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A seder in Berkeley: How a newly minted Marxist-humanist came to live with his Republican parents

By Jonathan Sussman

Section: Arts

August 27, 2009

When I told my parents that college had turned me into an atheist and a pothead, they were unconcerned. But when I told them I was left-wing, they got angry. They spent quite a few nights diligently repeating talking points, somehow relating the case to free markets to my ancestor’s flight from Poland. But I had imbibed too much Marx to pay attention. When my friend Lev invited me to Passover dinner in Berkeley, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to leave Long Island.

But on the plane I had a terrible nosebleed. Before I could pinch my nose the blood began sketching ugly maroon blotches on my new shirt. Blotting only made it worse. Lev handed me a t-shirt from his carry-on bag. I went to the restroom to change; on the way back to my seat, I realized that I’d be meeting my best friend’s mom in a Bugs Bunny t-shirt.

“Don’t worry if you don’t remember the seder very well,” Lev said, leafing through Mother Jones. “My parents aren’t formal about it.”

I looked askance. “I thought you’d said your dad was a rabbi and your mom was a cantor?”

He glanced up. “Yeah, but they’re atheists too. They’re reasonable people.” He turned back to his magazine. “You’ll get along famously.”

I’m not sure what struck me as odd – atheist rabbis or informal seders. From a very early age I identified religious services with a stifling solemnity; a seder meant sitting quietly at Grandma’s table, wine-stained Haggadahs in hand, as the eldest male raced through the liturgy. Then dinner. As the women cleaned up there was baseball on TV.

“When you say informal you mean short?” I asked Lev.

“No, not usually. The important parts are there. Did you bring your sacrifice?”

“What? Uh, no.” I had forgotten: Lev’s family had a tradition of bringing ‘sacrifices’ for Passover dinner, verse or song that dealt with the themes of the holiday. I’d find something on the Internet before dinner.

We arrived to a very busy house. Lev’s dad, David, handled the cooking, while his girlfriend Marilyn directed place settings and décor. A quiet radio played an insufferably long folk tune. When it ended the heavily-accented host mentioned that gay marriage had been legalized in, of all places, Iowa.

“Good, that’ll fit in with my toast tonight,” David mumbled from the sink. Marilyn cleared space for a trivet on the table, rolled back to examine the arrangement. “Very fitting,” she muttered. Turning to me, “It must be exciting, all this happening now – but I don’t need to tell you that. I’m sure almost everyone at Brandeis voted for Obama, right?” she smiled.

Almost everyone, except me – yet another part of my political dilemma. Until the spring, I had considered myself a libertarian, and only de-converted after a prolonged period of reflection. I just no longer had the confidence that my former ideology could address the oppressive apparatus of capitalism. I wish I had had my change of heart earlier, so I could have participated in the election night victory party. But, then again, I was now too far left for Obama. This was another thing I couldn’t get my parents to understand – they all too readily assumed I fell in line with the Democrats, before I could how explain that they were America’s second most capitalistic party. I resented the rush to define me when I couldn’t do it myself.

An hour left till seder, and I was in trouble – nothing to offer. Lev was encouraging: “You’ve written poems for the lit mag, right? Just come up with something about freedom or remembrance or something.” Easy for him – Google immediately coughed up a poem entitled “Freedom.”

I wanted – what did I want? I wanted to say something, that was for sure. Something touching. Something about Passover, but nothing too godly. Something about the struggle, dammit! The workers seizing the means of production! But dialectical materialism just wouldn’t work – I couldn’t draw any human feelings out of it. Socialist realism wasn’t my bag.

To be a political humanist seemed impossible. What did my dad always bring up when discussing politics? Poland. The pogroms. Anti-semitism, boats across the Atlantic, selling canned vegetables in Brooklyn. I’d heard it too many times to remember the details, and I never understood how he connected it with free markets. But there was something there.

But how to relate it to Passover? I flipped through a Haggadah. Washing hands – nothing there. Four Questions – too preschool. Spilling a drop of wine for the ten plagues. I looked through the English bits for some subtext. It’s about sympathy? For the suffering of the Egyptian slave masters? Oh, those wacky Hebrews! Neocons, they were not.

It was something to start with, anyway. My pencil hovered. “A Love Letter for the Policemen of Poland”. Ooh, a title. I filled in the lines beneath it, crossed out ones that didn’t work. I had something serviceable when we were called down.

When it was my turn, I read my hastily-scribbled poem. I don’t know if it came out, but I wanted to talk about the same thing my dad did – that I was grateful my ancestors came to America, that they had found a small place in the world. And in much the same way I felt I was coming to find my own place in the world, even if it was a ways away from where my parents found themselves. And that my new politics was about giving folks a place in the world, one where they could be just as secure as I was. And, I dunno, something about plantin’ orange trees with the grandchildren of anti-semites – a hastily-inserted image, but it ended sweetly.

After that we ate, and sang civil rights songs, and even squeezed in “The Internationale.” And I spilled brisket juice on my poem and threw it in the garbage. It was a fun night. I was glad I had found something to talk to my parents about.

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