The first part of the Seder was a group experience, with the Rabbi reciting the Kiddush over the first glass of wine, and the head of each family repeating the blessing after him. Since the use of a microphone was forbidden on the Yom Tov holiday, the Rabbi had to shout to be heard over the tumult in the hall. In a booming voice, he began to recite the Haggadah that the Jewish People had been reciting year after year, generation after generation, for over three thousand years, recounting the Exodus from Egypt. It was a cherished mitzvah that every father was commanded to perform, in order to teach the lessons of the Exodus to his children on Passover night, so that the heritage of the Jewish People would never be forgotten. When Joseph was growing up, even though his family was never super religious, they always had a festive Seder, reciting the Passover story out of an illustrated Hebrew and English Haggadah, singing “Dayenu” and other Passover songs, while munching on matzah and maror.
“This year we are here,” the rabbi called out. “Next year in the land of Israel!”
The enthusiastic congregation repeated his words, echoing the age-old wish and longing.
Then it was time for the kids to ask the Four Questions, known as “Mah Nishtanah?” in Hebrew. Joseph’s grandfather had called them “The Fiyah Kashas,” in Yiddish.
In noisy unison, all of the kids in the dining room yelled out the singsong chant:
“Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh meekol halaylot?” Meaning, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
“Did I ever tell you the joke about the Jew in England who was knighted by the queen?” Harry Friedman asked his son.
“You must have, Dad,” Joseph said, not wanting to interrupt the Four Questions. As best as he could, he leaned over in the wheelchair to show Moishe what he was supposed to read in the Haggadah, but the five-year old had already learned the passage by heart in Heder. Happily, he screamed out the words with the rest of the jubilant children.
Their thunderous cry echoed through the hall, as if resounding from the mountains of Sinai. The volume of the roar penetrated Lizzy Friedman’s doped slumber, awakening her with a start. Holiday or not, it was still the witching hour on her neurological clock. She looked around startled, surprised by the shouting and the size of the crowd. Disoriented and frightened by the unfamiliar surroundings, she stood up from her wheelchair.
“I want to go home,” she said. “It’s too noisy here.”
Without further ado, she started walking away from their table. Instinctively, Joseph stood up to follow her, but with his very first step, he tripped over the foot rest of her wheelchair. He felt his vertebrae shift out of place like a pack of playing cards being shuffled through the air. With a suppressed scream, he crashed face down onto the floor. With all of the yelling and noise in the room, it is quite possible that only Rivka heard the thud and her husband’s agonized cry. Zev was the first at his side.
“Go get your grandmother,” Joseph whispered, feeling like his head was about to explode.
Suddenly, everyone noticed the commotion. The children finished singing the last question, and a hush spread over the hall. Within seconds, Joseph was surrounded by at least a dozen Jewish doctors. There were three internists, two dermatologists, a pediatrician, a cardiologist, a surgeon, two gastroenterologists, an ear, nose, and throat man, an anesthesiologist, and a shrink. As his luck would have it, only an orthopedic specialist was missing.
“Stay in your seats, stay in you seats,” the Rabbi repeated, as curious hotel guests rushed forward to see what was happening.
Harry Friedman stood up from his chair. It looked like his son was being well taken care of by an entire medical clinic, so he hurried off after his wife.
“Lizzy!” he called. “Lizzy! It’s Passover. Will you get the hell back in here!”
Rivka told Shimon to follow his grandfather.
“It’s OK. I’m OK,” Joseph said. Slowly, he rose to his feet, like a boxer at the count of nine. His forehead was sweating and a trickle of blood dripped out of his nose.