Some years ago in a quest to become more cultured, more literary, a better person, a deeper person, I undertook to read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. I picked it up and scanned the very first sentence: “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That is absolutely false, I said, and I never entered one word deeper into that opus. One book I reread every year gets the idea of family happiness right: the Passover Haggadah.
The fact is both of Tolstoy’s propositions are dead wrong. All unhappy families resemble one another, but every happy family is happy in its own way. Are there real differences, interesting differences, between families unhappy due to too little money or strife over too much money? Does it matter if the husband had the affair or the wife did? If the father’s stubbornness prevents the cooperation, or the son’s ego? Nope, unhappy families are boring, with minimal variations on the theme of surly selfish individuals pulling in contrary directions.
It is happy families that are interesting, because each working combination breeds its own magic. It does not take much to disagree; disagreement is the natural state of entities with divergent wills; agreement is the novelty, one which must fashion its own original shape. This insight is the key to virtually every successful sitcom. The humorous and dramatic tension resides in the natural disparities the characters overcome to work together as a family.
The Haggadah is the standardized text for the recital of the Exodus story. The Bible designates the family meal as the venue for the transmission of this formative, even transformative, narrative — “a sheep for each father’s house, a sheep for every home.” And the text, using subtle derivations from scattered Biblical verses, sketches a description of a projected, presumably archetypal, household. There are four sons: the scholarly one, the resistant one, the easygoing one, and the oblivious one.
Pedagogic techniques are prescribed for the different prototypes. Engage the scholarly son intellectually by discussing the minutiae of the various laws. Dazzle the easygoing son with flamboyant evocations of the amazing miracles. Draw the oblivious son into the process by directing interest and attention toward him. And what of the resistant son, the hostile one, chip already imbedded in shoulder? Speak to him about the importance of belonging. Even if he is not enjoying the specific style of the party, he should relish the kinship and the acceptance. “If he takes himself out of the group, then he has denied the most important thing.”
Sure enough, the many funny movies about the first night of Passover highlight the tensions between these characters, their modern-day counterparts often very entertainingly drawn. (The evening’s format, including verbal presentations and mealtime, is known as the Seder, a Hebrew word meaning a series of things done in an orderly sequence.) Last year’s When Do We Eat?, with Jack Klugman, Michael Lerner and Leslie Ann Warren, was a gem of the genre, although it includes crude sexual elements and is definitely not for kids. It is an especial treat for lovers of Jewish music, because my friend Stuart Wax filled the score with compositions by Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994), a genius who fathered a new genre of Jewish sound after the Holocaust.
These lessons of holding a family together translate well in our own time. There is the college kid, on a track to becoming a doctor or a lawyer (or, worse, a professor), who is stimulated toward major life movements mainly through the intellect. Not only on Passover night, but all year, he needs to feel there is room in the home environment for intelligent discussion. Activities undertaken by the family need to have a sound rational basis to make the home a place he finds hospitable.
The tough kid with the chip on his shoulder needs acceptance, a degree of tolerance, but also clearly drawn lines he may not cross. The sweet amiable good-times kid who is not yet particularly motivated in any direction needs to be inspired with the family’s passionate commitment to its values. And the oblivious kid who is content to drift incuriously will respond — perhaps not right away — to being made the focus of our attention and caring.
And so, with respect to Count Leo, the religious tradition seems to speak more realistically, and more spiritedly, to the real vicissitudes of the human condition. Let us enjoy Passover this year with this idea: an unhappy family is less than the sum of its blessings but a happy family is more than the sum of its discontents.
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