Laurie Lipman & the Seder
I grew up in an America that was just emerging from the somewhat straight-laced Eisenhower years of the 1950's, and my Dad's decision to accept a job there was to change my life in ways that no one could have possibly imagined. Life is often like that. Things that we do or decisions that we make that at the time seem relatively mundane can have far-reaching consequences. I started life at David E Walker Elementary School in September, 1961. John F. Kennedy was the new President and there was lots of talk of new beginnings and new hope. The Eisenhower years were over and the new President and his young family suggested new and better times ahead. The challenges of the Cold War were as real as ever and it wouldn't be long before the new President's mettle was tested by the Soviet Union when they decided to station nuclear missiles in Cuba, just ninety miles from Florida.
For me, too, life was about to take a very different turn. I was to leave a school in which almost all the kids were WASPS like me ('White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants') and go to one where most of the kids were Jews. Most of them came from the Conservative or Reformed Jewish traditions, though there were quite a few whose families were Orthodox. One of the latter was Sarah, a girl that I met when we were both eleven and just beginning to experience that mysterious attraction that boys feel for girls when they realize that they're not pests any more but actually rather nice. But Sarah's mum was not entirely happy about her daughter, who after all was at an impressionable age, making friends with one of the Goyim, let alone close friends. She knew I was polite and 'nicely spoken', as we would have said in England. She also knew I was not Jewish, and preferred her daughter to stick to her own people when it came to boyfriends.
Several themes run through this book, one of which is my puzzlement at the extent to which I felt at home in Skokie. Every thing seemed to suggest that I should have felt utterly out of place. I was a WASP (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant), or so I thought and they were Jews, many of them Orthodox. I was English: sounded like it and at least at first was dressed like it; they were Americans. I was shy, introverted and had just been pulled out of a posh school where I had been bullied to within an inch of my life, only to be shoved into another school where the kids were even more different from me. So what happened? Was there something in the theory of 'ethnic memory' that I would read about years later and that's still a partly discredited theory: the idea that your genes somehow resonate to people with the same genetic pattern? That the reason I felt so completely at home in Skokie was that I carried within my own genes a Jewish identity?
The lack of bullying could be put down to the fact that, as my pal Bruce said 'we know what it leads to'. This may explain why Jews are so often in the forefront of the fight for human rights and against bigotry or prejudice - they know what it can lead to. It's only a few steps from deciding that someone is inferior to you, to deciding that perhaps they don't really have a right to be here at all. The masterful drama 'Conspiracy', starring the great Kenneth Branagh, tells the story of how the Nazi 'Final Solution' was conceived.
A group of leading German officials, scientists and politicians gathered for a sumptuous lunch at the luxurious lakeside resort of Wannsee. The guest of honour is none other than Reinhard Heydrich, principal architect of the Holocaust and Heinrich Himmler's right-hand man. All those present share in Hitler's anti-Semitism, but most of them stop short of the idea that all the Jews in Europe should be killed. To them the idea is altogether beyond the pale, if not for ethical reasons then for practical ones. Murdering six million human beings is, after all, quite an ambitious undertaking. But Heydrich takes them on a journey. Through the course of the luncheon, he begins to draw them closer and closer to his desired goal, using the prejudices that are already in place to create the obvious answer. He does it without raising his voice or ever once mentioning the words 'extermination', death-camps' or 'gas-chambers', but by the time the coffee is served they all know what is being considered.
Those few among them who find the whole idea too much to take in are gradually sidelined or made to feel foolish or even disloyal a potentially fatal charge in Nazi Germany. The others, especially one hugely fat Gauleiter who spends his time eating, drinking and puffing on huge cigars, doesn't care what happens to the Jews as long as he is able to continue his hedonistic lifestyle and when he learns that there will be lots of profit in the destruction of an entire people he's all for it. At the end of this harrowing film, Heydrich is alone with his subordinate, Adolf Eichmann, the man who would eventually face Israeli justice in 1962. Both men know which direction they will now move in. Eichmann, who spoke fluent Hebrew and was once beaten up by storm-troopers who thought he 'looked Jewish' because of his dark hair, and who joined the Nazi Party in order to prevent further attacks, had originally thought that the Jews could be 'resettled' somewhere outside of Continental Europe. He once even proposed Madagascar! But he, too, is brought round by the persuasive and almost hypnotic Heydrich.
The plan was set and the rest, as they say, was history. But one of the points that the film makes so well is that what begins with the acceptance that a group of people are inferior to you, can end up - with the right guidance - as mass murder. So I wasn't bullied and that felt amazing, but it isn't enough to really explain why it was that I felt so totally at home. Among my fellow WASPS I was hopelessly tongue-tied with girls. All of a sudden I was able to carry a girl's books and have pleasant conversations and when I got older even flirted a little. Among 'my own kind' I was shy and introverted; among Jews I blossomed and came out of my shell. I felt, in a nutshell, that I could be me.
At the ripe old age of eight, Laurie Lipman was my first 'crush'. She attended my new school and lived just a few blocks away. Laurie was one of those little girls who was 'eight-going-on-eighteen' and very grown up, or so she seemed to me. She was gentle, quiet and bookish. Today she's probably either a university professor or a nuclear physicist (possibly both) and she's probably a grandmother as well. She always seemed very serious, with big glasses and brown eyes like deep mysterious pools.
One day I found myself sitting next to her on the bus on the way home as there were no other free seats (I would have been far too shy to have sat next to her otherwise) and I said a hesitant 'hello' to her. She looked up from her book as if I was an annoyance she could have well done without, but smiled, which encouraged me. By the time we got to her stop we were chatting away like old friends: about animals (which she liked) and school lunches (which she didn't). We talked about my house and about her house, about what my Dad did, about what her Dad did and she invited me to get off with her at her stop to meet her Mother and see her two cats. I picked up her books together with mine and carried them for her, as I had seen done in movies. It happened in Rebel without a Cause and although I was no eight-year old James Dean, it felt like the right thing to do.
It was just before Passover and Laurie's house was in a ferment of activity. Laurie had a younger brother and an older sister, but one was asleep and the other was at music lessons so they weren't around. She took me into the kitchen where she introduced me, very formally, to her mother, who said something pleasant to me and promptly shooed us out into the living room. I later heard that her mother had told Laurie what a 'very nice, polite young man' I was, which I would come to learn was high praise from a Jewish mother. Laurie disappeared for a moment and returned carrying a little blue china bowl, in which there were about a dozen little green-and-red things that I took to be sweets. 'Would you like an olive?' she said. Now I hadn't the faintest idea what an Olive was. I had never seen one and had never even heard of one. They may have been flavour of the month in Skokie, but they'd be a pretty rare and exotic commodity in post-war rural Surrey. I picked up one of these fascinating 'sweets' and popped it eagerly into my mouth. Whether or not I managed to conceal my reaction I can't remember, but the taste that exploded onto my tongue was unlike anything I had ever experienced. My first thought was that it was either something that had died or that I was being surreptitiously poisoned (I had a streak of paranoia even then!) I couldn't very well spit it out, as the carpet was deep-pile and almost pure white so I swallowed it. I was desperate to make a good impression on my new friend, and spitting an olive onto her mother's pristine carpet would not have been the way to do it. Fortunately, Laurie didn't offer me another.
Laurie's mother was busily preparing for the Passover Seder, and I wanted to know all about it. What was 'Passover' anyway? From my brief forays into Sunday school I knew a about Moses in the bull-rushes and the Children of Israel and the Exodus, and Laurie was able to fill in the gaps. She had knowledge of her Faith and her heritage that would have sat comfortably on much older shoulders. I was to learn that, what I had always understood purely as 'Bible Stories' were, to my Jewish friends, very personal parts of their own story. In his best-seller The Source, James Michener tells a story about a young Israeli working on an archaeological 'dig'. A European archaeologist asks him if he ever goes to Synagogue. 'Nope', comes the reply. Are his parents religious? 'Nope' again. But does he know about Moses and the Prophets? 'Of course', says the young man. To him, such figures are not just 'religious'; they are part of who he is.
I had never before encountered the like. To me and to those in the tradition from which I had come, which was British and Anglican, religion was something generally kept for Sunday mornings and on those occasions when we attended church I would have to get dressed up in rather stiff and uncomfortable clothes (no jeans and tee-shirts to church in those days!) and either sit in uncomfortable pews while a grown-up droned on and on about things I couldn't understand, or else go into Sunday School which was just as uncomfortable and too much like regular school to appeal to me. I did learn something about God, but most of that was from reading that I did on my own, outside of church. I could read pretty well by the time I was seven and became fascinated by God, partly as a result of the many 'sword-and-sandal' and Biblical epics that were all the rage at the time. I devoured movies like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, and my pals and I managed to see Spartacus four times in three months.
Laurie sat me down and proceeded to tell me all about the bitter herbs, the lamb shank, how you dipped your parsley into the little bowl of salted water, the little glasses of wine and how the youngest child would ask: 'Why is this night different from other nights?' And what impressed me more than anything was how every member of the family was involved. The children were not just allowed to take part - they were an inseparable part of it. This was the beginning of my understanding of why and how the Jewish Faith and tradition has survived, despite everything that has been thrown at it down the centuries, because it begins in the family home. No other religion is as home-based as is Judaism.
Where I came from it was still 'children should be seen and not heard'. If I opened my mouth in the presence of adults I would inevitably be told to shut it and the image of a child my own age sitting with the adults and joining in a religious observance like Laurie obviously did made a huge impression on me. Laurie was a born teacher despite her tender years, and introduced me to a different culture with different expectations from the one I knew. In time, I would learn a great deal more, and my vision of what it meant, not just to be a child in the adult world but also how to be a more complete human being would grow. Laurie planted a seed, and from that tiny beginning a lifetime of learning would grow. That little girl standing there smiling as she offered me that olive could not possibly have known any of that. I will always cherish the memory of that day, and what it would mean for me as the years unfolded. Beautiful in its simplicity and far-reaching in its effects.