When Cecil B. DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS was released in 1956 and its box office success earned the cinematic retelling of Exodus over $180 million dollars. In 1962 Paramount Pictures re-released the film for screenings at drive-ins across the nation and my father loaded my brothers and sisters into our Ford station wagon to view the epic with a cast of thousands at the South Shore Drive-In.
After paying for our entry my father cruised the left-handed lane looking for a good vantage spot. He was an ace at parking. My mother spotted an open slot, but before my father could turn a rock hit our car.
My father's head spun to the left and he spotted a teenager scrambling up the grassy slope. My father jammed the column shift into P and jumped out of the car. He had played football in college and caught the young man within seconds. It was too dark to tell if he had punched the stone-thrower, although he returned to the station wagon rubbing his knuckles.
"Damned kids today."
"That language." My mother never used a bad word in her life. She thought that swearing was a sign of mental depravity.
"Sorry." My father loved my mother almost as much as he loved his six children.
After finding the perfect spot, he gave my older brother and me money to get popcorn from the concession stand. Frunk was eleven and I was ten. This was the first time that we didn't have to wear pajamas to the drive-in and we walked over to the refreshment stand. Teens loitered under the neon lights. They looked so cool.
Returning to the station wagon my older brother and I handed the popcorn and soft drinks to our parents. We set up lawn chair before the family car and watched the movie in the warm summer air.
It was a great film.
Charlton Heston was awed by the burning bush under the starry skies of the South Shore. His voice was echoed by hundreds of tiny speakers across the drive-in. The cruelty of the Egyptians was monstrous. Moses heroically faced down the pharoah's magicians, yet the Pharaoh played by the bald Yul Brenner refused to let the Hebrews leave his land.
Moses warned of plagues.
His childhood friend laughed in his face, then the Nile turned into blood, frogs overran the land, gnats infested the dead frogs, wild beasts were driven crazy by the gnats, livestock died from the diseased wild beasts, a pestilence of boils spread on the skin of the Egyptians, a hailstorm destroyed the remaining crops and locust clouded the sky.
The worst was saved for last.
A darkness fell over Egypt and the first-born of every Egyptian died with the passage of the angel of death.
"Why would God kill innocent babies?" I had been a non-believer since the age of 6 and this depiction of God's ruthlessness rehardened my heart against the faith of America.
"God acts in strange ways." My older brother had possession of the popcorn. This wasn't the place for an argument about God and at the end of the movie the Hebrews reach the Promised Land, although without Moses who doubted God's promise.
"God doesn't act in strange ways. He acts like a creep." My best friend Chaney had drowned in Lake Sebago and he had been a first born.
"Sssh, you want Mom to hear you?"
I shut up, since my youthful atheism would have deeply hurt my mother, but over the following years I would question my Jewish friends about celebrating Passover as a commemoration of the ancient decimation of the Egyptian young.
Passaich was late this year and this April afternoon I wandered to 47th Street to pick up a diamond before everyone went home for the high holiday.
Richie Boy greeted me with a shrug.
"When are you leaving?"
Everyone else in the exchange was closing shop.
“Ask the old man.” Richie Boy pointed to my former boss. Manny was staying to the bitter end of the day.
“Manny, it’s Passover.”
“And what’s that to you? You're a goy.” Manny shared my anti-religious beliefs. “When you pay my rent, then you can tell me what time I close my business.”
Manny’s desk was cluttered with the usual piles of paperwork. In all the years I had worked for their firm, the pyramid of papers rose and fell without ever disappearing in entirety.
“Close now and I’ll buy you a martini.”
“I’m busy.” This office was the octogenarian's home away from home.
“Manny thinks he might make a sale.” Hlove commented under his breath. He had replaced me when I left for thailand two years ago.
"No one is buying nothing today."His son shook his head and signaled his two employee to pack up the merchandise. Hlove and Deisy didn't have to be told twice.
”That’s it. We’re going home.”
This decision started a fight between father and son.
I went outside to wait for Richie Boy.
“Damien, you have something to give for Passiach?” Lenny the Mum shambled up to the window. His bloated face shined with sweat and strands of hair were plastered across his balding skull. He was dressed in his usual attire of a tee shirt and shabby trousers.
“For you, I always have something.” I dug into my pocket for a dollar. “Where are you celebrating Passaich?”
“I’m working the street.” Lenny was a workaholic like Manny. “I have to earn money to take care of my sister.”
“You’re a good brother, Lenny.”
“Plus I don’t really celebrate Passaich.” Lenny didn’t look healthy, but he had disproven many rumors of his demise.
“Why not?” Lenny was no atheist.
“What does Passaich celebrate?” Lenny leaned over to whisper what he had to say, as if it were a secret.
“Passover commemorates the Angel of God passing over the Jewish houses in Egypt, but I agree with you. How can anyone in their right mind celebrate the death of innocents?"
"Damian, I didn't kill any Egyptians and I didn't kill Jesus either. I'm just a harmless Jews," Lenny whined with a shrug. "But the Pharaoh was a bad man."
"Or so the Bible says."
"Please." Lenny lifted both his hands in defense. He was a religious bum. His head was always covered by a yarmulke. "Don't think bad of us. We have had a hard time over the centuries. You know that there was no angel of death. The young probably died from infected food, since the first-born always got the food first. Who knows, but it was a sad scene when Yul Brenner carried his dead son in his palace."
"Yes, it was." I bid Lenny a good Passaich.
His god and the god of my rejected religion was a cruel god. He let his son die on a cross. As a father I could never sacrifice my son, but then I'm human and gods are divine. They can get away with everything.
"You know I saw THE TEN COMMANDMENTS at the South Shore Drive-In. A drunk teenager threw a rock at our station wagon. My father chased him into the brush. He came back red in the face.”
“It was a good movie, but Charlton Heston was no Jew.” Lenny rocked back and forth on the heels of his busted shoes. "Plus there was nothing good about the Ten Plagues. Especially the death of the first-born of all Egyptian humans and animals. Yahweh instructed the Hebrews to sprinkle lamb’s blood on this doors, so his spirit would skip their houses in his search for the first-born males of the Egyptians.”
“I was taught that god was all-knowing and all-seeing, so why couldn’t he see which houses were Jewish?”
“Damien, Yahweh moves in strange ways.” Lenny accepted some profane thought, but he glared at my apostasy.
“Most people think the killer of the male first-borns was an angel, but it was actually Yahweh blundering through the night killing young boys. Do you think there was any collateral damage like how our smart bombs hit schools in Afghanistan?”
“How should I know? I wasn’t there, but enough of this narishkait, because Passaich is a celebration of death. Death of the guilty, but also the innocent. This I can not celebrate. Freedom, yes. Extermination,no.”
Several people had gathered around our discussion and a religious diamond dealer angrily demanded of Lenny, “You really think Yahweh was a murderer?”
“It wasn’t the first time.” Lenny depended on the kindness of this street to support his sister and didn't need this attention.
“Actually I think that the second-sons of Egypt plotted to kill all the first-borns to destroy the rules of primogeniture and then blamed the Hebrews.” I was talking nonsense to deflect the flak aimed at Lenny.
“Primogeniture?” The diamond dealer had a yeshiva education.
“Primogeniture is where the first born inherits everything from the father. Like Cain and Abel.”
“Cain killed Abel.” Lenny nodded in agreement.
“The second son plot. Maybe all the second sons killed the first sons in Egypt."
“Es iz nit geshtoygen un nit gefloygen," the diamond dealer muttered in Yiddish.
“What’s that mean?”
“It never rose and it never flew.” Lenny smiled with the pleasure of hearing Yiddish, which had been abandoned by the Hassidim in favor of Hebrew. “In plain speaking ‘bullshit’.”
“It’s not foolishness,” I protested with the fervor of a devotee to the untruth. “Worshipping murder is an abomination."
“God does not murder. He takes revenge.” The diamond dealer spoke with words with conviction. “And in this case it was his killing angel doing the killing.”
“Isn’t that the same name used by Josef Mengele?”
"Feh." The diamond dealer was feed up with us and headed to the subway.
“That fucking Nazi was called the Angel of Death.” Lenny soured on the mention of his name. He had lost family in the camps. “Passaich was over 3000 years ago and the apotropaic rite actually predates Exodus."
"Apotropaic?" I had never heard the word.
"Something to ward off evil."
"Magic, feh." The diamond dealer spat the two words."
Not magic, just a ritual of daubing the door lintel with a blood-soaked hyssop to prevent demonic forces from entering the house."
"Yes, a mountain flower."
"Magic. Devils. Double feh." The diamond dealer looked at his Rolex watch and stormed down the sidewalk.
"I shouldn't be so smart. People don't like smart, especially when you challenge their religious beliefs and my people love a good book."
"It's the only book to them and they would be even more disapproving if I told them that Passaich was a combination of a Canaanite and Mesopotamian. The Exodus connection came later, but what do I know?"
"More than me."
"I'm still a bum."
"A smart one."
That an $3 dollars and I can get a little bottle of brandy. You have something to give?"
"For you, Lenny? Always."
“I love you Damian and pray you see your children soon.”
“And a Happy Bunny Day to you, Lenny.
The slumpy bum wandered off pestering another diamond dealer for a dollar. He was a hard worker.
“What was that all about?” Richie Boy exited from the exchange.
“The origins of Passaich.”
“Passover?” He looked into the exchange. His father was still at his papers. “You hungry?”
“Yeah.” The shoot was low-budget and the production had cheaped out on lunch.
“Me too. What about getting something to eat at the Oyster Bar?”
Shellfish were very tref, but Richie Boy was a bacon Jew, “Sounds delightful.”
Richie Boy and I headed for Grand Central Terminal, passing Lenny.
“Happy Easter.” He offered us.
"I only celebrate the bunnies."
"I love chocolate."
I gave him another dollar.
"Enjoy." As a sinner I was willing to forgive almost everyone for everything, since to err is human, but to forgive is a divine trait.
Only forgetting is more human.
Just ask Lenny.
Until then I wish everyone had a good sedah.
Hag kasher vesame`ah, for the only exterminating angels I ever see are the bartenders at the 169 Lounge in Chinatown.
Dakota and Johnny are murder the next day, but I lived through this Passover.
After all I'm a goy.