illustration by Avi Katz
“This night is no different from other nights,” says Pharaoh, “True, on previous nights I have had a son, and on this night I do not. But this is not relevant to what I must do now.”
“This time sounds different from other times,” says Mozart, “for in previous times I did not have a son, and now I do.”
What time is it? I write this two days before the Seder night. It will reach its readers a few days before Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers.
It is not a good time, I tell the friend who sits down next to me on the row of chairs outside the sanctuary. I have a glossed Haggadah open on my lap. I am trying to prepare for this year’s Seder, to think of how to retell, once more, the Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the sea. Pesach is next week and my son Niot, who was a soldier, will have been dead for a year. The earth has circled the sun a single time since the last Seder, which was the last night he was with us. We are cleaning and preparing once more to eat matzah and bitter herbs and tell again the story of how we came out of Egypt. Two and a half weeks later we will again remember the fallen soldiers. But this year is different, for there is a newly fallen soldier to remember, and he is my son.
“This night is different,” says Alexander Pavlovsky, first violinist of the Jerusalem Quartet, “because Mark Kopytman is dead.”
“Shall I prepare the palace for mourning?” asks the chamberlain, weeping, for his son too is dead.
“You will not,” says Pharaoh. “To mourn is to repeat, rehearse, to wallow in death. In the face of catastrophe, we must not look back. Saddle my horse and muster the army.”
“D Minor?” asks the copyist, staring at Mozart’s staves. “But D Minor is the key of tragedy, of suffering. Your first son has just been born. Why this key?”
I cannot focus on the Haggadah nor on the huge backlog of work. Neither Ilana nor I have much strength for cleaning. There is a concert at the YMCA, I tell Ilana. The Jerusalem Quartet is playing Mozart, Kopytman, and Shostakovich. Just drop everything and go, says Ilana. It’s already ten after eight. I hop on my bike and speed down to the Y.
“We will now play for you,” says Alexander Pavlovsky, first violin of the Jerusalem Quartet, “Mark Kopytman’s String Quartet number four, which we have played many times before because of our long collaboration with this greatest of living Israeli composers. But now we will play it again and it will be different because Mark Kopytman is dead.”
A performance of chamber music is much like a Seder, I think to myself. A work of music is like a text read in different times and places, endlessly reinterpreted by players and listeners. Mozart’s string quartets were inspired by Haydn’s, and in turn inspired those of Beethoven, and later Shostakovich and Kopytman, the man who just died. If the Jerusalem Quartet played only newly-composed works at each concert, its audience would have no context, no tradition on which to base its experience of listening. If it played only Haydn’s quartets, it could never bring its audience to look forward and experience the new, rather than just experience anew. Kopytman’s quartet sounds weird and dissonant; even experienced audiences have trouble parsing it. But the same audience might delude itself into thinking it understands Mozart’s simply because melodies and structures that are familiar in form may seem, illusively, to be transparent.
The text of the Haggadah is like a string quartet. It has four movements, it goes slow and fast, varies from major to minor and modulates from key to key. It is interpreted and embellished differently in each year and by each family, for each Seder night is a different night. It can be puzzling and infuriating, seem beautiful in one place while dissonant in another. Yet if its puzzles and dissonances lead us to change the text or abridge it, we would be like a string quartet that plays only those themes and motives it likes from Mozart’s or Shostakovtich’s or Kopytman’s work, permitting itself to revise those parts it thinks the composer got wrong.
My Haggadah’s text has not changed this year, but it is entirely different, because last year was the last time I read it with Niot, and this year is the first year I will read it without him.
Remembering a fallen soldier is like listening to a recording of a concert. The abstraction of the music fills the ear but the eye cannot see and the arms cannot embrace.
On the night of the first Seder, Pharaoh has no time for texts or compositions. He hears no music; memories are a waste of time. His gaze is directed forward, not back, as he leads his army into the desert. His dead son was not so much a son but a sign, a symbol of the future of his dynasty and of the stability of his state. The fleeing slaves threaten the very foundations of his kingdom. Another heir can be sired, but without the slaves who will perform his empire’s hard labor?
The third movement of Mozart’s string quartet in D Minor, one of six inspired by and dedicated to Haydn, is a minuet, as the third movements of classical-period string quartets are supposed to be. But the minor key renders melancholy what should be a stately dance for a celebratory occasion. The dissonance between the nature of the dance and its sound is jarring. It is the sound of a dark and different night. But then comes the middle section, in which the dark clouds give way to a light and jumpy melody that sounds like children playing. But then the night returns, as if the children have died. Tears well up in my eyes. Was Mozart imagining that his newborn son might not survive?
On the Seder night we speak of four children. I have four children. This year, one is dead. Niot had wisdom, mostly of a commonsensical sort, and in his younger years he could be challenging and disobedient. He had a simple and pure love of other people and he asked many, many questions. On the afternoon after Seder night, I spotted him lying on a couch, reading a book. He did not often read books. He did not like string quartets, either. That night I drove him to a bus stop and let him off and said good-by, and did not see him again conscious and alive. This Seder night we will again speak of four children. Every year on Seder night, and not on Seder night, we will have four children. And one will be dead.
And on Memorial Day, two and a half weeks afterward, we no longer mourn only the sons of others. We mourn our son as well. He is buried in the Mt. Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. The tulip bulbs his older sister planted on the grave have sprouted and are now starting to bloom.
To the best of my knowledge, no one in Egypt today mourns Pharaoh’s son. His grave is unknown. His dynasty ended long ago. The ancient kingdom of Egypt crumbled and the people who live in that land today speak a different tongue, worship a different God, and listen to different music. Pharaoh pushed forward. He had a kingdom to build, wars to win. There are no tulips. But each year the Jews take a drop from their wine glasses and set it aside, in memory of Pharaoh’s oldest son.
Kopytman’s string quartet is unexpected, at times lyrical, at times jarring. Pavlovsky and his three partners lunge, grimace, and grin as they play. It is a signature piece of theirs and they have not recorded it. It can be heard only when they play it with their arms and bodies. They first played it under the composer’s direction. But now he is an abstraction, and they continue to play without him.
A Seder is like the performance of a string quartet. The composer is long dead but the notes remain and we may play them as we see fit and as we feel best. On Memorial Day the players are dead as well. We can only recall the music in our minds. The music may be happy, but it does not lighten our hearts.
We continue to perform our Seder without Niot. We look backward, and forward, like a composer.
We now live in other nights.
The Niot Project, established by our family in Niot’s memory, in partnership with the Society for the Advancement of Education, Jerusalem, offers comprehensive assistance to Israeli teenagers with learning disabilities and their families. For more information, see The Niot Project on the SAE website.
The Day of His Birth (on SoJo)
June 6, 2011