our twenties and thirties, we lapsed Catholics have become as accustomed to parsley and salt water, Maror and Charoset as to the incense and Easter ham of our own childhoods.
And through two years of pandemic separation, we have had to settle for our own version of that Passover prayer, Next year…
So now – vaccinated, boosted, tested – we come again to recall the branches of the Komerofsky family, who’s from California and who from Columbus, who drinks Manischewitz and who Diet Coke. We know the uncle most eager to tell a new joke and the one who will laugh loudest. I know that Arin’s husband, Joe, and I will plot to out-maneuver each other for the last bite of lamb shank.
I have come to recognize Rudolph and Clara from the photos in the family Haggadah, and from the stories their descendants tell: their 20th century story, their journey from Romania to the United States, and the ancient one too, the flight from Egypt.
I will never know these ancestors. But throughout the night, I try to imagine them, grateful as I am to them for these friends of ours. Every year on this night different from all other nights, with its questions and responses, I join their descendants in the ancient ritual of the evening meal. After our pandemic separation, I fear I may be a little out of practice.
Arin and I met 15 years ago, teaching at an independent Catholic high school on Cleveland’s east side. Our friendship took root in our mutual struggles as new teachers, our failures and small, celebrated triumphs. Neither of us – Arin, a Jewish atheist, nor I, a Catholic agnostic – ever felt comfortable with the masses, the crossings, the acts of adoration, all the trappings of institutional religion.
What we valued in our – and each other’s – traditions was the act of gathering around a table, breaking bread and telling stories. That, at least, was a faith we could keep: It brought us to each other’s tables again and again, brought Arin and Joe to our doorstep with plates of food when my father died, and us to the Millers’ when Grandma Birdie died, at age 96.
I don’t remember when I first joined in her family’s ritual. Or whether I already knew that the Haggadah – the text recited at the Seder – required that “in every generation, it is incumbent on each person to consider him/herself as if s/he had come forth personally from Egypt.” I certainly did not know how the Komerofsky family understood that traditional injunction, in our own time, in their own words.
In the Komerofsky Haggadah (“slightly rearranged and abridged”), between the second and third cups of wine, we give thanks for the Komerofsky family. We recite the ancestors’ names, Rudolph and Clara, the names of their children and their children’s partners, a litany of proper nouns written into the family book for the generations.
At my first Seder, the recitation of the Haggadah felt like a script for which I’d forgotten my lines. In those early days I mumbled the Hebrew words for fear of mispronouncing them. I felt I had no right to say “Next year in Jerusalem,” even in English.
But I could speak the names. As clearly as I could see the photographs in the Haggadah – here is the whole family gathered around a shuffleboard court in a midcentury basement, here are Rudolph and Clara at their wedding in 1904 – I could say their names. I could contribute to the embodiment of their memory in our own breath and voice.
It was once strange, too, to encounter the ritual within the ritual, as Arin’s father, Jay, reads the Haggadah and family members interrupt and interject. “I thought we cut this part!” an uncle shouts. “Are you sure it was 1904?” asks an aunt. Some of the jokes may be decades old; some of them make the room groan. But then Jay laughs his enormous laugh, and I cannot help laughing, too. This is what I have missed.
This is not the rehearsed call and response of the Catholic mass where, at weddings and funerals at least, I still catch myself saying, “And also with you.” That cathedral hush is indeed one sort of religious experience.
But the moments when we laugh together – as if the spirit were upon us, convulsed with joy until we cannot speak – those must be holy, too. How well we know the Christ who suffered; how I long to know a Christ who laughed.
I have heard or read or maybe imagined theologians who say that each of us writes our own gospel with our own life. I admire the idea. But none of my Catholic friends were ever encouraged to add our own words to the logos. One does not riff on the liturgy. Some of us still suspect that God speaks Latin.
So it still seems both obvious and wondrous to me, the simple pure act of saying the names. To name, to utter is a holy act in any tradition, especially my adopted tradition as a writer.
We say with them “Max Komerofsky, Ann Abramson, Rose Sacks Mazur, Ethel Abrams, Sophie Goldsmith, Esther Brenner, Birdie Miller Joseph, Rivie Katz.”
I can believe in this, at least: the family – all our families – as the center of worship, celebration, consolation. Pious and doubter alike can say the names, keep close the memory or learn the story of the ancestors. We can try at least to live in such a way as to justify their lives and ours.
For all I do not know, I have known at least that particular grace of being welcome. One year, when Aunt Rivie, the last of Rudolph and Clara’s surviving children, asked me who I’d come with, I told her I was a friend of Arin’s. “Oh, good,” she said, with what seemed genuine relief. “You’re all right then.”
In my life I’ve found that blessings, when they come, come this way. Not a laying on of hands but an offhand “you’re all right.” The way an elder poet once said, when I dropped him off at his hotel after his reading, “I think our paths may cross again.” The way my father, when he told me he loved me, added the word “kid.” “Love you, kid.” That gesture.
A blessing is a sacrifice. Even the lapsed Catholic in me can grasp that. Its etymology – from the Old English – has to do with shed blood. From the lamb’s blood that marks the doorway in Exodus to the open door in this Cleveland suburb where I join my friends in profane solemnity and reverend irreverence.
“Did the candles come from Romania, too?” an uncle asked one year as Janet, our host, lighted them. “No,” Janet smiled. “I got them at Drug Mart.”
“All of our relatives near and far,” we say, “and those of generations yet to be.”
I still cannot read the Hebrew, though I can pronounce a few more words and phrases now, enough to join in the speaking of the names, to say my own version of grace.
The home the temple, the table the altar, the flame kept as one keeps a faith: day by day and in every generation. “Next year in Jerusalem,” I say with them now.
I admire this moment of the ritual. But what I love is to trust that next year – and for as many years as possible – we will still be here together, far from Egypt and Romania and even Jerusalem, in this suburb on the east side of Cleveland.
It is the best I can hope for my own struggle with faith: the offhand blessing, given without asking. To arrive and to find the door is open. That we are welcome.