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Fallout: Chapter 17

And as she watched her children — no, her young men — she came to a decision. There was something she had to do. And it had to be done soon


March 1964

While the invitation to Marjorie was being issued and accepted, Abe had been throwing Frisbees around with the twins. Now, he set them on their next task: creating bases for what he was calling “the family beach baseball game.”

“Okay, here are the teams. Mutty and David versus Artie and Johnny.”

“What about me, Daddy?”

“Ruchele? You are the most important — you’ll be the umpire!”

“But Dad,” Mutty said, as the little girl proudly took her place at first base, “aren’t you going to play?”

A grin. “Can’t have three against two. Official league rules.”

Marjorie had started collecting shells near the water and making pictures with her fingers in the muddy sand. Now she stood up and faced the family.

“How about me, Dr. Levine? I’m great at softball.” She picked up the baseball bat that was lying on the beach towels and gave it an experimental swing.

“Put that down.” The words came out much more harshly than Annie had intended. “I’m sorry, I mean, Marjorie, that girls and boys... men and women... don’t play together.”

Marjorie rolled her eyes. “It’s only a game, for Heaven’s sake.”

“Relationships, Marjorie, are never games.”

Abe, Artie, and Mutty exchanged embarrassed glances. Fortunately, a tall figure appeared walking swiftly toward the family, saving them from what was brewing into an unpleasant scene.

“Uncle Moey!” the twins said, racing toward him.

“How did you know we’d be here?” Mutty asked.

“A little bird told me there was gourmet peanut butter and jelly being served,” he laughed, his eyes twinkling. “And the little bird’s name is Daddy, who phoned me this morning. I had a lot of work in the hotel but I left it all behind to join you. Did you save me any sandwiches?”

Abe clapped him on the back. “Forget about food, it’s perfect timing. Moe — you and me on opposite teams. Let’s play ball!”

Annie watched as Artie pitched a curve ball to Mutty, who somehow managed to hit it right into the water. They both flew after it into the waves, soaking their shoes and laughing uproariously.

Her eyes fell on Marjorie, standing nearby, pouting. The baseball problem had been solved, but there was another, much more serious challenge to be met.

Annie looked again at her family. The “baseball” game was descending into chaos, with good-natured wrestling matches and Artie chasing Mutty halfway into the water.

And as she watched her children — no, her young men — she came to a decision. There was something she had to do. And it had to be done soon.


Annie walked slowly down the stairs, getting ready to light the Shabbos and Yom Tov candles, words of the Haggadah that the family would soon be reciting flashed through her mind:

Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh: How is this night different from all other nights?

And how would this Seder be different from all other Seders that Annie had attended throughout more than four decades of life?

For one thing, she was in her own Boro Park house, and not in the Freed Hotel where the family used to gather for the Sedorim every Pesach. Her gaze fell upon the sparkling crystal goblets that seemed to be almost dancing, twinkling in the reflected lights of the chandelier; the silver, polished and gleaming; the starched white tablecloth and the gold-rimmed china, the best that Levine’s Department Store could supply; the pink tulips and light-purple crocuses bringing just a touch of springtime toward the end of a cold and dreary winter. For one magical moment Annie basked in the beauty of the scene, in the sheer serenity of her beloved home.

And yet….

One of the themes that Papa used to dwell upon in his serious and yet joy-filled divrei Torah was the contradictions of the Seder — the horrors of slavery and the wonders of liberation, brought together in one holy symbol: the matzah.

Here, too, in this house filled with lovely things and loving family, there were still the niggling thoughts, the anxious feelings. There was dipping twice and reclining, trappings of wealth; but there was also the bitter taste of maror.

Next Pesach, Malka will have had her baby and I will be a grandmother — and a new mother. I will hold my own baby in my arms. I know what the doctor said — but will the baby really be well? And will I have the strength to raise an infant again? To love an infant again?

Next Pesach, Mutty will be in medical school. He’ll be fine. But what about Artie?

She thought also of the young woman walking down the steps behind her.

And what in the world should we do about Marjorie Burton?


arjorie felt like a stranger, and not only in this house: she felt like a stranger in her own skin.

She walked down the stairs behind Mrs. L. — more like crawled, Mrs. L. was still moving very slowly — staring at her hostess’s elegant light-blue sheath. Gosh, she was even wearing lacy white gloves, the kind Mother used to insist Marjorie wear to dinner parties.

Well, there were no white gloves for Marjorie — she’d thrown them out once, in a fit of pique, together with those dumb monogrammed handkerchiefs — but still, gazing at the floor-to-ceiling mirror on one wall of the Levine living room, she could hardly recognize herself.

When she’d first moved into the hotel, Mrs. Schwartz had taken her to Loehmann’s and helped her buy a few skirts and blouses. Boring stuff, but with the long sleeves and hemlines that seemed to matter to these religious Jews so much.

The day after Marjorie had accepted the invitation to the Levine Seder, Mrs. Schwartz turned up at their home. “We’ve got to get you a new dress for the holiday,” she’d declared and whisked her off to Macy’s. After she’d tried on what seemed like a million different styles, they’d settled on a maroon shift with a ruffle bow. The sleeves were long enough and the neckline high enough to satisfy Mrs. Schwartz — and Marjorie liked the color, mostly because her mother never bought her maroon, said it clashed with her red hair.

She pulled her gaze away from the mirror. Mrs. L. and her daughter Malka, who would have her baby soon, and who’d come with her husband for the holiday, lit candles in some really fancy candlesticks. Now they were covering their faces and murmuring something. (Actually, Marjorie had discovered that Malka was not really Mrs. L.’s daughter; Mrs. Schwartz had explained that Malka and Artie were orphaned during the War, and the Levines and Freeds had taken them in, which seemed pretty nice of them.)

When Mrs. L. moved her hands away from her face, Marjorie saw tears running down her cheeks. Her mascara is going to get really messed up was her first thought, but then, something in the expression on her face made her forget all about makeup and just stare.

Mrs. Levine enveloped Malka in a tight hug and then — shockingly — turned to Marjorie. “Good Yuntiff,” she murmured. “So glad you’re joining us.”


Marjorie couldn’t figure her hostess out. One minute she’s apologizing and asking Marjorie to forgive her. Then she’s yelling at her about playing some stupid game. Then she’s welcoming her to their Seder and hugging her and saying how happy she is that Marjorie is here.

Was Mrs. Levine the dragon woman Marjorie had thought she was? Or was she a caring and welcoming person?

Could somebody be both at the same time?

Now, Malka — she was nice. Real nice. While the men were away in synagogue, Malka had sat at the table and motioned to Marjorie to sit beside her. She’d explained all about Seder plates and bitter herbs. Then the men came home and Malka kept up a running commentary, explaining what was being said in their Haggadah books.

This Seder was very different from the one her parents had taken her to. No talk here about civil rights, about the war that was beginning to turn nasty in Southeast Asia, about politics and Grandma’s Passover recipes and how this new generation was getting out of control, don’t you agree, Miss Burton?

Yes, this Seder should have been boring. But somehow, some way, it wasn’t.

Ruchele was so cute, standing on a chair and asking questions in a singsong, and then Dr. Levine told everyone all about how horrible life had been in Egypt, and how lucky the Jews were to become free.

They talked about rabbis, both dead and alive. They talked about four mysterious sons. (“I must be the wicked one,” Marjorie thought, giggling to herself.) They talked about lots of Bible stuff that she couldn’t quite follow, but just as she was beginning to feel antsy, the singing began.

That singing had the magical enchantment that made Marjorie thank her lucky stars for sending her to this strange Seder, that kept her from thinking about how hungry she was as tantalizing aromas wafted in from the kitchen. Artie’s sweet and gentle voice combined with Mutty’s deeper one, in a melodic harmony that even Dr. Levine’s slightly off-tune warble couldn’t overpower. As Malka quietly explained the words, they sang songs about slavery, about wanting freedom and about G-d, whom they called Hashem.

And then came a surprise. Artie’s surprise.

They were up to the Ten Plagues — and very creepy, some of those pictures were — when Artie asked Dr. Levine if they could wait one minute. All the kids stood up, even Mutty and Artie, and then Artie announced: “Presenting — the Levine Family Choir!”

With Artie conducting with his hands, they began to sing:

Frogs and lice and a river turned red

And Pharaoh, who really was out of his head.

Lions and tigers and boils and hail

But Moshe and Aharon, they did not fail.

They continued singing about the plagues, punctuated by giggles from both the singers and their proud parents. And then, Artie led them into the Grand Finale:

Here at our Seder

We thank everyone who made er.

Marjorie, who cleaned and cooked so much,

In the kitchen, she’s got the magic touch.

Mama and Daddy, we’re so happy to be

Part of this great and fun family.

Then there was a rush of kissing and hugging and laughing. And no one paid attention to Marjorie, still sitting at the table, who had no idea why she was crying, not even caring that she was getting her mascara all messed up.

To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 861)

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