A Joyful Noise
Claiming the Songs of My Fathersby Deborah Weisgall
“Weisgall’s lucid prose, her eye for detail, her ability to evoke characters and tell a story keep one turning pages.” –Los Angeles Times
“Weisgall’s lucid prose, her eye for detail, her ability to evoke characters and tell a story keep one turning pages.” –Los Angeles Times
In A Joyful Noise, Deborah Weisgall – poet, novelist, and art writer for The New York Times – tells a moving story of growing up with two remarkable men who lived life as if they were characters in an opera. Music was their passion and faith, their history, and their destiny. Deborah’s grandfather, Abba, served as the cantor in a synagogue in Baltimore; her father, Hugo, was a famous opera composer and conducted the synagogue choir. Abba had brought his family to America from Czechoslovakia in 1920. He was descended from generations of cantors, and in their local synagogue Abba and Hugo kept alive a fading musical tradition. From her seat on the edge of the choir loft, Deborah as a child longed to be entrusted with this precious music and to carry it on herself. But it was impossible: she was a girl.
In 1950s Baltimore, the Weisgalls lived in a modest home on an ordinary suburban street, but their house was filled with art treasures from Prague, the magical city where Deborah was born. It seemed to Deborah that her past was locked in Prague, a place as vivid and unreal as a fairy tale. Outside her home she navigated a world of bland, split-level contentment. But inside she moved in a world that was lush, histrionic, and dangerous, informed by her father’s battle to make art in a climate of American indifference, while his conscience was haunted by the brutalities of the Holocaust.
A Joyful Noise recounts Deborah’s turbulent coming-of-age, her search for a place within the family tradition, and finally her triumphant discovery of a way to make the men who would exclude her”who were also the men she loved”listen to her voice. A Joyful Noise is a tender, heart-breaking, beautifully written chronicle of the power of memory, the survival of faith, and the pursuit of a grand musical heritage.
“Weisgall’s lucid prose, her eye for detail, her ability to evoke characters and tell a story keep one turning pages.” –Los Angeles Times
“Weisgall has written a valuable, worthy book.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A Joyful Noise is a well-written celebration of the ways that music can surround a life and enrich it.” –Dallas Morning News
“Engagingly readable . . . A number of themes thread through this thoughtful memoir, intertwining to create complex harmonies.” –The Columbus Dispatch
“A superbly written chronicle encompassing the grand themes of the power of memory and the survival of faith.” –The Jewish Transcript“An absorbing memoir, with music in the background and foreground.” –New York Jewish Week
“A conventional chronology only tells us the facts; Weisgall, a poet, novelist, and art critic for The New York Times, tells about the passion underlying them. . . . Highly recommended.” –Library Journal
“Deborah Weisgall’s memoir is the compelling history of a family: but a family different from any other, both illumined and shadowed by its Prague origins. Music is at its heart, again in no ordinary way–in the way, rather, of genius; Weisgall is the daughter of Hugo Weisgall, the celebrated composer of opera. And yet this is the story not so much of the famous father–or of his father, a cantor who sang for the sake of God, or of the joy and splendor of a transcendent liturgical heritage–as it is of the unfolding life of a young poet. The weight of this exquisite book of memory and aspiration inheres in holy music and intuitive words.” –Cynthia Ozick
“This is a lovely memoir of life in the acutely functional family of a fine and learned composer. Deborah Weisgall writes of a milieu of discourse immersed in and emerging from music, and in which love and knowledge are not at odds. Her personal story traces a larger one of cultural transmission, and of broad thresholds between Europe and America, the liturgical and the secular, generation and generation. A Joyful Noise is that of her own particular music of remembering.” –John Hollander
“How different was my middlewestern soft-spoken WASP upbringing from that of Deborah Weisgall, with its eastern querulous extrovert Jewishness. Yet how similar. . . . Deborah evokes the vanished past of her father, as well as her mother, Nathalie, and of her grandfather, Abba. From start to finish I identified intimately with a milieu at once close and far.” –Ned Rorem
Chapter One: Tell Your Son
When I was a child in Baltimore, Maryland, I imagined that from the highest point of the arc of my swing I could see the Pyramids in Egypt. I believed that when two people fell in love, they sang arias to each other. The deep green forest where fairy tales happened really existed, and history, remote and vivid as fairy tales, took place there, too. Time was measured in seasons, and it went in circles. I had been born after terrible events, but there had been a happy ending. I would grow; nothing else would ever change. In April I was just a month short of seven years old. Almost everyone I loved lived in Baltimore, and I would live there, too, forever.
My mother steered our blue Plymouth down the serpentine road through Druid Hill Park’s great lawns.
We sped past huge specimen beeches and maples with young, transparent leaves, and empty baseball diamonds cut into red Maryland clay, past the zoo’s brick reptile house where my father took me to observe the python and the boa constrictor. The last sunlight turned the spring grass golden green. In the back seat, my younger brother, Jonathan, and I tilted with the curves; I concentrated on trying not to squash the bow of my beautiful new yellow, smocked, hand-me-down dress. Up from, my father balanced on his lap the special Passover nut torte my mother had baked for the Seder. We were late my father accused my mother. She had taken too much time brushing my hair, and, as usual, had misplaced her car keys and sunglasses. My stomach churned, and I prayed that they wouldn’t start yelling.
We careened around the reservoir, its pale water reflecting the evening sky. Beyond the reservoir’s ornamental iron railing, I saw the grand, square block of Chizuk Amuno, my grandfather’s synagogue. We were almost there. My father turned and smiled at us. “Tonight there is a full moon. Passover begins in the middle of the Jewish month, on a full moon. It commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, when God delivered the Israelites.”
My mother spun around a curve, and my father turned forward again and clutched the precious nut torte.
My brother looked at me, puzzled. “Delivered where?” he whispered.
“Not delivered. Saved,” I told him. Almost two years younger than me, Jonny had turned five a month earlier; for seven weeks a year he seemed to be catching up with me. I did not mind putting him in his place. He regarded me suspiciously. I explained: “Sometimes delivered means saved.”
The synagogue’s copper dome swelled green and sacred in a city of gentile spires. My grandfather, Adolph J. Weisgal, whom we called Abba–Hebrew for father, had been the cantor of that synagogue forever. My father, Hugo Weisgall, wrote operas; he also conducted the synagogue’s choir. When he was in his twenties, he had added an extra `l’ to his name because, he said, it made the spelling more authentic. Forgetting about my sash, I sat on the edge of the seat with anticipation now, both pleasant and anxious. The sun had almost set, and Passover was beginning.
We passed in front of the synagogue and turned down Chauncey Avenue, where my grandparents lived. With the happy thrill I felt whenever I saw somebody who belonged to me, I recognized my grandfather walking to evening services, dashing and immaculate in his double-breasted gabardine suit, Borsalino hat, and his cane. He saluted us with his cane. My mother stopped the car and took the cake. My father got out and opened the back door on my brother’s side. “Come with me, Jonny,” he said, then looked at me and hesitated. Girls and women traditionally did not go to the short service before the Seder; they stayed home preparing for the feast.
“Daddy, I’m coming, too!” I declared, sliding across the seat.
My father glanced at my mother and smiled. She had not had time to put on her lipstick, and her beautiful face, with her brown eyes and dark hair, looked unfinished and harried. Everybody said I looked like her, but my hair was blond and naturally curly, while she relied on permanents. “Nath, do you want to go to services? Park at Papa’s and walk back with Deborah.”
No, I prayed. Say no.
My mother shook her head no, delivering me.
I scrambled out of the car. Abba hugged me perfunctorily, his mind already on higher things. Proudly, I took my father’s hand, and with the men I went to shul. Shul–from the German for “school”–was what we called the synagogue; in Jewish tradition prayer and study are synonymous.
We almost never came in by the shul’s grand front doors; we used the stage entrance, instead, a street-level side door on Chauncey Avenue, but this soft evening, my grandfather decided to walk around the corner to the front. A stately flight of white limestone steps the width of the building rose from the sidewalk to a portico with three sets of double oak doors. Abba climbed the long stairs vigorously. He was in his sixties and carded his cane for decorative purposes only.
The synagogue was practically empty, but Abba strode down the center aisle past rows of walnut pews as if he were a great tenor and the seats were filled with adoring fans. He had detached himself from us; he strode ahead like a king, conscious of his gift, and he greeted effusively the few men who had already arrived. He shook their hands and bowed and smiled, and they did adore him. We followed him, greeting the men, too; my father was only slightly less grand than Abba. I was terribly proud. As God visited his anger onto generations of children, he visited his love on generations of Abba’s children, too, and adoration filtered down to me. Surosky the butcher, eyes rimmed red, big hands chapped red, smiled with his fleshy lips and murmured, “Beautiful.” I smiled gently and bobbed my head.
I rarely saw the synagogue from the floor; usually, I went straight upstairs from the stage entrance to the choir loft. The choir loft was at the front, next to the balcony, set off by a small proscenium like a box in a theater overlooking the stage of the bimah, the wide, low platform, like a stage, where the rabbi and cantor stood. It was dark now. The open dome made the synagogue seem like an opera house. I gazed at the bimah. I loved the arches and columns of richly veined purple marble, the heavy blue velvet curtain, embroidered in gold, that covered the ark, the ornate brass lamp of the ner tamid, the eternal flame, that hung above the ark. The rabbi’s lectern was of white marble, the cantor’s of olive wood.
Daddy, Jonny, and I sat in one of the pews near the front. Abba mounted the steps to the bimah and disappeared through a small door that led to his study, which I thought was his dressing room. He appeared a few minutes later, having exchanged his hat for a yarmulke. At tonight’s quick service, which the rabbi did not even attend, Abba did not wear his robes, and it had the air of a dress rehearsal. He stood at the rabbi’s lectern and counted to be sure there was a minyan, a quorum of ten adult men.
My father found a prayer book, turned to the appropriate page, and handed it to me. I took it solemnly. The book was sacred; if you were careless and dropped it, you had to kiss it to apologize. In Hebrew school I was beginning to decipher the Hebrew letters and learning to read their sounds, which was considered more important than understanding their sense.
“Hugo! Move over!” Uncle Freddie, my father’s brother, seven years younger, waited impatiently in the aisle until we made room for him. He was taller than my father and thinner, and he had more hair. They both had big mouths and round, pale blue eyes that got bigger and wilder when they took their glasses off. Freddie was a lawyer; he defended the poor who were accused of crimes, and he represented Negroes fighting for their civil rights. He understood injustice. He sang first bass in the choir and cracked jokes. He was married and had children of his own, but Abba yelled at him as if he were still a bad boy, always in trouble, always wrong. I adored Uncle Freddie. “How are you, doll?” he asked, giving my shoulder a quick squeeze. “You look gorgeous.” Audaciously, he fanned a big vaudeville wave at my grandfather, who nodded haughtily in acknowledgment and reproof.
Abba cleared his throat and began chanting at top speed. He chanted faster than any man in the world, and this evening, especially, he was in a hurry to get home and begin the real singing at the Seder, the feast of Passover. But he could not resist a melody.
Our music was full of melody; it was unlike any other synagogue music. It was not wailing and melancholy but grand and operatic–I knew; my father had run an opera company, and I had heard a lot of opera. In our synagogue, each season and holiday had its special tunes. Abba had brought his music with him when he came with his wife and two sons to this country in 1920 from Czechoslovakia. His father had been a cantor in central Europe, as had his father before him. Abba sang the music they sang and the songs they had written. He had saved the music from destruction; it had nearly been annihilated in the war, shot, starved, and gassed. This synagogue was one of the few places where it survived.
A tune caught Abba’s fancy. He had started to skim the prayer, but its lovely line seduced him. He tilted his head back and sang, and my father and my uncle took his cue and joined in and harmonized even though there was not supposed to be a choir at this service, even though there was hardly anybody to hear their singing. Abba was a tenor, my father a baritone, my uncle a bass. Their three strong voices echoed in the empty building and rose up into the hemisphere of the synagogue’s dome. I could almost see them playing, dancing up there with the seraphim and the messengers of God. Singing connected them to each other and to the past and to the future; it was as real and mighty and unattainable as God. Their brave, holy noise seemed to me the most wonderful thing in the world. With all my heart, I yearned to add my own voice to it. It was a music of men’s voices, though; men sang in the choir, men sang in my family.
“The Lord shall reign forever and ever,” Abba read in his accented English at the end of the service. It was one of the few verses we recited in English.
“The Lord shall rain forever and ever. And that’s why the ball game was canceled,” Uncle Freddie leaned over and whispered to my brother and me. That’s what he always said, and each time it seemed funnier; part of the joke was wondering whether Freddie would come through. Jonny and I tried not to crack up. Freddie watched the two of us trying not to laugh and began to laugh himself. Daddy glanced in our direction and attempted to disapprove, but he couldn’t help smiling. For us, even for my father, Freddie’s incorrigible irreverence in the presence of God and Abba made bearable their arduous requirements.
* * *
“What language does Abba speak best?” I asked Daddy–who spoke every language with no accent: English, German, French, Hebrew, Italian–while we waited for my grandfather to collect his hat and cane after the service.
“None,” he answered.
“Is it German, or English, or Hebrew?” I insisted. “Or all of them?”
“None of them.” He took my hand as we left the shul.
“Then what do you speak best?” I answered my own question confidently: “All of them.”
The full moon rose huge and golden through the linden trees and over the roofs of the row houses. God, I thought, had chosen a full moon for the night the Israelites escaped from Egypt. My brother and I ran on ahead of the men, racing. My patent leather Mary Janes gleamed in the streetlights and skidded on the sidewalk. My corkscrew curls, which my mother had painstakingly arranged, bounced disheveled against my shoulders. I ran as fast as I could. I had long legs, and I always won. Our cousins were waiting at the house; they couldn’t be trusted to behave in shul.
I felt the eagerness of an audience and the nerves of a performer, both. Tonight, for the first time, I was going to recite the Ma Nishtana, the Four Questions, which the youngest child at the table is supposed to ask. I was the oldest grandchild, but the youngest person who knew Hebrew. What is the difference between this night and all other nights? Why do we eat matzo, unleavened bread? Why bitter herbs? Why do we recline? The questions begin the Seder. They spark the telling of the story of the Exodus–this is the night God brought us out of Egypt; there was no time for bread to rise; the bitter taste of the herbs reminds us of the bitterness of enslavement; in olden days, only free men reclined while they ate–the story of the journey from slavery to freedom.
This was my debut. I was going to read the Hebrew; I was going to sing the words. My singing was going to join that play of voices–my voice, the first girl’s voice. Ignoring my brother’s pleas to wait for him, I ran, breathless, up the steps to the front porch of my grandparents’ semi-detached house and pushed open the dark oak door that opened into a tiny vestibule. The glass-paned door to the living room was already ajar. Smells of chicken soup and turkey filled the house. Freddie’s wife, Aunt Jeanne, sat alone in the living room. Thin and sexy, with short salt and pepper gray hair, she sat on the sofa, her skirt riding high on her thighs, displaying the dark tops of her stockings, and she swirled the ice cubes in her drink with her fingernail. Her long nails matched her lipstick in the color of the moment: a frosted apricot. The cuffs and hem and neck of her suit jacket were trimmed in marabou feathers dyed the taupe of the fine, light wool. She dragged on her cigarette, which she smoked in an ebony holder. “So where’s my husband?” she asked in her throaty, provocative voice and thick Baltimore accent.
“He’s coming,” I said and asked: “Where’s Mommy?” though I knew the answer. I heard her aggravated voice coming from the kitchen.
Jeanne glanced toward the back of the house. “Do you like my suit?”
I nodded. I did, very much. I reached out and stroked the marabou down on her jacket hem; I appreciated my aunt’s finery. The front door opened again. Jeanne stood and twirled in her taupe highheeled pumps. “I made it myself,” she said. “I finished it this morning. Fabulous, isn’t it?” The men came in, with my brother, who was pouting because he’d lost our race. Jeanne patted her flat stomach and flat rear end. My father looked away. Abba smiled. “Gut yontif,” he said. “Gut yontif, pontiff,” Freddie said as he kissed his wife. I had just figured out that Yiddish expression. “Yom tov,” literally good day, meant holiday in Hebrew. So, good good day, I said to myself. Despite her glamorous clothes, I thought, Jeanne could never be as beautiful as Mommy, or as good a cook, but I wished that my mother could have new clothes, too.
In the kitchen, my three cousins crowded around the icebox clamoring for Pepsi. My grandmother, Aranka, whom we called Lady, regarded them as if she didn’t recognize them. She wore a plain, navy blue dress and black shoes with thick heels. Her graying hair was parted in the middle and pulled back into a bun, and her strong features crowded into narrow bones. She had deep-set anxious eyes ringed with shadows; when she saw me, she smiled, like a pale sun behind clouds. I went to kiss her, but, distracted by the turkey, which needed basting, she turned her back on me. I took her affection on trust and loved her from a distance. Like a sea anemone, she shriveled with a reticence beyond her control.
“Deborah! Get those kids out of here!” My mother’s angry voice cut through the clatter. She had tied an apron over her old tweed suit; it was not sleek like Jeanne’s; it pulled across her stomach, round after two babies and no exercises. Her cheeks were flushed from the heat, from the effort of helping, and from frustration. Her hair was coming loose from her barrettes, but she had put on lipstick. She charged around the kitchen, circling Ozelia Potter, Lady’s languid, mahogany maid. Ozelia walked with a calm that drove my mother crazy. Ozelia cut tomatoes and iceberg lettuce into wedges as if she had all the time in the world, while my mother impatiently thrust the salad platter under her chin. There was so much to do. On the counter I noticed another tinfoil-shrouded cake beside Mommy’s wrapped nut torte. “Who brought that?” I asked.
“Jeanne,” Mommy muttered. “She wasn’t supposed to. We don’t need it.”
Quickly, I poured myself a tumbler of Pepsi and hustled my brother and cousins out of the kitchen. I whispered to myself the words of the Four Questions. We raced through the narrow passageways between grownups and heavy furniture. The oak dining room table had been extended with two folding tables borrowed from the synagogue. They stretched into the living room, each covered with a white damask cloth, each place set with a silver wine cup. We circled the tables hunting for our favorite cups and moved them to where we guessed we would sit.
Guests were arriving. I hugged my father’s cousin, Klari, and her husband and sons. Klari’s father, Lady’s brother, had been killed in the war. I thought of her as my father’s only cousin, but there were others, in Budapest, whom I would never see because they were locked behind the Iron Curtain. Klari’s husband, Fred Kaufman, had been a pianist. To escape the Nazis, he fled to Panama and worked in a laundry, where an explosion burned and scarred his hands. He was a scientist now. Klari brought a nut torte.
Mrs. Werner brought a nut torte. Tiny and Viennese, packed like a knish into her blue serge dress, polka dots of rouge on her cheeks and on her thin lips an inaccurate filament of lipstick, Mrs. Werner was one of the Germans, as my mother called them, one of the refugees Lady had taken in during the war. Mrs. Werner came with Mr. and Mrs. Hirschler, a gentle couple with wounded, gracious manners, who had owned a kitchen supply house in Vienna. They all smiled at me, but I was shy with them. They carried with them shreds of a different life: severe and formal clothes, hesitant English, and a sadness that frightened me.
Abba had stowed his hat and cane and inspected the preparations in the kitchen. Then he returned to the dining room and sat himself in his armchair big as a throne placed at the center of one side of the table and cleared his throat. “Come on!” he commanded. “Where is everybody?” We children stood around waiting to take our places.
Freddie sauntered into the dining room and considered us. “You sit on my right hand, and you sit on my left hand,” he intoned, pointing to Jonny and me. “And–” he paused, making sure of his audience “–I’ll eat through a straw!” I laughed until I got hiccups. I was in college before I learned that Freddie got his seating plan from Groucho Marx.
“Freddie, enough!” Abba scolded. “Now, sit down. Everybody sit down.”
We scuttled to the seats we had staked out, worried that somebody would usurp them. It was an aspect of our general fear and trembling; Abba could decree that we should be arranged differently. Stealthily, we shuffled the wine cups one last time. I sat to my father’s left at the Seder table and Jonny sat to his right. We faced Abba. Freddie’s children sat near the ends of the table, removed from Abba’s direct line of vision.
Lawrence, Freddie’s oldest son, spilled Jeanne’s cup of wine; it puddled a purple sea on the white cloth. “Goddammit!” bellowed Abba. Lady came in from the kitchen and looked pained and disappointed. Ozelia sponged up the mess. “I need more wine,” Jeanne announced, waving the empty cup.
“Nath!” my father called. “Nathalie! We’re starting. Nath!”
Reluctantly, my mother emerged from the kitchen and sat beside Jonny. “Nothing’s ready!” she whispered loudly to my father over my brother’s head. “You should see what’s going on out there. It’s appalling. Ozelia isn’t doing a thing.”
“Don’t worry about it,” my father begged.
“If I don’t, who will? Your sister-in-law and your cousin certainly couldn’t care less.”
I shivered with embarrassment, but Jeanne and Klari, who were talking hard to each other, hadn’t heard. Abba cleared his throat again and opened his Haggadah, the text read at the Seder. I turned the pages of my Haggadah to the Four Questions. The Haggadah was illustrated. I turned past a picture of a family, a father, a son, and a grandson, reading from a book; their mouths were open. The mouths of the women were shut.
The Germans sat quietly. Freddie’s children squirmed. Abba closed his eyes. He began to chant the Kiddush, the opening blessing over wine. He began softly. Aunt Jeanne kept talking, to Mommy now. Abba opened his eyes and glared at her. I wished I had the authority to reprimand her; I hated that he was interrupted. Halfway through the Kiddush, the chant blossomed into melody. His sons joined in. Abba had tears in his eyes. The Germans listened in sad wonder. Then we all sang the Shehecheyanu, the prayer thanking God for bringing us to that time, that season, in our lives. Our voices clung to the heroic voices of the three men. Crowded around my grandparents’ table in Baltimore, Maryland, nine years after the end of the Second World War, our family was lucky beyond measure and blessed. It was almost my turn.
Abba got up and washed his hands, as was prescribed in the Haggadah. I heard the water run in the sink; I hoped his hands were really dirty and he would take a long time. He sat back down. How beautiful the Hebrew letters looked, like drops of black water. I stared at them. They began to run and blur. I put my finger on the first word, to hold the letters still. “So?” Abba asked, surveying the children.
“I’m going to say the Ma Nishtana,” I said.
“Deborah will say the Ma Nishtana,” my father announced at the same time. Abba smiled and raised one eyebrow. His pale blue eyes widened.
My face grew hot, and I tucked my hair behind my ear even though it was already caught with barrettes.
“Papa!” my father admonished.
“Ma nishtana,” I began to sing. The table fell silent. I heard my voice, high and piping and wavering: a trickle of sound. “Ha leila hazeh mikol halaylos.” There. The first question finished. I took a deep breath.
“Sheb’chol,” Abba said impatiently: the first word of the next sentence.
I glared at him, furious. I knew that word. I was just breathing. “Sheb’chol,” I repeated. The note was wrong. Vaguely, I heard my father humming. “Sheb’chol halaylos–” My voice shook. I hurried the rest of the words, but I could not get the tune. I couldn’t even try to sing. I had to get the words out before Abba corrected me again. I wanted everybody to know that I knew all the words. I didn’t need help. I could do it.
“Louder,” Daddy urged.
I could speak no louder. I finished, shaking and dizzy with disappointment. I had not sung; my voice had failed. Lady smiled sadly. Mommy smiled with pride, but she knew nothing about this business. My mother could neither read Hebrew nor sing. Abba nodded briefly at me and launched into the first answering paragraph of the Haggadah. The Hebrew spilled from his mouth in a glorious rapid river, words and music inseparable. Haggadah means “telling.” I knew that, but I had no idea what Abba was singing; I tried to read the English translation, but much of it had to do with numbers and times of day and night and the names of ancient rabbis. The telling was rushing past me, and I tried to catch what I could of it.
But my father pointed out one passage. His strong, stubby pianist’s finger touched the English: “You shall tell your son this story. Tell him–”
“What about your daughter?” I interrupted him. “Why doesn’t it say `Tell your daughter,’ too?”
“`Son’ is a general term for a child, the way we say `he’ to refer to an individual. It’s a convention, just a way of speaking.” My father answered my questions with great seriousness, although I did not always understand his explanations. When I had asked him, recently, how babies were made, he had told me: “Naturally, it’s very pleasant.”
“It should say daughters, too,” I insisted.
My father shrugged. “It implies daughters,” he said.
I wanted to believe him, but I could not. Doubt and failure pulled at my brain. It was a physical sensation, a painful angry buzzing that brought me close to tears.
Daddy went on: “Tell your child that on Passover we eat no leavened bread for seven days because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” Each father, my father explained gravely, must tell this story as if it had happened to him, as if he himself had gone out from Egypt. That was memory. The Jews must never forget. I heard the changed word: “son” to “child,” and I was almost comforted.
I asked: “Did you? Did this happen to you?”
“I know what it felt like,” my father answered, and I believed that.
* * *
Abba and my father and Uncle Freddie sang every Hebrew word of the Haggadah (and the few paragraphs in Aramaic, too). They took off their suit jackets and loosened their ties. Every few paragraphs, Abba would let Daddy chant for a while; Freddie, who wasn’t even a year old when he arrived in this country, couldn’t read Hebrew as well as my father. My father was eight when he immigrated, and in Czechoslovakia–the name itself, thick with consonants, was interior and mysterious–he had already been studying music for four years and Hebrew for three. I had been born in Czechoslovakia, too, and I proudly attached to myself its dark magic. But compared to my father I knew about as much Hebrew as a goy. I was like Freddie, brushed by the place. Freddie had had an American education, too, but Freddie sang.
I would, too. I would not give up. I would learn. Abba began a song. I stopped up my ears with my hands so that I could hear my own voice, but the other voices intruded. I heard them too well; I did not know which line to follow. I got confused. Not that it mattered; nobody could hear me.
“Jonathan! Sing!” Abba commanded my brother. Jonny sang–not words; he did not know the Hebrew words, but Abba listened attentively and smiled approval nonetheless.
I waited for my grandfather to command me.
“Lawrence!” he ordered. “Sammy!” He glared at my boy cousins. Bad like their father, they lowered their eyes. My face burned with eagerness, but Abba did not ask me. I had had my chance to sing alone.
Abba washed his hands again, according to the ritual prescribed in the Haggadah, and the feast began. We all had to swallow bits of bitter horseradish before we gobbled up matzo and charoset–chopped nuts, apples, cinnamon, and wine, symbolizing the mortar the Hebrews used to build the pyramids–and eggs, symbols of springtime, that had been boiled for twenty-four hours until the whites turned brown. Then gefilte fish–pike and carp my grandmother had chopped into quenelles, which my father loathed; he would eat nothing that swam. Then we had knedlach, matzo balls, in soup, then turkey–Freddie and I vied to grab the drumsticks off the platter; in my family you fought for everything–and sweet potatoes and string beans and cranberry sauce and salad. It was the same every year.
The women, except for Jeanne, who believed in being a guest, scuttled back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen. They frowned, concentrating on dirty dishes and food. “Deborah!” my mother, who believed in chores, called. “Help clear the table!” I pretended not to hear.
Finally, Jeanne got up and headed toward the kitchen, not to help, but to supervise the serving of her dessert. A few minutes later, the women unveiled their nut tortes and placed them on the oak sideboard. The cakes were their voices. Lady put her sponge cake at the head of the parade. Everybody was careful to eat Lady’s cake plus the cake his or her closest relative had baked. Aunt Jeanne shamelessly told everybody that her nut torte was the best and served it even to those who hadn’t requested it. I tried one crumbly bite and left the rest. People asked for my mother’s. Sedulously, I took a piece of Klari’s cake, too.
After dinner, the Hebrew in the Haggadah stretched in long blocks. Abba chanted at top speed, but he stopped often and sang ravishing, tender tunes, melodies garlanded on two or three lines of text, before he rushed on. Other verses came with vigorous music, and he banged the flat of his hand on the table to mark the syncopation. Matzo crumbs danced. Abba pounded the beat, and then he raised his hand and stretched out his arm, bringing into his song my father and my uncle. They did not so much sing as unleash their voices, straining to be let loose. Their voices were different; my grandfather’s was high and clarion, Freddie’s bass was rough, my father’s baritone was mellow and expressive, but they blended so naturally that together they sounded like one being. Singing was their peace and their connection, their love, their combat: their life.
Abba sent the children to open the door for Elijah. According to legend, the prophet Elijah flew around the world to visit every Seder; we poured a big, ornate silver cup of wine for him, and as the adults sang the song beseeching him to come and redeem us, we crowded into the vestibule. I, the eldest cousin, held open the screen door and watched for the spirit. I stood on the threshold, the heat of the house at my back, the cool spring night air on my face. Here, the voices weren’t so loud. The moon had risen, distant now, white and full. I stood at the boundary between two mysteries: the bright urgent noise and a dark restoring silence. The song ended, and I closed the door and went back to the table.
For some of the psalms and songs, we had three or four different melodies, and we sang them all, one after the other. Each expressed a different mood; usually we sang the slow ones first, and usually we saved the melodies written by our family for last. As we finished those songs, Daddy said to me: “This was by your great-grandfather,” or “Your great-great grandfather wrote this.” The songs formed a golden chain dangling in front of me, out of my reach. The men with their big voices sang for the sake of the past; it had all happened to them, terrible and wonderful things, thousands of years of memory. Armed with their voices and music, they were our warriors.
We sang a few traditional tunes, too, but not very many. Freddie had made up lyrics to one of them, the tune to “Adir Hu,” a hymn listing God’s virtues. First we sang the hymn straight, then Freddie went around the table substituting our names: Jonny, too, Deborah, too, Hugo, too, Nathalie, too, Klari, too, all around the table. Finally we sang Freddie’s verse:
Adir Hu went to the zoo,
Saw a monkey and a kangaroo.
Said Adir Hu to the kangaroo,
“Why do you stay in the zoo?”
The monkey said, “We get fed.
That’s why we stay in the zoo.”
Freddie and his children and my brother and I shouted the words. My father joined us; my grandfather smiled. Lady, despite herself, smiled, too. This wasn’t in the script; nowhere was it written in the Haggadah, but it stayed. Every year we sang it. Even when we were all adults, not a child at the table, we sang it, thrilling again to childish insurrection.
We ended with “Chad Gadya,” which translates from Aramaic into “One Kid.” Father bought the goat, the cat ate the goat, the dog ate the cat, all the way through the butcher to the Angel of Death and finally to God. Tired, I sat in Daddy’s lap. My brother dozed against Mommy’s shoulder. We sang all twelve verses, my father, my uncle, and my grandfather in turn taking the solos. I leaned my head against my father’s chest, and his voice reverberated in my skull, loud and hard and wonderful.
Lady sang “Chad Gadya.” Mrs. Werner and the Hirschlers sang, tears in their eyes, remembering the Seders of their childhood, the voices of their dead families. My father got Fred Kaufman to sing an inner line of harmony. One Kid; the kid was Israel, the Jews. We got to the last verse, the last chord, and the Seder was over. We sat, dismayed and unwilling to end, and so we began the last verse again. My father took the solo. “And the Holy One, Blessed be He, came and conquered the Angel of Death.” My father conducted; his arms waved on either side of me. We hummed as he repeated the chain: the Angel of Death, the Butcher, the Ox, the Water. One Kid, persecuted, suffering, redeemed. Everybody sang now. Chad gadya. It wasn’t exactly singing. Our voices grew louder and louder; the minor chord blossomed into major. We each found a note, any note, and we shouted it out–I heard my mother, piercing and hopeless–in one discordant, triumphant, and joyful noise.
* * *
During the ride home, I pressed my face against the car window. The moon lit the park’s lawns blue, and stagy little blue-white clouds floated in the sky. My grandparents’ house condensed to a dark, magnetic place, a place of arcane secrets and fresh yearning. Beside me, Jonny slept. My parents must have thought me asleep, too.
“Jonny sings rather well,” I heard my father say to my mother in the front seat.
“What about me?” I protested.
“Deborah, you don’t sing in tune.”
“You’re like me,” my mother said.
I hummed the songs as quietly as I could, aching to get them right, afraid that my father would hear my wrong notes and correct me. They ran perfectly through my head but not from my mouth. I loved them. I wanted them.
“Jeanne’s cake was too dry,” my mother said.
“I didn’t have any,” my father answered.
My breath fogged the window. I drew a Star of David in it. The illustrations in the Haggadah of the Egyptians drowned by the closing waves of the Red Sea showed bodies and chariots and horses tumbled like clothes in a washing machine. I wished God had spared the innocent horses. Almost home, we passed the Pimlico Race Track. God had shielded his Chosen People, the Israelites, with pillars of clouds, pillars of fire. I loved that history. I, in Baltimore, in the United States of America, in the world, in the universe, yearned to experience those miracles as my father had, and his father and his father’s father had, too. My desire was as strong as theirs; my voice was not. My breath stalled against my vocal cords, and the back of my throat throbbed from stopped-up songs and angry tears. I wanted to sing. I wanted to be heard.
©1999 by Deborah Weisgall. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.