Adam Schwartz

Still not Candy by M. Russek

Passover in Hollywood

Through the tangled and narrowed streets of the Hollywood Hills lies a gated community home to only ten houses, secretly and discretely snaked off the main road. This is where my aunt Mira lives and is where she hosts the annual Passover dinner. Inside her home, the air is heavy with the smell of beef and fish slow cooking in the oven. The beef brisket is simmering in a special ketchup marinade, as hired help quickly finishes setting down name cards, forks, knives, cups, and Haggadah books[1]. The inside of the living room is covered in cheetah print, abstract art, circle mirrors and vintage ashtrays. The house resembles how a thirteen-year-old from the 1980s would design her LA home. From the balcony, the Hollywood sign is close enough, one might think you can reach out and touch it.

Two long rectangular white tables take the place of her furniture in her living room, while the dining room is used for serving the food. On the wall is a four-foot-by-five-foot, high-definition photo of a naked pair of breasts[2], calling attention to itself throughout the seder. I am here every year with my parents who are insistent on arriving early in order to beat the traffic from Redlands. My aunt Mira greets us at the door. She has a wild frizzy jewfro, appears shorter every year, only wears layers of long flowy black clothes and uses the word, “Oy” interchangeably in any sentence. Mira wears a face that looks as if she just came up with a really good inside joke. Next to her is my uncle Roy, Mira’s husband. He is very old, not Jewish, surfs daily, and his skin looks like orange leather pulled tightly over smooth rocks. He’s got a deep scar over his lip, smells of cigarettes and is missing most of his teeth. Roy greets me with, “Sup dude” before placing a cigarette in his mouth and taking his sheep dog down the street for a piss. Then there’s Madison, a white, red-headed third-year college student who isn’t afraid to debate you at the dinner table. She doesn’t hesitate to bring fun small talk chatter to an abrupt halt when mentioning brutal injustices around the world, always causing Mira to say, “Oy Madison.” Two months after this Passover she will be studying abroad in India in order to, “get closer to their lower class.”

About thirty minutes after we arrived, the other guests start showing up. There are Barry and Shelly[3], a couple who resemble a pair of redwood trees. Then there is the gay couple Terrance and Malik whose lips are permanently pursed and resemble matryoshka dolls, one is the big one, one is the small one. Then there is Nicole, a producer in Hollywood[4] who stands and sits as if her spine is made of a single piece of straight steel. She never makes eye contact with me and must be always be holding a glass of wine. She knows I’m a writer and, each year, says, “Call me when you’re ready” but never gives me her number. Then there are the other nameless guests like Madison’s college friends and some neighbors who are there for the free food and the red wine.

This year I was chosen to lead the Passover service, not before Mira made her annual speech, which I am paraphrasing. “When I was a little girl, the elders would run the seder and now that I’m older I have reversed the roles and let the children run it. They are the future.” She uses “children” expansively in this context as I am currently a twenty-eight-year-old man. She says this speech with the same pride every year as if the thought has just occurred to her for the very first time. Everyone at the table smiles, claps, and nods in agreement of what a novel idea it is.

To those who don’t know, Passover is a celebratory holiday. It marks the day where the Jews were “aided” by God in their liberation from slavery in Egypt. On Passover, you need a seder plate. Its only purpose is to hold the symbolic items of this tradition. This includes the parsley, matzah, shank bone, egg, marror, and the charoset[5]. Each item holds its own significant meaning, except the egg. Some Jews say the egg, covered in salt represents the tears of the Israelites. Others say the egg, due to its round shape represents the circle of life, or symbolizes new life. And others say it’s a sacrifice. What all Jews agree on though is that we enjoy eating it, and then moving on to the next part of the ceremony. Passover is a celebration, but it did come with its own drama. The way the Jews were aided was by the ten plagues[6] which were cast down on Egypt by God. The most terrifying of the plagues is the tenth, just before the liberation: Death of the firstborn.

When everyone is seated at Mira’s, I read the story of Passover trying to ignore the interruptions from Uncle Roy talking loudly to whoever is sitting next to him, “The wave was sixty fucking feet high!” My aunt Mira periodically shouting, “Roy Shush! OY!”  I read from the Haggadah book word by word and address all the symbols. This is the same Haggadah book my mom has been using since I was a kid. It might have been one of the earliest stories I was told. This simple form of reading a story out loud to a group of family members who pretend as if this was the first time they were hearing it, has always been a major factor as to why I love being Jewish. My brother once told me that Jews never needed infrastructure to survive, that’s why we wear the kippah on our heads and the tallit around our back. All we need to survive is through the preservation of our tradition and memory through storytelling, year after year.

In the middle is where the ceremony becomes more interactive. I instruct all the guests to dip their knives in and out of their wine ten times while observing these ten plagues. All the guests start saying each one out loud while plunging their knives in and out of their wine glasses, the red wine slowly dripping off the ends giving them the appearance of bloody tools. “Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts,” somewhere in the middle, the intensity ramps up and the room gets louder. “Cattle plague! Boils! Hail!! Locusts!!! Darkness!!!!” My dad slides in a with a classic, “darkness … every night!” Until we reach the finale, “DEATH OF THE FIRST BORN!” Getting through these plagues and saying them out loud almost feels like a cathartic release as I look around at all the smiling faces. The college kids are buzzed, people are drinking the wine they just stuck their knife into, and the brisket and salmon are now served.

The Passover tradition is as much about the Jews liberation from Egypt as it is about God intervening in the lives of the Jewish people. When you read the story of Passover, the Jews are hopelessly lost in the cycle of slavery until divine intervention shuts it down. This leads to the question, who is God and why did God show up to help? If you ask any Orthodox Jew this question, the answer is simple, God is everywhere and he is one. He saved the Jews because we are the chosen people.[7] But I think this answer is too simple. If the story of Passover were being workshopped in a writing class, this type of answer wouldn’t be sufficient or would spark other questions. Why are the Jews chosen? Why does God kill innocent children? Why does God help at all? And so forth.

 I think in order to truly question who God is, one must think of him as a character in a story, but what kind? What do we know about this character? Where does God come from? Who is he? What are his motivations and flaws? What kind of personality does he have? Is he humorous? What is his age, gender, eye color? The stories don’t reveal answers to any of these questions, but Passover is unique in the fact that we get to see some of God’s personality. In this story we learn that God is not a fan of slavery (if it is happening to the Jews) and that he leaves the people with the Ten Commandments. These laws and rules the Jewish people must follow are as close to God’s characterization as one can get within the context of the Jewish narrative.

A small example of some commandments are, “I am the LORD thy God” and “No other gods before me” and “Thou shall not kill.” In these examples, depending on the tone you read them in, one can consider that God sounds a little jealous, even a little needy. Additionally, “gods” plural with a lower case “g” does interest me. Is God showing us his cards? Letting us know there are indeed multiple gods, but only wants us to focus solely on him/her? Furthermore, why the commandment of no killing? God just wiped out a bunch of Egyptian babies? So, God is a hypocrite? Even God’s laws only further muddle the character.

When writing a story, one needs to have characters with a clear arc. These characters usually have backgrounds and a history and make some kind of change throughout the story. God as a character doesn’t possess any of this, instead he exists in many Jewish stories as a third party character who either plays little to no role or has the power to change the entire plot to his will. This does not make for good storytelling. One would think that through all the stories featuring God, a story would exist called, “The Story of God.” An origin story of sorts where the reader can get their bearings on this entity that they will encounter throughout the entire Jewish narrative. Even Jesus Christ has an origin story. We knew who his parents were, where he was born, where he grew up, his desires, what he tried to accomplish, and where he ultimately died.

Does character matter anyway? Any writing professor will laugh at this question before starring you blankly in the eye and saying, yes. Does the Jewish religion make a good counterargument for this question? Perhaps. Maybe a story can be so good that a mystery character can pop in at will and shake things up. One might say that this is exactly David Lynch’s method for storytelling. Just watch his movie Lost Highway with an actual character called Mystery Man who exists outside of the plot but at any time has the power to change it at will. Maybe, in the beginning, there was the story of God, but in the storytelling of what God did, overshadowed who God was. Kind of like when my impatient nephew wants me to skip to the good parts of a story rather than focusing on boring background details. These boring details might have been lost over the last four-thousand-years and now we are only stuck with the good parts.

As Passover at Mira’s begins to wind down, and Nicole just told me, “Call me when you’re ready,” everyone begins to grab their things, share some hugs and wish each other a good night. I say goodbye to my Aunt Mira, Uncle Roy and cousin Madison and think about how I will be back here next year, saying the same story, with God remaining as a constant mystery. That might be the point in all this. Maybe the interest comes in the way through the unknown, rather than the known. Just like the characters I mentioned in this story, they are all equally interesting[8], but none as interesting or compelling as God the character, the most absent of us all, and the one I have spent the most time trying to understand. God continues to remain the same, like the egg at Passover. A symbol we know nothing about, but will continue to honor it and then eventually move on.

[1] The Haggadah book serves as a guide to scripture, prayers, and the Passover story.

[2] This photo is taken from my uncle Roy’s days working as a casting director in the adult film industry where he won numerous AVN awards. He displays many more down the hallways, and bedrooms. Before working in the adult film industry, he was Van Halen’s tour manager. This is where he met my aunt Mira. He won a MTV Popcorn Award and later sold it for cocaine minutes later. He has now been sober for over twenty years.

[3] Barry and Shelly also live in Redlands. Each year they see me and say, “Next year we should carpool together.” But we never do. I have no interest in carpooling with Barry and Shelly as they always look as if they are about to drift into a nice nap and like to stare at me in long silences waiting for me to do to all of the talking. Conversations are two way streets, Barry and Shelly.

[4] Her only film credit on IMDB is from the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale starring Morgan Freeman.

[5] The parsley is dipped into saltwater and then consumed. Its purpose is to remind us of tears shed by our ancestors when they were slaves. The Matzah represents the unleavened bread that the Jews had to eat when they fled Egypt. The shank bone represents the sacrifice of the lamb and the blood the Jews painted over their doors, letting God know to “pass over” their homes during the tenth plague. The marror is a biter herd and represents the bitterness of slavery. The charoset reminds us of the color of the mortar used to make the buildings the Israelites stayed in. Then there is the egg, which I have already discussed too much. At my age the symbols start to appear more as props in a show rather than talking points.

[6] The Ten Plagues: Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts (What beasts?? Don’t ask me), cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn. Here’s a fun classic drinking game, what would be your ten plagues if you were God? Get creative.

[7] When I was in college enrolled in world religions, this idea of being “chosen” sparked a heated backlash among my not Jewish classmates. Many of them outright disagreed with the idea that a religious group can be chosen and began calling the Jewish faith, “selfish” and “delusional.” I was quiet during this until the professor hinted to the class to watch how they speak about another religion as there may be practicing Jewish students in the room. The classroom went silent, and the students looked around trying to find the hidden Jew among them.

[8] Except Barry and Shelly.

Table of Contents