Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bitter Herbs

Passover begins at sunset this evening. The following story is fiction built around a Passover commemoration -- a very tragic one that occurred 1938 years ago.

I asked, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" And of course, Papa gave the answer that had been spoken since the days of Moses, but I knew with terrifying certainty that the full answer was actually something far worse than Papa (or, for that matter, even the high priest at the Temple) could imagine. I knew, even as a mere 13-year-old boy from Pergamum on his first Pesach pilgrimage, that something was seriously wrong about this Passover. True, everything had been done according to Law and tradition -- from the selection of our lamb four days prior, to purging leaven from the house -- but still, it was wrong. Jerusalem was brooding; the holiday celebration only highlighted the fear seen on every face.

Just a few months ago the Zealots had been assuring everyone that Vespasian's withdrawal was just the first phase in their drive to rid Israel of pagan Romans. Oddly, the Zealots now seemed pleased with the Roman army's returned, led now by the new Emperor's son Titus. They bragged, this would be the final show-down with Rome - the L-rd would again deliver Israel just as He'd saved us on the shore of the Red Sea.

But now (some 1500 years after Moses had led us from Egypt) Papa's recounting of the exodus was accompanied by the ominous, throbbing drums of the Tenth Roman Legion on the move outside the city. The aroma of the Passover lamb was tainted with the pork-laden stench of Roman campfires to the west. Our solemn prayers were interrupted by the coarse laughter of Roman soldiers -- undoubtedly enjoying their torture of some captive. So all that fanatical talk by the Zealots about Messiah's kingdom bringing Rome to its knees rang very hollow. All who were within Jerusalem's walls this night had but one thought, "Would the angel of death again pass us by as he had in Egypt?"

But as I said, while others had misgivings, I had no delusions about the outcome of this siege. Indeed, I was a mere boy. Yet I was also the same old Lenny Markowitz I've always been -- lumpy, middle-aged, thin-haired, bespectacled accountant who commutes daily from his home in Queens to his office on the 98th floor of the World Trade Center. I'm no historian; but even as a boy in Brooklyn the outcome of this, the bloodiest battle in all of human history, was something I knew. So when I spoke my predestined words, "Why on this night do we eat unleavened bread only?" I knew that eating unleavened bread on this night was different because, following this night we would eat stray dogs, rats, roaches, shoe leather, and (if that shmuck Josephus is to be believed) even babies.

I knew with terrifying certainty that on the Day of Atonement this year, the blood shed on the Temple Altar would be that of the Levitical Priests, not the bulls. This I knew, but this my father also intuitively understood. At the end of the meal Papa (though devout and very strict about tradition) abruptly stood, removed his kippah and announced, "We dare not pass the night within the walls of the city."

Mama protested, "Surely you joke. You've hardly finished telling the story of the death angel and now you want to dash into the streets to meet him?"

But Papa remained firm, "So stay if you must, but I will not wait for the Romans to kick down the door."

I stood, "Papa, I'm with you!" Momma cried. But even if she'd had the courage to join us, I don't think any of her brothers would have let her go. Harsh words passed between Papa and Mama's family and then we were in the streets of Jerusalem.

We'd seen Roman soldiers on the north and west of the city when we arrived, so we knew there would be no escape that direction. We ascended stairs to the top of the eastern wall, just south of the Temple. From that vantage we could see torches to the east, across the Kidron Valley, moving southward. Papa said, "The Romans have closed the trap. We'll wait until after midnight when the full moon has passed zenith -- then the eastern wall will be in shadow."

Papa explained his plan in detail. First he'd lower me down by rope and then climb down after me. We'd dash for the grove below the Mount of Olives. From there we'd keep to the shadows, creeping southward, down the Kidron Valley to where it meets the Valley of Hinnom (also called Gehenna). If by dawn we weren't clear of the city, we'd bury ourselves in the city refuse heap until after dark tomorrow. It was a good plan. But when the clouds moved in, Papa suddenly whispered, "Now's the time!" Securing the rope around my waist, he all but pushed me off the ledge. I was halfway down the wall when the clouds parted and the moon silhouetted me against the limestone blocks. A Roman archer pierced my pounding heart. I heard his gleeful boasting before I lost consciousness. I was dead before Papa had let the rope play out. The death angel, once again, had claimed the first-born on the night of Passover.

And that's how it is every night. No, I'm not always escaping from Jerusalem, but I'm always another Jew dying a horrific death. I've entertained the blood-thirsty crowds at the Roman Coliseum. I've spit in Torquemada's greasy face. I've been trampled by the Czar's horses; I've starved at Auschwitz, frozen at Dachau, been gunned down in Warsaw, been gassed at Treblinka....

I know what you're thinking: These nightmares have something to do with feelings about my repressive Jewish upbringing. Wrong! My family wasn't very "Jewish" -- we celebrated Passover with bacon cheeseburgers. Okay, so Miss Shiksa Psychiatrist doesn't get the joke. Just trust me, I didn't have a Jewish upbringing -- repressive or otherwise. But my childhood is beside the point.

Doc, the death angel's nightly visitations may be nightmarish, but they aren't nightmares. Each night when I fall asleep, I actually become another doomed Jew. When I exhale my last breath, I don't awaken from sleep -- I simply find myself awake in my own bed. And I don't just remember the events that transpired during that night -- I remember everything each doomed person has ever done during his entire life. I've felt their joy, their fear -- I've shed their tears, voiced their laughter. I've been kissed a million times on the head by thousands of mothers (my mother, every single one), and I've kissed a thousand women (each of them my wife) as she pleased. I've accumulated all the collective memories of all the thousands of persons I've known as "me". I remember every moan, every lullaby, every prayer, and every death rattle -- always my death rattle. All this I remember, but those last tormented moments of each of those lives ... I have lived.

But tell me, why me? Why -- night after endless night -- have I (of all people) been chosen to bear every sin ever committed against the Jewish people throughout history? Jesus Christ! How much suffering can one man bear?


jennifer said...

Bob, was this story written by you? I read with the sitting on the edge of my seat voraciousness that a good story demands of me. THIS was a REALLY GOOD story. Beginning of a book? Simply a not so simple short story? Regardless, WELL DONE!


Bob said...

It's a story that's been writing itself for some time. In studying the Siege of Jerualem (which, as the story states, was the bloodiest battle in all of human history - an estimated 1,000,000 Jews were killed by the Romans in the space of four months) I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a Jew who'd come to Jerusalem for Passover (as the Bible commands) only to find himself trapped by the Roman army. I'm not sure where the story goes from here, so I left it open-ended.

ShalomSeeker said...

I have stood on Masada, staring down at the still-present (though slightly degraded) ramparts, the last vestiges of this campaign, wondering...remembering. Such horrible brutality. I have stood within the gates of old Jerusalem, and considered the many, many lives sacrificed there over the years. And when I recall these things, and remember what is yet to come, all I can say is, "Thank you for telling us the story all the way to the very end, a story written in the blood of one who lives again."

Brilliantly composed. Great twists. I look forward to seeing where this story goes.


joyce said...

Hey, what happened to your search thingy?? I had to use quickverse:

Joel 2:28 ...your old men will dream dreams...

This verse came to mind when I slept on your neat story. And I must confess that I was confused at first since I am guilty of the sin of scanning. Hint to certain relatives: read the story s-l-o-w-l-y. Every word counts.

I still think I married a Cheney look-a-like but a storyteller like William F. Buckley.

joyce said...

Never mind. It's back. I had adjusted the font size with my favorite button on the planet (control plus the plus sign button) to make the font big enough for these old eyes to read, and it made your search thingy go away temporarily.

Bob said...

Hey, I married that Barrymore kid, (Drew, not Lionel) so it's okay with me if you married the veep.