#Pocalypso | The Passover Seder and the Child Who Doesn’t Know to Ask

2020-04-08 – Tonight is the first night of Passover. Although I have become a fairly secular Jew over the years, I still host a seder. Over the years, I’ve compiled my own Haggadah that we use, complete with illustrations.

The invitations for this year’s seder went out last month, but as the reality of sheltering-in-place became the routine, I cancelled, saying that we’ll have to wait “until the angel of death passes over.”

The central obligation that is observed in the seder is this:

In every generation we must see that we ourselves are personally emerging from Egypt.

Who among us thought that this year, in 2020, we would be experiencing a real-life plague? I planned a different lesson for this year’s seder.

Since we can’t be together this year, I thought I would write about a new angle I discovered (at least for myself) in the Haggadah’s description of four types of questioners in the annual seder: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who doesn’t know to ask.

My discovery has to do with the child who doesn’t know to ask. It came to me as I was writing a poem for a poetry contest last fall. The poem has to do with my experience as a volunteer lawyer preparing visa petitions for undocumented immigrants who became crime victims after coming to this country. Here is the poem, which I would be reading to you tonight, if my seder didn’t have to be cancelled.

Proof that You Suffered

Dear Valentina:
Soy el abogado designado para su caso.
The agency designated me to be the lawyer for your case.
Pero, hablo muy poco español, I speak very little Spanish.
But I can communicate con usted by mensaje de texto.
By text message, using Google to translate.
Nuestra reunión primera, our first meeting,
Will be next Martes, Tuesday, en las cuatro o’clock,
En la Biblioteca Harold Washington, fifth floor.
Busca un hombre con barba gris y anteojos.
Look for a guy with a gray beard and glasses.
Algunas personas dicen que me parezco a Steven Spielberg.
Some people say I look like Steven Spielberg.
Entonce, me pondré un sombrero azul, so I will wear a blue hat,
Y tendré un intérprete para que podamos conversar.
And I will have an interpreter so we can converse.
Smiley face.

Dear Valentina:
El objetivo de nuestras reuniónes, the aim of our meetings
Es conocerlo, to get to know you,
Para poder preparar una petición de visa efectiva para usted.
To prepare an effective visa petition for you.
We have several long forms to fill out,
But, the most important part de su petición es
Una declaración jurada en la que cuenta su historia,
An affidavit in which you tell your story.
I will spend several sessions en la Biblioteca Harold Washington
Preguntándole, asking you:
¿How did you come to Estados Unidos?
¿Y por qué? ¿And why?
¿And what is your life like aquí?
¿Quienes son tus amigos? tus hijos?
¿Who are your friends? Your children?
¿Donde trabajaste?
¿Where did you work?
¿Cuánto dinero tienes?
¿How much money do you have?
Y sobre el crimen, and about the crime,
Que lo hizo elegible para una visa para quedarte aquí.
The crime that made you eligible for a visa to stay here.

Dear Valentina:
The law requires you to prove that
Sufriste del  crimen,
You suffered from the crime.
So I must ask for detalles íntimos,
Intimate details of the crime.
I must ask cómo te destrozó.
How it tore you apart.
I must ask: ¿How did this violador, this violator,
Destrozó tus sueños,
Shatter the dreams you had
When you crossed into our country?
For, if the autoridades, the authorities, are convinced
De que sufriste lo suficiente,
If they are convinced that you suffered enough,
They will perdonarán tu inadmisibilidad,
Forgive the grounds of your inadmissibility,
Y te permitirán que te quedes aquí.
They will let you stay.
Smiley face.

Dear Valentina:
Como su abogado, as your lawyer,
I want you to know that estoy obligado por ley,
I am bound by law a mantener su dolor para mí.
I am bound to keep your pain to myself.
Nuestras reuniónes son completamente confidenciales.
Our meetings are entirely confidential.
It will take two or three months para preparar tu petición.
Then we will wait three years, o mas, para recibir una respuesta,
To receive a response.
Durante este tiempo, during this time,
Si tiene alguna pregunta o inquietud,
If you have any questions or unquiet,
Puede enviarme un mensaje de texto, you may text them to me.
Y Google Translate me ayudará a responder.
And I will use Google Translate to help me answer.

Dear Valentina:
You remind me of mi abuela,
My grandma, my bobbe.
¿Sufrió ella lo suficiente?
¿Did she suffer enough?
¿Y qué autoridad midió su sufrimiento?
¿And what authority measured her suffering?
No sabia preguntar,
I didn’t know to ask.
Sinceramente, tu abogado.
Sincerely, your advocate.

Read (and written) for the Poetry Pentathlon at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, Chicago, October 19, 2019.

Many Haggadahs, my own included, assumes that the fourth child is either too young to ask or otherwise unable. We translate the Hebrew (ושאינו יודע לשאל) as the child “who does not know how to ask.” But that’s not really right. It should be the child “who does not know to ask” without the “how.”

I realized as I wrote the poem that there were questions I never asked that I would have been perfectly capable of asking—if I would have thought about it, or if I knew about their importance. What did it take for my grandparents to leave their homes in Europe and come to this country?

The questions were never asked and never answered. And the answers are now lost forever.

What other questions would we ask, if we only knew?

You can see my full Haggadah (corrected) here or by going to the art oh9 link at the top of my blog page.

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