One’s name was Irving Levine; the other’s was Joseph Giordano. In case you couldn’t guess, one was Jewish and one was Roman Catholic. One’s roots reached back to Russia, the others to Italy. They were friends and colleagues at the American Jewish Committee for decades. They both were social policy experts with keen insights into what causes the social rip currents between groups in our society.
Irving told stories new and old of anti-Semitism. Joe’s field was “ethnology,” the similarity and differences between ethnic groups. One of his stories that stuck with me over the years was what happened when his father got a promotion and decided to move the family out of the “old” neighborhood (read Italian) and into a better one (read Irish). For Joe that meant a change of parochial schools. In his old school, the nuns thought he was perfectly normal–talking out of turn, waving his hand wildly when he had the answer to a question, constantly squirming in his seat. They were Italian; they new Italian kids.
With the move, he went from one day being normal to being abnormal the next day. He was constantly being “shussed” by the nuns, told to put his hand straight up in the air and not move it, and finally to sit on his hands so he’d learn not to squirm around. They were Irish, and they didn’t know Italian kids.
Joe and Irving both had a story they told with slight variation called Roots and Wings. The heart of it is a family gathered around their grandma who is about to pass away. They seek the final wisdom this revered person in their lives might have for them. She calls the children to gather around her bed and whispers to them, “My children, this is what I want for you, Roots and Wings. Roots to ground you, to know who you are and where you came from. Wings to fly with and experience the new world around you.”
As a NY Times editorial cartoonist pointed out in a story about their story, there is a problem that has to be overcome with this “want” of grandma’s. When overcome successfully one was likely to be happy living in two worlds; when it wasn’t, inner conflict developed. The cartoon? It showed a dove with its feet becoming part of the roots on a log while it flapped its wings trying to soar off into the sky.
Visualize it. Think about it.
One year in the ’60’s I believe, Passover and Easter coincided as they do this year. It is a unique time because for many centuries the coming of Good Friday portended hell on earth for the Jews with stories of Jews kidnapping and killing Christian children and draining their blood to make matzos. Sermons by priests sparked pogroms with loss of life, limb, and property. My mother remembers as a little girl in New Jersey the days of the local church bursting open with wild children running down the stairs screaming, “Let’s get some Jews!” I myself was beaten up one Easter Sunday. I remember with one blow came the pronouncement, “That’s for Jesus!” I was 8. I didn’t know who Jesus was, no less what I had done to him. When the holidays coincided the drama heightened because as the priest was telling the story, the story was being acted out in Jewish basements around town, or so he said. So Joe and Irving decided to create on a small scale a new narrative. Joe’s family–a large one–would come to Irving’s for Passover Seder.
Many even casual students of religion know that the Passover Seder was the last meal (supper) eaten by Jesus, a Jew, before the days of the Passion. It was there he was betrayed by Judas–or so the story goes by some in some places. The goal of this religious experiment at the Levine “laboratory” was two-fold. The first was to teach the Italian Catholic children the story of the Exodus, it’s meaning, why there is blood in the story and what matzos really is. The second was to achieve the blessing of Joe’s “grandma,” the Italian matriarch of the Giordano household. If over the days that followed grandma spoke well of the evening rather than contradict what was told, then success was had.
Irving was in his glory. He planned he wrote, he edited, he improvised. A Tony he could have gotten I’m told had this Seder only be done on Broadway instead of off-Broadway, in a house in Brooklyn. As most any Jew will tell you about any Seder, it was a bit too long–no matter how short it was. The traditional Seder is supposed to begin at sundown and end at 11:59 pm. Don’t ask why; I don’t remember. Irving found a happy medium. His family was grumpy; the Giordano’s were ecstatic. The Levine’s repaired to bed; the Giordano’s piled into cars and headed to their own.
Comes a few days later. Joe and Irving run into each other at the office. Irving is anticipatory. What did grandma say? Joe couldn’t stop laughing.
“What?!? What?!?” asked Irving. Joe said, “You won’t believe it, but I’ll tell you.”
I asked grandma (in Italian), “So mama, what did you think of dinner at Irving’s?” Grandma beamed and said (in Italian), “That Irving. That was the best story of the Last Supper, I’ve ever heard!” Irving, somewhat crestfallen that the point of his award-winning performance hadn’t quite hit its mark said, “Well at least she liked it.” Joe saw it another way, a big win. “Like it?” he crowed. “She loved it? She loved you. She loved your family. She loved the food. For an old lady born in Italy, a daughter of the church to have liked it, Irving, this was a home run!”
Epilogue: Comes next year and those that follow mightn’t we who are Jews invite our Christian friends and neighbors to Seder? After all, it says in the book, “Let all who are hungry, eat.” …..”all” not “all Jews.”
And for those who are Christian, might not your Easter dinner include your Jewish neighbors and friends? Remember, Jesus and the Apostles were Jews.
And to all–a happy Passover and a blessed Easter!