Why this night was a little different

"Dad, was that guy what came and then left Elijah with his wife?"

seder plate 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
seder plate 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As Pessah approached last year, I expected that, as usual, we would contemplate the contemporary meanings of freedom, relive the miracle of the exodus and, being in Johannesburg, miss those who had emigrated since the previous Seders. And, as usual, argue about which tunes to sing, debate how many kosher-for-Pessah tea bags were optimal and how best to mitigate the effects of eight straight days of pipe-clogging matza. But Second Night last year would be a little different from all other nights. But First Night's first. The Seder at my mom's house was intimate and relaxed. The small fortune invested in Jewish nursery school education was paying dividends as we let my daughters Megan (then almost four) and Lauren (then nearly six) take the lead. My wife Mandy had a brain wave, and suggested they reenact the story of the exodus using finger puppets and toy figurines. Lauren gave a booming impression of God imploring Moses from the burning bush, and Megan played all the minor roles in an identical squeaky voice from just below the table. They each hauled out a "Ten Plagues packet," replete with blacked-out sunglasses to symbolize "darkness," plastic sheep sporting plasters for the "sick animals" and oversized rubber gloves with red blotches for "boils." We all beamed and laughed, and my sister Kerry (then nearly 28) admitted that she could finally follow the Seder. Second Night was at my brother-in-law Steven's sprawling new house in the leafy-lined suburb of Oaklands. The children, inspired by the first night's puppet show, decided to rehearse for the live-action version. My nephew Michael (seven) played a Ramboesque Moses, raining not just 10 but 20 plagues on Egyptian friends and relations. Toddler Jacob was running around shouting "running, running, running," yelping and eating everything in sight. I had asked my annual Pessah riddles - "Which Shakespeare play is about Pessah?" (Matza Do About Nothing) and "What did Queen Elizabeth whisper to Prince Philip when conferring a knighthood on Sir Abe Cohen?" ("Why is this knight different from all other knights?"). THEN, AS Mandy and I were sitting in the lounge furthest from the front door awaiting the last dinner guests, a 60-something couple strode in. She led, smartly dressed and bejeweled; he followed, slimmer and looking troubled, slightly disoriented. He shook my hand and they said the customary Jo'burg holiday greeting to all: "Hellohowzitgoodyontif." She nestled into the cavernous brown armchair next to me. He was hovering, clearly uncomfortable about something. Others in the room began whispering. After about half a minute of silence, in a tone much like Dorothy's "We ain't in Kansas anymore" to Toto in The Wizard of Oz, he asked me, "Where's Norman?" Mandy started snickering next to me. I quickly flipped through my mental Rolodex of Normans - Greg Norman, blond Australian golfer; "Stormin" Norman Schwarzkopf, Gulf War general; Norman, my friend Judy's dead cat? Flummoxed, in an equally bewildered, uncomprehending tone, I replied, "Who's Norman?" I could feel Mandy begin to shudder with barely suppressed giggles. He turned to his wife and growled, "See doll, I told you we're at the wrong house!!" The wife instantly turned a shade of red somewhere between lobster and Prince Charles after 10 minutes in the open stands at Wimbledon without his sun hat. She shot out of the armchair and hurried back to the entrance hall, bellowing, "Well, I'm taking my gift back!" Mandy had given up all attempts at restraint. PESSAH IS indeed a festival of miracles: staffs transmuting into snakes, plagues and parting seas, matza and manna. When I had tried explaining to Lauren how Elijah the Prophet could possibly attend every Seder, all around the world and at the same time - "He only spends a very, very short time at each one" - she gave me the same look as when I'd tried to justify how the Tooth Fairy can possibly manage the logistics of her transcontinental nocturnal enamel harvesting operations. The seekers of Norman have carried on this tradition of miracles. After all, this couple had entered a house in the northern suburbs of Fortress Johannesburg, getting past razor-wire-topped high walls, electric fences and a private security guard. It turned out that Norman was the previous owner, and had moved across the road. The fleeting, fleeing guests were friends of his children. When they'd first come in, my sister-in-law Marilyn had wondered who these unfamiliar guests were, but shrugged and let them proceed further into the house anyway. But the look on Marilyn's face as the woman snatched back her gift-wrapped dried-fruit tray was priceless. Oy, to have been a fly on Norman's wall. Much, much later, as we were going home, Lauren asked sleepily, "Dad, was that guy what came and then left Elijah with his wife?"