I know that Rodolphe and Clara Komerofsky came to this country from Romania in 1902, that they brought almost nothing with them except the candlesticks on the Seder table.
I know their descendants — their faces, anyway, if I have trouble remembering their names. We turn her head and I almost take 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 again.
For over 10 years, my wife and I have joined Arin and his family at their Passover Seder. We shared the table with Arin’s parents, Jay and Linda Miller, her grandmother Birdie, and dozens of cousins and in-laws and once removed.
In our twenties and thirties, we non-practicing Catholics have become as accustomed to parsley and salt water, Maror and Charoset as we are to the incense and Easter ham of our own childhoods.
And for two years of pandemic separation, we had to settle for our own version of this Passover prayer, Next year…
So now — vaccinated, boosted, tested — we return again to recall the branches of the Komerofsky family, who are from California and who are from Columbus, who drink Manischewitz and who do Diet Coke. We know the uncle most eager to tell a new joke and the one who will laugh the hardest. I know Arin’s husband, Joe, and I will plot to outsmart each other for the last bite of lamb shank.
I have come to recognize Rudolph and Clara from the pictures 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 also ancient, the flight from Egypt.
I will never know these ancestors. But throughout the night, I try to imagine them, grateful that I have them for these friends of ours. Each year, on this night different from all the other nights, with its questions and its answers, I join their descendants in the ancient ritual of the evening meal. After our pandemic separation, I’m afraid I’m missing a bit of practice.
Arin and I met 15 years ago while teaching at an independent Catholic high school on the east side of Cleveland. Our friendship took root in our mutual struggles as new teachers, our failures and our celebrated small triumphs. None of us – Arin, a Jewish atheist, nor I, a Catholic agnostic – have ever felt comfortable with the masses, the crossings, the acts of worship, all the trappings of institutional religion.
What we value in our traditions and those of others is 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 table again and again, brought Arin and Joe to our doorstep with plates of food when my father died, and us at the Millers when Grandma Birdie died, aged 96.
I don’t remember when I first participated in his family’s ritual. Or if I already knew that the Haggadah – the text recited during the Seder – demanded that “in every generation, it behooves everyone to consider themselves as if they had personally come out of Egypt”. I certainly did not know how the Komerofsky family understood this traditional injunction, in our 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 names of the ancestors, Rodolphe and Clara, the names of their children and the spouses of their children, a litany of proper names registered in the family book for generations.
During my first Seder, the recitation of the Haggadah sounded like a script for which I had forgotten my lines. At first, I mumbled the Hebrew words for fear of mispronouncing them. I felt like I had no right to say “Next year in Jerusalem”, even in English.
But I could say the names. As clearly as I could see the Haggadah photographs—here’s the whole family gathered around shuffleboard in a mid-century basement, here’s Rudolph and Clara at their wedding in 1904—I could say their names. I could contribute to the incarnation of their memory in our breath and our voice.
It was also strange to encounter the ritual within the ritual, as Arin’s father, Jay, reads the Haggadah and family members interrupt and intervene. “I thought we cut that part!” shouts an uncle. “Are you sure it was in 1904? asks an aunt. Some of the jokes may be decades old; some of them make the room groan. But then Jay laughs his huge laugh, and I can’t help but laugh too. That’s what I missed.
It’s not the repeated call and response of the Catholic Mass where, at weddings and funerals at least, I still find myself saying, “And with you too. This silence of the cathedral is indeed a kind of religious experience.
But the times when we laugh together – as if the spirit were upon us, convulsing with joy until we can no longer speak – must also be holy. How well we know Christ who suffered; I long to know a Christ who laughs.
I have heard or read or perhaps 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 their own words to the logos. We don’t riff on the liturgy. Some of us still suspect that God speaks Latin.
So it still seems both obvious and marvelous to me, the simple pure fact of saying the names. To name, to pronounce is a sacred act in any tradition, in particular in 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 of our families — as the center of worship, of celebration, of consolation. The pious and the skeptics can say the names, keep the memory or learn the history of the ancestors. We can at least try to live in a way that justifies their lives and ours.
As far as I don’t know, I have known at least this particular grace of being welcomed. One year when Aunt Rivie, the last of Rudolph and Clara’s surviving children, asked me who I was going to come with, I told her I was a friend of Arin’s. “Oh, good,” she said, with what sounded like real relief. “You’re fine then.”
In my life, I’ve found that blessings, when they come, come this way. Not a laying on of hands but a casual “you’re fine”. As an older poet once said, when I dropped him off at his hotel after reading, “I think our paths may cross again.” The way my dad, when he told me he loved me, added the word “kid.” “I love you, kid.” This movement.
“Are the candles also from Romania? an uncle asked for a year that Janet, our host, turned them on. “No,” Janet smiled. “I bought them at Drug Mart.”
“All our relatives near and far”, we say, “and those of generations to come”.
I still can’t read Hebrew, although I can say a few more words and phrases now, enough to join in the pronunciation of names, to say my own version of grace.
The house the temple, the table the altar, the flame maintained as one keeps a faith: day after day and for each generation. “Next year in Jerusalem,” I say with them now.
I admire this moment of the ritual. But what I love is having confidence that next year – and for as many more years as possible – we will still be here together, far from Egypt and Romania and even from Jerusalem, in this suburb east of Cleveland.
This is the best I can hope for in my own struggle with faith: spontaneous blessing, given without asking. Arrive and find the door is open. That we are welcome.