Why is this night different from all other nights? If you’re Jewish, that’s one of the famous four questions your youngest will be asking at tonight’s seder. Yes, Passover is here again. I’ve written about this holiday before, but this year I’ve been thinking less about Haggadot and more about fiction that allows us to reflect on Passover, probably thanks to Peter Matthiessen’s powerful new book, In Paradise. His death less than two weeks ago will no doubt add another layer of the silent reflection needed to process his final work.
A three-time National Book Award Winner, Matthiessen liked to address difficult subjects like the destruction of nature and peoples by the hands of men, the American Indian movement, and men wrongly convicted of murder. He enjoyed speaking for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.
In Paradise tackles perhaps the toughest topic of all: the Holocaust. The plot centers around a meditative retreat at the site of a former Nazi death camp. Matthiessen was a Zen Buddhist, and said that he had long wanted to write about the Holocaust but refrained because he wasn’t Jewish. The protagonist of In Paradise, Clements Olin, seems to be a fictional version of the author. Olin was born in Poland to a Jewish mother, but taken to America as an infant and baptized. In the book, he returns 50 years later with a faded picture in his pocket, to search for his mother in the place where she may have died.
The cast of characters is a mixture of Buddhists, Jews of European and Israeli descent, priests, nuns, the offspring of Nazis, aging survivors, etc. There is a simmering tension between them as they go about their daily meals and tours and meditations. Olin grows ashamed of his infatuation for a nun, but the pessimistic tone of the entire narrative turns when a cantor leads the group in a Hebrew prayer for peace. The participants join hands and start to move in a circle, inspired to dance. Someone cracks a smile, and suddenly many of the reservations about the retreat start to dissipate.
It’s at this scene that Matthiessen begins to play out the controversy that the novel might incite among readers. How should the characters approach their death camp retreat? They experience the same mix of emotions that readers might feel approaching fiction about the Holocaust. Is it exhilarating or is it profane? Is there redemption through suffering or is it simply horrifying?
Passover celebrates how God freed the Jews from slavery and led them out of Egypt. Each year we tell the story of how the Jewish baby Moses was found and brought up by Egyptians, how Moses saw God in a burning bush, and how God brought ten terrible plagues on the Egyptians to convince Pharoah to let the Jews go free. In the story of Passover, suffering leads to redemption. We rejoice in our freedom and remember how hard it was to achieve.
That seems to be the purpose of Holocaust fiction—to remember suffering and be grateful for the outcome. It’s human nature to try to find a reason for pain. In retrospect we often choose to see justifications for horrors that just don’t make sense otherwise. So when we stop to ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” remember that the answer (not the one written in the Haggadah; the personal one) is probably a little bit different for everyone. It all depends on how you see a tragedy.