The Fifth Son

fifth sonTheir 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 an annual visit. I didn’t look forward to it.

There was nothing about them that I enjoyed. He looked odd. They were both tiny. 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. 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 generally forgot about them as soon as the door closed behind 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 whom we would invite to join us this year.

We expand our horizons for our Seder guests. We invite best-selling authors, Michelin chefs, famous actors, sports celebrities, rock stars, et al. My parents invited the Peshevorskys.

I portrayed them comically, describing his oversized thick glasses that 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 children asked me why my parents perpetually invited them.

Over twenty years ago I had offered an interpretation of the Haggadah parable of The Four Sons in a Jamie Lehmann Memorial Lecture. I pointed out 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, hardly defines evil.

I suggested that The Four Sons represent, in reverse order, the natural progression of 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. As adults, we come to understand and accept our ancestors’ wisdom.

My children had posed a question to me that I had never asked myself. As soon as I had heard it, I knew the answer. I didn’t like it.

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

Unlike my parents, they were unable to have more children. Their melancholia, which I mocked, undoubtedly reflected that. My presence must have reminded them of what they had lost. They had no reason to sing.

My parents invited them because they 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 when I look in the mirror.

Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf, a practicing psychiatrist, is the president of the NYUBellevue Psychiatric Alumni, a columnist for the Jewish Week and the author of Hello Darkness, My Old Friend—Embracing Anger to Heal Your Life (Bloomington, Indiana, 2003).