Two dozen bedraggled Jews gathered around the fire in the middle of nowhere conducting a makeshift Seder.
A vagrant settled in among them.
“What is he doing here?” asked a boy, the only youngster in the group.
“It is written,” said Lebenthal, his grandfather, “that all who are hungry are welcome at the Seder.”
“I don’t care much for the matzos,” said the vagrant. “But I sure could use a taste of that Manischewitz wine.”
Dworkin, the leader of the group, filled the glass of the vagrant.
Lebenthal said, “You are about to commemorate the blood of the Jews who escaped from bondage in Egypt.”
“L’Chaim,” said the vagrant.
“I still don’t get it,” said the boy. “You’re supposed to be Jewish.”
“All men are Jews,” said the vagrant. “That’s what mamma taught me.”
“The very words,” said Lebenthal, “of the great novelist Bernard Malamud.”
“Mamma could read like a son of a bitch.”
Lebenthal snapped, “Shah.”
“Sorry,” said the vagrant, “my days on the street. Now if I could just trouble you for another taste of that delicious Jew wine.”
“Jewish,” said Dworkin, with impatience.
“Of course,” said the vagrant. “And happy Rosh Hashanah to all.”
“Get him out of here,” said Dworkin.
Several days before, the group, most of them old, several disabled, had been evicted from an ancient tenement. Blumenthal, the landlord, had used a bullhorn, to make sure he was heard.
“May I have your attention. All residents are to vacate the building by tomorrow morning.” He held up a document. “I have a paper here making it legal.”
Lebenthal, who lived on the first floor, ran outside in his nightgown. Snatching the document from the landlord’s hands, he read it, then looked up.
“It’s legit,” he said, “He’s cooked our goose.”
Sofie, a widow in her seventies, shouted down from her apartment window.
“A Jew throws out a Jew?”
“It happens,” said the landlord. “Make way for the future.”
“Condos, right?” said Lebenthal.
“Whatever,” said Blumenthal.
“And you’ll make a few bucks on the deal, right?”
“A man has to eat.”
Sofie shouted down, “And you’ll rot in hell with your big piflick.”
“Twelve o’clock noon,” said Blumenthal. “On the dot.”
After he had skulked off, the tenants got together beneath a sallow light in the lobby.
“Where do we go?” said Ruth, another widow. “I lived in Teaneck all my life. All I know is Teaneck.”
“What about my piano?” asked Gribitz, a retired hosiery salesman.
“And my poor feet,” said Ruth.
“I will lead you,” said Dworkin.
He was a sturdily built man of 50 with the clear blue eyes of a marksman. No one knew where he came from or why he was living in the tenement.
“Where will he lead us?” said Gribitz. “Into the toilet.”
“I say we follow him,” said Lebenthal. “Look in his eyes.”
“So let him lead us. What choice do we have.”
The following day at noon, the group assembled in front of the broken down tenement building. And a sorry lot they were. With one arm, they each carried a bulging suitcase, with the other a prized possession—a lamp, a painting, a bugle, and in one case, a parrot.
“So, hot shot,” said Gribitz to the leader. “What’s on the menu?”
“Where are we going?” said Ruth. “And how do we get there?”
“And even if we knew where we were going,” said Sofie, “we have no money to take us there.”
Lebenthal looked over to Gribitz and his bulging suitcase.
“Look at what he’s carrying. He’s got a fortune in there, but he’ll never spend a dime.”
“I’ll admit I have a few dollars,” said Gribitz. “But I’m saving them for my old age.”
“What do you think you’re in now?” asked Sofie.
“71 is old?”
“In your case, yes,” said Sofie.
“This way,” said Dworkin. “Follow me.”
After 10 minutes of walking, Ruth stopped to catch her breath.
“My feet are killing me.”
“So who asked you to wear stilettos?” said her friend Sofie.
“I’m told,” said Ruth, “they make the legs look shapely.”
“Are you still trying to attract a fella?”
“I’m still trying,” said Ruth. “And you never know.”
“You better hurry up,” said Sofie.
And so, with confidence in the mysterious Dworkin, the group traveled along abandoned roads, gullies, hills, and open plains. On the fifth day, Gribitz, his knees buckling under the weight of his suitcase, was the first to collapse.
“I’m exhausted,” he said, and sat down heavily. “There’s nothing left in the tank.”
“It shows what money can do for you,” said Lebenthal.
“I’m not spending a dime until we get someplace specific. Then maybe I’ll splurge.”
“I’m not holding my breath,” said Sofie.
With Passover in mind, they wondered what to do about the Seder. They did their best to gather up the basics. Minnie Weiss, the oldest member of the group, whipped out a dozen boiled eggs from her suitcase.
“Be prepared is my motto.”
Perhaps with heavenly intervention, a poultry truck pulled up beside them. The driver offered them salt, bitter herbs, a sweet concoction of nuts and berries, and half a dozen chickens.
“Bless you,” said Ruth, rubbing her feet.
“For this I’ll pay,” said Dworkin.
“It’s on the house,” said the trucker. “I’m on my way to a community Seder and there’s plenty.”
“If it happens to be in Teaneck, give everyone my regards,” said Ruth.
When the trucker had driven off, the boy shouted, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot the matzos.”
“We’ll manage,” said his grandfather, Lebenthal.
The best they could do was a pizza store on a back road.
“I’ll take 20 pies,” said Dworkin.
“What do you want on them?” asked the counterman.
“No toppings? That’s ridiculous.”
“So how much do we owe you?” asked Dworkin.
Looking puzzled, the counterman said, “20 dollars.”
Dworkin looked over at Gribitz.
“All right, all right,” said Gribitz, opening his suitcase.
After they’d walked a mile, the boy said he was starving. To keep him quiet, his grandfather offered him a small slice of the pizza.
“I can’t eat this,” said the boy. “There’s nothing on it.”
“Eat it anyway. It will remind you of the suffering of the Jews two thousand years ago,” says Lebenthal.
“I’m turning Catholic,” said the boy.
“Then you’ll need another grandfather.”
They trudged on for a few miles and stopped at the edge of a river. They started a fire, roasted the chickens, and began the Seder. When it was the boy’s turn to ask the four questions, he responded with impatience.
“What are we doing here? What’s the point of all this? Why am I asking these stupid questions?”
“So ask a serious one,” said his grandfather.
“How come we’re having all this trouble? And that pig Blumenthal lives like a king.”
“Men have been arguing that question for a thousand years,” said Lebenthal.
“Nobody’s been able to answer it.”
“Maybe he’s got trouble at home,” said Minnie. “You never know.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Gribitz.
“OK, I have a fifth question,” said the boy.
“You only get four,” said Sofie.
“Some scholars say there’s a fifth,” said Lebenthal. “For the children of the Shoah.”
“So here’s my question,” said the boy. “How do we get across that river?”
As if in answer, the rains came down in sheets, the river churned, and the winds blew furiously. And for a moment, it seemed the waters would part. But then the winds calmed down, the river waters continued on their normal course.
“So much for the Red Sea,” said Sofie.
“Patience,” said their leader, Dworkin. “The lord speaks in funny ways.”
As if to illustrate his words, they saw a tugboat pull up and dock alongside the river. They ran in its direction.
The captain agreed to ferry them across for a fee. They all looked at Gribitz, who said, “You’re killing me.”
Begrudgingly, he paid the captain. Their crossing was uneventful, but the ground on the opposite side of the river was muddy.
“Gevolt,” cried out Ruth.
“Your feet?” asked Sofie.
“No, it’s my knees.”
“Well, as long as it’s something.”
“So this is your new world,” said Gribitz to Dworkin, who answered by pointing to a sign that said, “New Canaan.”
“That’s close enough for my money,” said Sofie.
The group pushed on. The mud became firm and turned into pavement. There were stores and some small apartment buildings that seemed to be freshly constructed. Their spirits rose as Dworkin, with a rare smile, stopped in front of one of them.
Sofie spoke for the group.
“Don’t tell me this is our new home. Because if it is, I’ll faint.”
But their hopes were dashed as Lebenthal spotted a sign on the lawn that said, Blumenthal Properties.
“I knew it!” said Gribitz. “We’ve been duped.”
“And after all we’ve gone through with my poor feet,” said Ruth.
“Not so fast,” said Dworkin, looking closely at the sign.
Lebenthal was the first to shout. “Hold on,” he said. “This isn’t Morris Blumenthal. It’s Ed Blumenthal, his brother, one of the finest, kindest men on the planet.”
“Your new home,” said Dworkin.
This time Sofie did faint and had to be revived by Ruth, who had been a nurse before she went into sales.
They all crowded into a handsomely appointed space on the ground floor.
“How can all of us fit in here?” asked Ruth.
“No, no,” said Dworkin. “This is for Lebenthal and his grandson. Everyone else has an apartment of their own.”
Gribitz wandered down the hall, entered another space, and cried out, “My piano is here! This is incredible.”
“Ed Blumenthal would give you the shirt off his back, even if you don’t need a shirt,” said Lebenthal.
“What about the rent?” asked Gribitz, suspiciously.
“It’s affordable,” said Dworkin.
“What does that mean?” asked Ruth.
“It means don’t worry about it if Ed Blumenthal is involved.”
They thought it only right to finish up the Seder, which had been put together in patches. Everyone noticed that Dworkin was missing.
“What happened to him?” asked Ruth.
Lebenthal said: “Gone to help Jews in need.”
Despite his absence, after the final passages were read, they lifted their glasses and raised their voices, and sang “Daeynu, Daeynu,” and cried out, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Gribitz asked, “Are you sure the apartments are affordable?”
Bruce Jay Friedman (1930-2020), a novelist, short story writer, playwright, memoirist, and screenwriter, was the author of nineteen books, including Stern and Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir. His last collection of short fiction is The Peace Process. He died at age 90 on June 3, 2020.