The first question

April 03, 1996|By Arthur J. Magida

FOR WEEKS before the Passover Seder, I drilled my daughter on the first of the Four Questions. Almost 2 years old and talking for only five months, Sarah was so confident with the few words she knew that I was sure she could wrestle with the gnarled Hebrew, giving it an unexpected softness, expansiveness and grace.

I would get a pleasure from hearing her. My parents who, as usual, were hosting the Seder, would be relieved that the tradition of the youngest, the very youngest, reciting at least one of the questions was living on.

Sarah repeated the ancient Hebrew words after me in her delicate voice just mustering its own color and character. Its hesitating thinness was charming; its frailty made one lean just a little bit closer to hear her; her stumblings gave her a vulnerability that made you want to draw her to your breast.

For Sarah, the question was a revelation, an aural journey that had little meaning save the pure joy of the sound -- mine, then hers, mimicking the strange Semitic tones. Her buoyant way with the awkward words would give the Seder a newness, a lightness.

We practiced the question until, by Seder time, she had it down pat. But came the gefilte fish and the horseradish and the Manischewitz and nothing came from Sarah. It may have been the paralyzing thrill of performing for her grandparents. Maybe it was just the endless landscape of food laid out before her. Perhaps she was silenced by the muffled titters of her two older cousins. I'll never know. But whatever it was, all we got from her was a confused and pleading stare.

Her cousins finally said all the questions -- Sarah's and the ones they were ready to say -- and the Seder went on. It was a good Seder -- they always are -- but this one lacked Sarah's celebratory moment of innocence, her halting asking for an answer to a question that she didn't even understand.

Next morning, we headed off for another annual excursion: Easter Sunday with my wife's parents.

The usual hubbub was made over Sarah as we arrived, and she took it with grace and common sense. Crowd scenes and mild hysteria have never rattled her, especially when a table is all set and there is little time to milk an audience for all it's worth.

Just as we were about to toss some salad onto our plates, I heard a muted mumble from Sarah. Bending low, I caught her inquiring -- most politely and in impeccable Hebrew -- ''Why is this night different from all other nights?''

Never before had she said the question without prompting, and never before had she said it so clearly, if so quietly.

It was different

I told the others what she had said and there was a round of nodding smiles. Sarah knew. She knew that the previous night had been different. She knew that this afternoon was different. She knew that this coming evening was to be different. She knew that going from a Seder to an Easter banquet in less than 24 hours was a difference she would have to struggle with and answer to for her entire life. For her, the holidays changed and crystallized her breathing, her pacing, her world.

The Passover-to-Easter journey was one that would make her entire life, her entire soul.

I was the only one who had heard Sarah's soft, feather-like whispering, the only one who had felt the weight of history and tradition behind her words. And Sarah was the only one who was not moved in any way by her asking. She went back to playing with her food and the rest of us -- the bemusement thinning -- went back to eating ours. There was still a lunch to get through and a night that was fast approaching that I, for one, knew would be different from any other of the year.

Arthur J. Magida is the author of ''Prophet of Rage,'' a biography of Louis Farrakhan to be released in late May.

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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