Illya and Dr. Schwartz (‘please, call me Helen’) were not on social terms. They were, he supposed, reasonably amicable colleagues. So, he was surprised when, as she handed him her report on the novel polymer they’d recovered from a THRUSH installation in Fort Worth, she asked if he was busy on Saturday.
When he failed to respond beyond a noise of noncommittal inquiry, she continued, “I’m hosting a small seder, and I was wondering if you’d like to come. It’s nothing fancy, just a few fellow believers.”
“A seder,” he repeated. If he’d been surprised before, he now safely qualified as astonished.
On the rare occasions when work brought him down to the research labs, he would sometimes stop by the doctor’s office and they would chat for a few minutes about the latest publications in physics or chemistry. He knew that she had left a prestigious, and tenured, position at the University of California, Berkeley and had, for the past nineteen years, been senior resident chemist to UNCLE New York. A choice which, when he looked around the cramped, basement laboratory and compared it with what he knew of the United States’ premier public university, struck him as somewhat incomprehensible. He knew next to nothing of Dr. Schwartz’s personal life, and had always assumed that she knew nothing whatsoever of his. And yet… He was irritated to find that his heart was beating slightly faster than it had been a moment before.
“A Passover Seder,” she pressed on, obviously taking his confusion for ignorance, “a ritual meal in celebration of the holiday of liberation.”
“Yes, I know,” he interrupted.
She smiled, “Oh, have you been to one before?”
“No, I haven’t.” Thrown off balance, he fell into the gentle cushion of dishonesty.
“Well, it’ll be a new experience then. We’re starting at 7; I hope you’ll come.”
When he was a child, his grandmother had told him that, if he ever lied, he would forget what was true and would have to go on lying for the rest of his life. Maybe he should have believed her, as his denial was neither factual, nor premeditated. Still, compared to the untruths that made up his daily life as an UNCLE agent, this one barely tipped the scale; the last time he’d attended a seder was so long ago, and his memory of it so slight, it was almost as if it had never happened. Faces round a table, illuminated by candlelight, but dimmed by time. A sweet smell, a sharp taste, the thin sound of a little-boy voice chanting half forgotten words. A voice that, he realized now, must have been his own. Nothing that will be of any use to him come Saturday.
He remembered more clearly an afternoon in the days leading up to the holiday. The details are so clear, in fact, that he suspects the memory may be a composite. An old argument, hashed over again and again, likely he only recollected fragments each time.
He’s sitting at a worn, wooden table, practicing a song, while his grandfather—Zayde, his mother’s father— leans over him. He stumbles his way through, his eyes struggling to fix on the unfamiliar letters, the words encoded in their second, secret alphabet. Still, his grandfather is all praise, “Beautiful, beautiful! I always knew you were a smart one.”
“And what is the answer to those questions, eh? Why do we do these things? To remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord, baruch ha’shem, freed us from our bondage.”
Illya’s mother enters the kitchen at an inopportune moment. “Tate! What are you filling my son’s head with now?” Zayde pulls his beard. He turns to scowl at his daughter, but underneath Illya can see that he is still brimming with pride, “My grandson has learned the fir kashes, clever boy.”
Mama sighs, “He is a clever boy, much too clever to believe the nonsense you tell him. Isn’t that right, Illyusha?” Illya shrugs and his mother moves to sit across from him at the table. “Look at me, Illya. God was invented by people as an excuse for not helping one another. It’s the people who freed themselves from bondage, through Revolution, not acts of God. The only world to come is the one we’re building now, a fair world, where everyone is free and we all look after everyone else. Your grandfather’s been telling you fairy tales...”
“Enough of that talk” erupts Zayde, sending his chair scooting back and standing up in order to gesture emphatically somewhere above Illya’s head, “you want he should be cut off from his people?”
Grandmother, sitting by the stove, catches Illya’s eyes, then rolls her own to the heavens. Always the practical one, Bubbe Esther has been mediating between “my two stubborn idealists,” as she calls them, for even longer than Illya has been alive. Temporarily forgotten as his mother and her father argue above him, he slips out of his chair and into his grandmother’s outstretched arms.
“Peretz Abromovich,” she calls. That’s Zayde’s name when he’s in trouble, so even though Bubbe Esther’s voice is sharp and loud so close to his ears, Illya knows that it’s not him she’s angry with. “We are this boy’s people. So, do you mean to tell me that a touch of apikorsus is all it takes to come between us and our grandchild?”
“And you, Chanale,” her voice softens, “you know your Illyushke, do you really think that one little holiday will make him forget all his responsibilities? Besides, we need a child to sing the Four Questions, and he’s been working so hard. And, we may need some help to find the afikomen, or else we’ll never be finished!”
“You see, Mama,” Illya pipes up, “they need me. You’re always saying how important it is to help each other.”
His mother pats his cheek fondly, reaches up to ruffle his hair while he squirms in his grandmother’s lap. “Using my own words against me,” she finally says, “I can’t argue with that. Be good for the seder, my dear Wicked Child.” And Zayde, cooled down now, says, “No, my dearest Wise Child,” and leads him back to the table to study the prayer book.
True to his mother’s word, he’d gone to the seder. But it must have been one of the last. Certainly it was not very long before everything changed. And when he’d been left suddenly alone with another family, they’d made him promise to speak Russian only, and not to mention Mama, or Bubbe Esther, or Zayde, or the things they had taught him. As long as nobody knew what he was, they could keep him –not safe, his ‘uncle’ emphasized— but safer. And so what he was had become something secret, something fearsome that no one must know, and then, in time, just a small thing that no one did know. No one except, apparently, for Helen Schwartz.
The morning of the seder he spent an inordinate length of time in the shops, trying to figure out what to bring that evening. He vaguely recalled that there were restrictions on food, but could not remember what they were, and it was too late to ask. He’d meant to go to the Jewish grocery a few streets from his apartment, but he’d forgotten they were closed Saturdays, and the regular supermarket offered little in the way of guidance. He settled on wine, the standard dinner party offering, if Napoleon was to be believed. It came in a curiously ornate bottle, with the phrase ‘Kosher for Passover’ printed reassuringly across the label.
Bottle secured in the crook of one arm, he dithered in his doorway. It would be so easy to just stay home. In all likelihood, he wouldn’t have to see Helen again for weeks, and by then she might have forgotten all about inviting him. He momentarily contemplated conveniently ‘misplacing’ his glasses, in which case at least no one could expect him to read anything aloud. But no, the whole affair would go easier if he could follow along, and he would only give himself a headache by squinting. Why indulge his anxiety? He had played far more difficult roles than this with far less preparation. If he could impersonate a Nazi for an entire day, surely he could be a Jew for one evening. He shook his head, banishing the thought. Colonel Nexor’s ghost was the last company he needed tonight; there was room for one intruder only at Dr. Schwartz’s table. Illya stepped into the hall and locked the door decisively behind him.
When Illya arrived at Helen’s brownstone, she met him at the door, waving him in. She accepted the wine as he passed. “You shouldn’t have!” She took a closer look at it and frowned, “No really, you shouldn’t have. This stuff is terrible.” Taking him by the arm, she led him further into the house. “Don’t worry,” she gave his arm a little squeeze, “we’ll find a use for it.” She must have thought she’d hurt his feelings. Ridiculous.
Helen shepherded him into the dining room, where about a dozen people were already assembled. Illya was relieved to see that the dress code was relaxed, eclectic even, with styles that encompassed everything from university professor to juvenile delinquent. One man even sported a heavily patched denim jacket.
Introductions were made and Illya found himself seated between the man in the denim jacket and Frankie, a small woman with short-cropped grey hair and a heavy Bronx accent. Helen opened Illya’s wine and poured it into a cup at the center of the table, but then filled his glass from a perfectly ordinary looking bottle. He fingered the mimeographed pamphlet laid over his place setting. It was clearly not its first seder; the pages had gone limp and a red wine stain splashed across the woodcut cover illustration.
Helen cleared her throat. “Khaveyrim, tovarishchi,” a glance at Illya, “comrades.”
“We come together today to celebrate renewal and liberation. Just as the Passover is the spring of the year, so communism is the spring of humanity.As nature awakens in the springtime, let us now awaken ourselves to the struggle that remains. Please, let’s begin on page one.”
“We were slaves of capital until October came and led us out of the land of exploitation with a strong hand and, if it were not for October, we and our children would still be slaves.”
“I beg your pardon?” Illya felt himself flush. Realizing that the assembled had paused and were looking at him, he floundered, “It’s… not quite how I remembered it.”
Helen smiled, unperturbed, “Berl here helped with the translations.” She indicated a short, round man seated to her right, “there are bound to be a few differences. Perhaps you can discuss it after dinner.”
Helen passed around a bowl of water, and the assembled dipped their hands. Turning the worn pages with damp fingers, they read in unison, “Wash off all the bourgeois mud, wash off the mould of generations, and say not a blessing, but a curse. Devastation must come upon all the old rabbinical laws and customs…that becloud and enslave the people.”
“Amen!” called out the jean-jacketed gentleman, thumping his fist on the table for emphasis.
They plowed through a few songs that must have been parodies, because, though the tunes stirred vague feelings of familiarity, the words, mostly mocking the plight of merchants and landowners, made little sense. And then, following a rousing rendition of The International, the English translation sounding utterly foreign to Illya’s ears, dinner was served. Vegetarian, of course.
After dinner, the talk turned to politics.
The translator, Berl, began, “So, what do you think of this Dubček fellow, ‘socialism with a human face?’ You read the program I sent out?”
Another guest took a drag on his pipe and declaimed, “Mistaken. Now’s not the time for infighting. We’ve got to maintain a united front, you know, against the rightists and the reactionaries.”
One of the women spoke up, “I disagree; if we’re truly to have world revolution, we have to make allowances for different developments in different places. The movement must be strong enough to adapt itself to the character of the people.”
The man in the jean jacket chimed in, “and why shouldn’t the Czechs run their own elections. Communism is the only system that will bring about the permanent liberation of the proletariat. If allowed to pick freely, the people will choose if for themselves, and what do we trust in if not in the people?”
The pipe-smoker shook his head, “There’ll be Soviet troops in Prague by autumn, you’ll see.”
This was, Illya was sure, not an appropriate topic of discussion for an impartial peacekeeping operative, stationed outside of his country of origin and in a delicate geopolitical climate. The denim clad man glanced at Illya, inviting him into the conversation. Illya kept his own gaze fixed firmly on the framed prints on the opposite wall, where laborers toiled in roughly sketched abstraction. Men with ink black beards carried water, struck anvils, plowed fields, their bodies thin and elongate, suggestive of motion. Illya needed to move carefully. He stood, began to inch toward the door, when....
“Illya, could you help me with something in the kitchen?”
Blast, thwarted. He followed Helen into the other room. Seeing nothing that obviously demanded his attention, he picked up a dishrag and began drying silverware at random. Helen watched him for a moment, then said, “Sorry about that, I thought I might have to rescue you, the need for circumspection and all that. Did you have a good time? I got the sense that it wasn’t quite what you were expecting.” He rubbed a speck off a butter knife, inspected it closely, “Not at all, it was very nice.”
She knit her brow, “Does that mean you were expecting it to be awful?”
“What? No. I didn’t mean that. You’re right, though, it wasn’t quite what I expected.”
“I hope I haven’t put you in any kind of awkward situation. I don’t usually discuss my beliefs at work,” she smiled ruefully, “and I shouldn’t have assumed.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you know?” he asked, hoping she wouldn’t notice his tightening grip on the dishtowel.
“Well, surely they wouldn’t have sent you here if you weren’t a dedicated communist?”
“Um, would they have?” hers was the face of a woman who fears she has just made a grave, grave miscalculation.
“No, most likely not,” he hastened to reassure her. “But how did you know I was Jewish?”
Relief washed over Helen’s features. Her eyes widened and she laughed, “Oh, but, I didn’t. Not until just now. You are?” Illya wasn’t sure he could share in her relief. He set down his fistful of forks before their soft tinkling could betray the tremor in his hands. Then he laughed as well, an empty sound. Suddenly, he felt very tired.
“I thought you must be able to read it in my face somehow. Blood will out, that sort of thing.”
“What on earth? No, it never even occurred to me. I’ve been hosting my Red Seder for years, with my nearest, dearest, and pinkest friends. And this year you happened to come by and I thought, ‘Illya’s a communist, and maybe a friend, I’ll just see if he’d like to come.’ Just on a whim, like that.”
Illya ground out an ember of irritation. It wasn’t Dr. Schwartz’s fault that her passing fancy had haunted him for days. If she was being flip it was because that was what the situation merited, a silly little mix-up, how else would one respond?
When he looked up, Helen had resumed her study of his face. “You told me you’d never been to a seder before, but then that the text wasn’t what you remembered, which is it?”
“I lied.” He realized that didn’t answer her question, “I have been, a long time ago.”
She made a ‘hmm’ sound in her throat, as if she should never have expected anything else. He felt suddenly, unaccountably, ashamed. He half wished she would be angry. Anger would have been a reasonable response, but she calmly continued her line of questioning. Forensic investigation, he recalled, was her specialty. “But not with the Komsomol Haggadah? That’s what mine is based on, mostly. It’s a bit of a patchwork, and I had to make some modifications. The original had a lot of people ‘burning in the flames of the Revolution.’ I find that’s harder to stomach these days.”
“I don’t know what ours was called, if it was called anything. I think my grandparents just knew what to do. They were the traditionalists.”
“And where was this?”
Something in her face softened, took on an aspect of almost maternal tenderness. Her expression was no longer that of a scientist at work. Illya supposed she’d found whatever answer she’d been looking for. “I’m terribly sorry,” she said.
He desperately wished she would go back to being flip.
“Don’t let it concern you. These kinds of mix-ups happen all the time; there’s truly nothing to apologize for.”
She gave him a long, steady look.
“Helen?” another woman appeared in the doorway, dubiously scanning the perfectly orderly kitchen, “do you need any more help in here?”
“Oh no, I…” Helen began.
In the other room, someone, Illya thought it might be jacket-man, was loudly proposing a series of toasts, to freedom, to the world proletariat, to the memory of the Reverend King, and finally, to their absent hostess. The other woman, Sonia, if Illya recalled correctly, took Helen by the arm, “wait a minute,” she called, “I’ve found her!”
Helen shot Illya a final, apologetic look, then allowed herself to be steered back into the dining room. The buzz of conversation rose, now that the hostess was once more among her guests. Left alone in the kitchen, Illya sank into a wooden chair, letting his head rest on his hands. This was his opportunity; he should get up and leave, and go home, and, for good measure, should probably stop visiting Dr. Schwartz’s lab. He just needed a moment first, to sit, and to breathe. The kitchen smelled of cinnamon and red wine, sweet. A wheezy accordion started up in the other room, was joined by someone singing. Not a holiday song, just a folksong, simple, mournful, in the language of his grandparents. Other voices joined in, other songs followed. Illya sat and listened, rose once, washed his face, didn’t leave.
When Helen returned, a tray of dishes in her arms, she seemed slightly surprised to find him still there. Though not, Illya was sure, as surprised as he was. Still, she covered it well, and if she noticed the state she’d found him in, she had the good grace not to mention it. Pressing a wine glass, still full, into his hand, she said, “Drink up, this one’s got your name on it.” He took a sip; it was the cup from the center of the table; the one she’d filled earlier and set aside for no one. She was right—the wine was terrible, sticky sweet and weak as water. He’d had better tasting cough syrups. He finished the glass anyways, no sense in letting it go to waste.
For a while longer they washed dishes, side by side. Finally, she broke the silence. “I was thinking, my brother, he lives in Queens, and he’s hosting a second-night seder tomorrow. Typical religious waffle, not my usual scene. But, you could come as my guest, if you wanted?”
“Not really my scene either, I’m afraid.”
“I wouldn’t ordinarily go either, but my favorite niece is coming down from Smith, and I think she might be beginning to throw off the blinders of her bourgeois upbringing. Are you sure you don’t want to help me corrupt the youth?”
“Why bother? It’s inevitable, anyways.”
“They’ll have brisket.”
Why did everyone think he could be won over so cheaply? He was capable of feeding himself.
Helen continued, “They’ll do all the songs, and there’ll be families, and kids, if you’re into that kind of thing.”
Was he ‘into that sort of thing’? He hadn’t thought he had a choice. You had your family, or you didn’t, and he hadn’t, not for a long time.
He found himself picturing Helen’s family, her unknown niece. Imagining the girl coming home from university, brimming with new ideas, faced suddenly with a set of choices. To leave, to come back, to cling tight to your elders, to push them away, to accept their beliefs, to doubt them. To reject them, maybe all at once, maybe a hundred times, in a hundred tiny ways.
What might he have done in her place, if those choices hadn’t been taken from him when he was eight years old? He didn’t doubt the outcome. Some things were, as he’d said, inevitable. In any case, he was constitutionally indisposed to trust in things he could not touch. But, he wondered, what would the choosing have made him?
There was no going back. It was far too late now to pick a side. What did sides mean, anyway, now? As far as he knew, his mother had died a Jew, as much as her mother, as much as her father. Illya would always be his mother’s son, as he would be Esther and Zayde’s grandson, whatever had happened back then, and whatever he did now.
He supposed that his mother had died a Communist as well. And, if he wasn’t sure what she’d think of her revolution now, fifty years on, he hoped at least she’d died still believing that the world could be changed for the better, that freedom was real and attainable, not an empty exchange of shackles for shackles. He hoped she could have somehow still believed, at the end, that people would choose to help one another.
When he spoke again, his voice was quiet, “I couldn’t impose.”
“Bullshit. To each according to his need, let all who are hungry come and eat.” Helen caught his eye and smiled. “I need you to help me teach my capitalist slob of a brother the true meaning of Pesach.” Illya found himself smiling too.
“Alright then, if you really need me,” he raised the glass he’d been drying, and the words came to his lips with the smile, “tomorrow, in Queens.”