The Fifth Son
Fri, 03/26/2010
Special To The Jewish Week

Their name was pronounced Peshevorsky. I have no idea how it was spelled. Neither do I know their first names. I addressed them as “Mr. and Mrs. Peshevorsky.” It was such a mouthful, I had to practice saying it before they arrived.
 

They only joined us for the seders. It was, however, a perennial visit. Their presence defined Passover as certainly as the presence of a lulav and esrog defined Sukkot. The difference was, a lulav and esrog were more animated.
 

There was nothing about them that I enjoyed. He looked odd. They were both tiny. She looked like a porcelain doll; he resembled a gnome. Even in grade school, I dwarfed them. They dressed poorly. They weren’t shabby. Their outfits were clearly their best, but they were invariably drab, devoid of color or style.

Their personalities matched their clothing. They didn’t participate in the singing. They barely spoke, and when they did, it was in Yiddish. They never laughed at my attempts at humor. Indeed, I can’t remember them ever smiling. They were so unresponsive, I gave up trying to engage them. Their mood vacillated between somber and morose. For all the years that they attended our seders, I can’t recall a single comment that either of them ever made.

I can neither remember the first time I met them, nor the last time they came. I didn’t know a single thing about them — their occupations, where they lived, their likes or dislikes. Other than their tongue-twisting surname, their anonymity was complete.
 

I generally forgot about them as soon as the door closed behind them. We never talked about them. After we moved out of Washington Heights in 1968, I never saw them again. They were older than my parents and probably pre-deceased them.
 

I hadn’t thought about them for decades until my children inquired about the guests at my parents’ seders. We had been discussing the guests we have had join us for our seders.
 

We expand our horizons with our seder guests. We do it to expose both Jews and gentiles, who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity, to this unique religious experience. In the process, it makes the seders even more exciting for our children, as well as ourselves. We invite best-selling authors, Michelin chefs, famous actors, sports celebrities, rock stars, et al. My parents invited the Peshevorskys.
 

In telling my children about them, I portrayed them comedically, describing his over-sized thick glasses, which gave him the look of a cross-eyed owl. My children were giggling.
 

I took out my bar mitzvah album to find their photo. Predictably, they were the shortest couple at their table; they were the only guests at the entire celebration not smiling. They looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights.
 

We were all laughing uproariously. Then my daughter Jayme asked me why my parents perpetually invited them. I told her that I didn’t know. I abruptly terminated the festivities.
 

Her question reminded me that over 20 years ago I had offered an interpretation of the Haggadah parable of The Four Sons at a memorial lecture for a high school classmate of mine, ironically my daughter’s namesake. I pointed out in my lecture that it made no sense that a wise child is contrasted to a wicked one. The antonym of smart is not bad; it is stupid. Furthermore, excluding yourself from the seder, the naughty son’s sin, (“What are all these rituals to you?”) hardly defines evil.
 

I suggested that The Four Sons represent, in reverse order, the natural progression of all children. As toddlers, we don’t have the capacity to ask. As children, we’re simple, and don’t care to. As adolescents, we question everything and individuate by rebelling. Rejecting our parents’ rituals, religious or otherwise, is an age appropriate norm for any teen. Finally, as adults, we come to understand and accept our parents’ wisdom.
 

My children were adolescents; they asked questions. However, they were simultaneously wise. Jayme’s question was one I had never asked myself.
 

I had not been truthful in response. As soon as she asked, I had understood the answer. I didn’t like it. I ended our conversation because I was ashamed to share it with my kids.
 

My parents invited the Peshevorskys because, undoubtedly, they, like my parents, were survivors. Like my parents, they had lost their parents, siblings, friends, pre-war spouses and children. Like my parents, they had paired up and come to a new country to start over, because they had no other choice.
 

Unlike my parents, they were apparently too old, or otherwise unable to have more children. My parents spoke English at home only because of me. The Peshevorskys had no reason to. They didn’t have a child.
 

Their melancholia, which I mocked, undoubtedly reflected that. No wonder they never smiled. My presence must have reminded them of what they had lost. They had no reason to sing.
 

My parents invited them because the couple had nowhere else to go.
 

All four of them, the Peshevorskys and my parents, are now gone. My realization came too late.
 

I can’t go back and be solicitous of the Peshevorskys, instead of ignoring them. I can’t tell my parents how much I admire them for this true mitzvah, instead of ridiculing them for their choice of invitees. I can’t share with them that I now realize that their seder guests were far more impressive than our own.
 

In retrospect, there was a fifth son at our seders in Washington Heights. He was neither wise nor wicked. He was, ironically enough, stupid.
I see his shame reflected in my mirror.

Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf, a practicing psychiatrist, is president of the NYU–Bellevue Psychiatric Alumni, and the author of “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend – Embracing Anger To Heal Your Life” (Xlibris). This excerpt is from a forthcoming memoir.