Friday, April 11, 2014

The Passover Guest by Joan Koehler

Years ago I found the following story in a women’s magazine, Redbook, Ladies’ Home  Journal, or Good Housekeeping. Charmed with the tale, I clipped it and packed it away with my Pesach things to come out and be reread year after year.

Unfortunately, I never found another work of fiction by Joan Koehler. Recently I tried, unsuccessfully, to learn about her life on the internet. If anyone does have any information about her I would be happy to receive it.

In the meantime, please enjoy this story and accept my warm wishes for a happy holiday.
The Passover Guest
by Joan Koehler

Spring had come to Vislovitz. Under the pale sunlight the last sooty lumps of snow melted into puddles. But just looking at the calendar was enough to make any Jewish housewife faint-April already-and only a few days till Passover. Even the rich women who wore satins and pearls on the Sabbath were down on their hands and knees scrubbing.

For weeks, the home of Reb Chaim Wirtz had been turned inside out by his wife, Sarah Leah. A plump little woman with blue eyes and a blonde wig, Sarah Leah could not sleep nights till she had made sure there wasn’t a crumb of leaven anywhere in the house, not even between the floorboards. And when she worked, everyone else worked, too, from Reb Chaim, who made the raisin wine, down to Daniel, youngest of the five children, who packed away pots.

But the Angel of Death pays no attention to holidays. Even as they swept and scoured, he was looking over his list of souls the Almighty had commanded him to slay that week. Here it was Tuesday afternoon and only one more soul to go! He glanced up at his map. Might as well wait till tomorrow.  Vislovitz was a long way off and he had until midnight on the Sabbath to gather up Wirtz, Sarah Leah, age 44. Plenty of time.

The next morning he landed in a thicket at the edge of town. As usual, he drew in his enormous black wings and took the shape of man. (If Jews saw him as he really was, they might- G-d forbid!-repent, and he would have no sins to accuse them of before the Throne of Justice.) Ordinary working clothes would do today, he decided. After slicking down his long, dark hair, he put on a cap and started toward Sarah Leah’s.
The street was a bog of wet straw, garbage and horse droppings. Gingerly he made his way through the mess. Really, the places he had to go! And he had just cleaned his boots that morning, too. Ah, here was the house at last.

A small, elderly house, its boards were worn silver by rain and snow. No palace, he thought, checking his list again to make sure he had the right address. He knocked. There was no answer, but he could hear voices inside, so he turned the knob.
The room was like Chaos itself. Everywhere he looked was confusion-clouds of dust, piles of rags and turned-out dresser drawers, children running this way and that with boxes and feather dusters. In the middle of the room, supervising the work, stood Sarah Leah. A little boy turned somersaults at her feet. Her voice rang out above the hubbub. “Rachel, be sure to sweep in the corners.”  

A dignified entrance was hardly possible. He would just have to do the best he could. Gathering his cloak firmly around him, he stalked into the room.

“Sarah Leah Wirtz,” he intoned in what he considered the proper manner,”I have come for you!”

Sarah Leah looked at him, eyebrows raised in surprise. “Well, it’s about time. First, though, go back to the doorstep and wipe your feet. We’ve just cleaned the floor.”
The dumbfounded Angel did not move. Sarah Leah said tartly, “Come now, we haven’t got all day.”

He went outside and scraped off as much as he could. The woman had not understood him. He would have to try again.

But the minute he walked back into the room, Sarah Leah started talking. “Now I’ll show you the kitchen.” She ushered him toward the back of the house. “This last winter has left the walls gray with smoke from the stove.” The kitchen had blue-and-white curtains and a teapot chirping merrily on the stove, but the Angel saw that the walls were indeed dirty.

“See?” said Sarah Leah. “Like the inside of a chimney!” Give it a fresh coat of whitewash for the holiday and mind you don’t miss any spots.” She shook her finger at him and laughed.

“B-b-but,” stammered the Angel. How had he ever gotten into this?

“You don’t have a brush? Wait a minute.” After rummaging through a drawer of odds and ends, she pounced triumphantly on a bedraggled brush. “Here it is. And the whitewash is in the yard. Reb Chaim brought it home last night. You see,” she said, “we’re ready for you. Now you must excuse me, it’s a busy time of year.” She walked out of the kitchen, shutting the door behind her. He could hear her tell the children in the other room, “Leave the painter alone or I’ll swat you with the broom!”

What could he do? He fumed. He stamped up and down. He turned red in the face and uttered mighty oaths. Then he, who could circle the earth in eight strokes of his wings; he, whose sword had terrified Moses; that he should be mistaken by a housewife for a painter! It was mortifying. But if he tried to tell her now that he was the Angel of Death she would laugh in his face. Of course he could carry her off anyway, but soon all Eternity would hear about it. The only thing to do was to keep quiet and paint. Blast Passover anyway! These Jews thought of nothing else. And he went out into the yard to hunt for the whitewash.

By nightfall he was exhausted, but the kitchen was white as chalk. “Beautiful!” said Sarah Leah, giving him an extra rubble for his trouble. He accepted his wages without a word, but as he sailed back to Gehenna on his great black wings, he hurled the coins one by one at the peasants in the fields planting the spring crops. A whole day wasted, and only two days left! Tomorrow he would have to do better.

Nest morning he appeared in Vislovitz dressed as a beggar, one of his most reliable disguises. He wore a patched caftan and shoes held together by string. His hair was thin and scraggly and his head too large for his stick of a body. Indeed, he found when he tottered down the street he was in some danger of tripping over, so he added a cane, for safety’s sake.

Hoping to catch Sarah Leah unawares, he tapped lightly on the door. She opened it, dust mop in hand.

“Yes, what do you want? We are very busy….” Stopping, she looked at him with compassion. “You poor man, you look as though you are starving! Come in, sit down before you collapse on my doorstep, G-d forbid!” She ran to the cupboard and brought out and apple and a piece of yellow cheese. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you bread or soup, but there’s hardly any food left in the house.  Before Passover, it’s like Yom Kippur, only backwards-now the fast, tomorrow we feast.” She chuckled.

Before he quite knew what was happening, he found himself seated at the table. To gain time, he nibbled at the food.

“You have the look of a traveler,” said Sarah Leah. “Have you come far?”

“Very far,” he croaked, for the dry cheese stuck in his throat.

“Will you be at home with your children for the holiday?”

“I have no children,” he said, with a groan. Things were getting out of hand again.

“What, no children? A Jew without children is poor indeed. How your wife must feel!”

“I have no wife.”

“No wife, either? Terrible! Would you like to join us for the Seders? A Jew should be with other Jews on Passover, and we can always find another plate somewhere.”

“T-t-thank you,” he said, “but I must return to my own land.”

“Don’t thank me,” said Sarah Leah. “I thank the Almighty that I have a house and a family and can ask the lonely to supper.” Going over to the cupboard, she got out a small leather purse.

“Here are eight rubles. That should buy matzos and wine and maybe shoes besides. A traveler should have shoes that are less worn than yours.”

“But I can’t,” he protested. “I mean, I’m not able…” He ground his teeth. How could he make her understand? “I did not come to you for charity,” he finally said.

She looked thoughtful. “Yes, your face tells me that you’re a proud man. I know-I’ve lots of errands to do today. Come with me and carry my groceries and you can earn your money.” Handing him a large wicker basket, she started toward the door.

Three hours later, he heaved the overflowing basket onto the kitchen table and sighed with weariness. Why had he chosen a human form with such spindly legs? He might have known this woman would cause more trouble. He trailed her through half the shops in Vislovitz this afternoon, and at each one she had put something in the basket. First, it was dried fruit from the stall in the market, prunes the size of his thumb and golden raisins. Next had been horseradish, right off a farmer’s cart, so fresh bits of damp earth still clung to it. The butcher added a fat goose, soon covered by last autumn’s apples. On top of them went two fine carp, which had been swimming around only minutes before in tubs of water at the fishmonger’s. And then came the children’s newly mended shoes, and the candles, and…there was no point in remembering. It just made his head ache.

Didn’t I say you’d work for your money?” teased Sarah Leah, her eyes surprisingly bright for a women near death. “Now I must put all these things away. Good-bye and have a happy holiday.”

He certainly couldn’t strike her down with his sword now. Indeed, he was too tired to lift it.  So, with a feeble way of his hand, he left. A good woman, no doubt about it. And hadn’t the rabbis said that charity saves from death? But enough was enough. He was beginning to feel like a failure.

The next day he rose early and put on his best black cloak. He shined his sword. And, most important of all, he practiced his opening speech, for Sarah Leah’s  tongue had been his downfall twice.

Instead of bothering with the door, he appeared in a cloud of blue sparks in the kitchen at dawn. Sarah Leah, her face red, was leaning over a pot of boiling water, taking out the last pieces of just-koshered silverware with a pair of tongs. A damp curl was plastered across her forehead.

“Sarah Leah Wirtz,” he thundered, “I am the Angel of Death and I have come for you!” 

Sarah Leah turned pale as a potato, but she didn’t drop her tongs. For a few seconds, the only sound to be heard was that of the bubbling water.

Then she spoke, her voice a bit faint. “You startled me. Do you mind if I sit down a minute?”

“Not at all,” he said. Having made the situation clear, he could afford to be generous.

After a moment’s rest, she got up from her chair. “I could do with a cup of tea. Could you?”

“Yes, thank you. It’s been a hard week. Lemon but no sugar, please.”

By the time she had poured out two cups of steaming black tea and put them on the table, her cheeks had returned to their normal color.

“So you’re the Angel of Death.” She cocked her head to one side and studied him. 
“I’ve always wondered what you looked like.” He sat up straight and smoothed down his wings.

“Your cloak is dusty.”

“That, madam, is the least of your concerns!”

“Don’t get so excited. I just mentioned it. Now about your… errand. You realize what time of year it is, don’t you?”

“I do.” How could he help but know it, having painted her kitchen and carried home her horseradish?

“Passover starts tonight. I am much too busy to go with you today.”

“Everyone tells me they are too busy to die.”

“Are you Jewish?”

He leaped up, spilling his tea. “Of course I am!”

“There you go, getting excited again. If you are Jewish, then you know what Passover is like. My husband is a good man, but he has no head for details. Were I to die this morning, he’d never get everything ready for the Seder tonight, what with grieving and all. And the whole family is coming. Why, he might even forget to burn the leaven if I am not here to remind him!   All my life I’ve kept a kosher home, and I can’t die right before Passover with leaven in the house. It wouldn’t be fair.  Dying is bad enough…” She paused. “I’ll make you a bargain.”

“A bargain-with me?”

“Listen. You have some extra time before you must take me away?”

“A little,” he admitted.

“How much?”

“We’re not supposed to say.” He set his lips firmly.

“What harm can it do? Be a nice angel.”

“Oh, very well. Midnight.”

Sarah Leah breathed a sigh of relief. “Wonderful! Now let me finish preparing for the holiday and just before midnight I’ll go with you quietly, no complaints. But if you try to take me now, you’ll be sorry. I’ll scream and wake the whole town! I’ll scratch your eyes and kick your shins black and blue! And you won’t gain a thing by it. Have some more tea. Watch me work. I won’t run away-where could I go? Besides, I have to cook for the Seder. Or if you prefer, you could come back later.”

“No,” he said grimly. “I’ll stay right here.” Not for one minute would he let this woman out of his sight.

When the sun came over the chimney, the rest of the family got up. The Angel, who had hidden his wings, sat hunched over his cup of tea and did his best to ignore them.
“Mama,” whispered the oldest boy, “who is that strange man, and why does he look so fierce?”

“Just another Jew who is coming to Seder, dear. He’s unhappy because he’s far from home.”

The boy gave the Angel a doubtful glance, but joined the others to watch Reb Chaim burn the leaven crumbs he had gathered in a wooden spoon the night before.

Afterwards Sarah Leah handed each of them a glass of milk and an apple. “Rachel, I want you to walk down to the river and pick some flowers for the table. And we need more chicken fat, so Moishe will go to the butcher’s. Hanna and Lieb can take Daniel out into the yard to play.”

Shooing them out, she swept and put the house in order. Then into the huge pot of water on the stove went three chickens, a couple of carrots and some onions for the soup. Next she grated the horseradish, which filled the kitchen with biting fumes that made the Angel’s eyes water.

While scaling and boning the fish she said, “Watching me work must be dull.”

“It’s restful. The Almighty does not spare me-one soul is in Ethiopia, the next in Siberia.”

“Still, you must be tired of just sitting there.”

“A little,” he agreed.

“Then I’m sure you wouldn’t mind peeling and coring the apples. After all, you are staying for dinner, and there’s so much to be done before sundown.”

Why not? He couldn’t very well stay all day with his hands in his lap. So he worked on the apples, stopping now and then for a sip of hot tea.

When that was done, she put a bowl full of fish on the table in front of him. “Do you know how to chop fish?”

“No, but I use my sword every day. It can’t be too different.”

He was still chopping away when Reb Chaim came home, and Sarah Leah decided it was time to arrange the tables.

“How many are coming tonight?” asked her husband.


He shook his head. “I don’t see how we can get them all into the room, much less at the tables.” For an hour he and the Angel moved the two oak tables this way and that. At last, after shoving most of the other furniture into the bedroom, they managed to wedge them side by side. When the Angel sat down again, he realized that he was sweating.

As the afternoon wore on, Sarah Leah dashed from one corner of the kitchen to another, cooking and baking as though driven by a demon. To his surprise, the Angel found himself working almost as hard-getting dishes down from high shelves, spreading tablecloths, wrestling the pot of hot soup off the stove. How he envied Reb Chaim, who had sneaked off to the ritual bath!

About an hour before sunset, the children came home, all muddy from playing outside. Sarah Leah carried buckets of steaming water from the stove into the bedroom for their baths. Reb Chaim returned with the latest men’s gossip, and everyone retired to put on the clothes that lay, freshly pressed, across the beds.

The silent house waited for the holiday to begin. Like brides, the tables were decked in white, and the painted china Seder plate was in the place of honor at the head of the table. The Angel sat alone in the kitchen, his fingers sore and bleeding from grating the almonds. Something about the candles in their silver holders made him feel melancholy.
Sarah Leah, wearing a cornflower-blue dress, came out of the bedroom. She seemed a bit subdued, but soon the guests started to arrive, and she was bustling around all smiles. The children bounced up and down on their chairs, impatient, while Reb Chaim adjusted the pillows on which he would lean. The Angel found himself between Aunt Gittel, a lady of abundant flesh and musky perfume, and Pinchas, a brawny coal porter.  When he squirmed around to find a comfortable position, Sarah Leah gave him a wink, as if to say, “That’s where last-minute guests must sit.”

Suddenly there was a hush, for Reb Chaim had picked up the kiddush cup. “Blessed art Thou, King of the Universe,” his voice boomed out, and the Seder had begun. Step by step, they went through the ritual: drinking wine, washing hands, eating bits of parsley dipped in salt water. Reb Chaim lifted up the plate of matzas for all to see, saying, “This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” Just looking at them gave the Angel a gnawing pain in his stomach, for it was late and like everyone else he hadn’t eaten all day. Why couldn’t they get on with it? Of course, for a change, they were doing as the Almighty had commanded. But did it have to take so long?

Evidently it did. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” asked young Lieb in a quivery soprano. And his father replied, as had so many others, “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt…” and told him the story of the Exodus, in loving detail. To the Angel, who had heard it all before, it seemed to take hours. But at last they ate slivers of horseradish, washing them down with water and it was time for the meal.

The women and older children brought around dishes of hard-boiled eggs, gefilte fish, chicken soup with bobbling dumplings, platters of crisp goose, red cabbage and hot carrot pudding. Everyone helped himself. Soon the silverware began to clatter and the floor was covered with matza crumbs. Never again would the Angel wonder why men were so concerned with food. Before, he had only eaten to keep up appearances and hadn’t really enjoyed it. Now that he had felt the sting of hunger, everything tasted marvelous. He ate and ate. And drank more wine-he was dizzy from fatigue. Four cups of wine, wasn’t it? Then why did they keep refilling his glass?

Desert came-spongecake, nuts, dried fruit-and with it, cups of black tea. Sarah Leah, flushed with the heat of the kitchen, beamed at everyone. Giggling, the children hid the afikoman, the piece of matza saved for the end of the meal. The men laughed and joked while the women’s voices rose above the noise like the twitter of early-morning birds. A gray haze from the sputtering, smoking candles filled the room, making everything seem unreal. The air smelled of hot wax and food.

Getting late, thought the Angel, starting to rise from his chair. Sarah Leah’s eyes pleaded with him: “The children are still awake. Be patient- it will soon be over.” He shrugged and sat down. She’d been a nuisance, but she was certainly a good cook. And it was only a quarter past 11. Unbuckling his belt, he folded his hands over his stomach and listened to the children barter with Reb Chaim for the afikoman. Not until he had promised a box of colored pencils, did they fetch it out from its hiding place behind the stove.

After the third cup of wine it was time to open the door and welcome Elijah the Prophet. The Angel, tired and full of food, didn’t feel like getting up-especially for his enemy, who was always apologizing to the Almighty on mankind’s behalf. But if he stayed in his chair, people would notice. No point causing a fuss, he decided, staggering to his feet.

The candle flames fluttered as a gust of wind blew through the open door and Elijah, an ancient man with a bent back and a long, yellowish beard, came in. Only the Angel saw him; the others were busily chanting from the Haggadah. Sipping the wine left out for him, Elijah glared at the Angel over the rim of his cup, then hobbled out. The Angel winced. Elijah knew of his errand, that was clear. But what could he do? It was not up to him to decide who should live and who should die. Sighing he began the Hallel prayers with the others, one drowsy eye on the clock. Twenty minutes till 12.

“Our G-d is in heaven and He does what He wills,” they sang. Reb Chaim’s voice, mellow with wine and piety, blended with Sarah Leah’s clear alto and the murmurs of the sleepy children.

“The dead praise not the Eternal, nor all who go down in to the grave. But we will bless the Eternal, now and forevermore. Halleluyah…” The room grew fuzzy and dim before the Angel’s eyes, and he could hear a heavenly choir singing along with the family, for even the angels join Israel in the Passover Hallel.

Who knows? Maybe it as all the food and wine. Or carrying the groceries, lifting tables, and chopping fish. Perhaps the Almighty changed his mind when He saw Sarah Leah so determined to celebrate Passover. Elijah may have had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, the fourth cup came and went, but the Angel took no notice. Slumped in his chair, he slept. Or did he pretend to sleep? The clock struck midnight, and nothing happened. Sarah Leah did not die.

A few minutes past the hour, just as they were about to sing the last verse of “Had Gadya”, the Angel awoke. Jumping up from his chair, he looked at the clock and began to scream in rage. Everyone but Sarah Leah thought he was drunk or mad, so they ignored him and continued to sing: “Then came the Holy One, blessed be He, and slew the Angel of Death, that killed the shochet, that slaughtered the ox, that drank the water, the quenched the fire, that burned the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the goat that my father bought for two zuzim. One little goat. One little goat.”

With a clap of thunder, the Angel left Vislovitz. But never again did he try to slay a woman of that city just before Passover. 

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