I was on a bus to Jerusalem in 1975 when I opened and read a letter from a friend in Los Angeles informing me that Herschel Lymon, my childhood rabbi, had committed suicide. What could be more shocking? I loved Herschel. He bar mitzvahed my brother Larry, visited my Sunday School classes at Temple Akiba in Culver City. I have an inscribed copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning he gave to my parents, his good friends, and an inscribed copy of Martin Buber’s The Way of Man he gave me for my high school graduation.
Herschel’s death haunted me for years. It still does. He was such a gentle, wise man. He was a searcher, a deep thinker. After he left the rabbinate, he had a show for years on Pacifica Radio called, “The Wounded Healer.”
I began creating a solo theater piece, “Lents Passage,” in the fall of 1978. My starting place was my anguish over Herschel’s death. I interviewed people who knew him, trying to understand why he would have taken his life. I learned that Herschel suffered from manic depression. He tried all kinds of therapy– rolfing, Reichian, LSD. He filled his prescriptions for anti-depressants at my father’s pharmacy in Culver City.
While I was working on the piece, news broke about the Jim Jones mass suicide. Another shock wave. How could this be? Why did all these people drink cyanide-laced koolaid on command? Why did they follow this madman from the Bay Area to the jungles of Guyana? These unfathomable stories still roiled my psyche as fall became winter became spring and it was time for Passover, when we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, plagues of frogs and hail, the Israelites following a magician who transformed sticks into serpents across the Red Sea into the desolate Sinai desert.
I structured the play on the form of a Passover seder, which itself means “order.” My sound score was edited from years of recording Steinman family seders. The voice of the patriarch (my father) proclaimed: “This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” My niece Jennifer, then eight, read the Four Questions in a high-pitched voice: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
“Lents Passage” had its San Francisco premiere at Project Artaud, in San Francisco. My mother was planning to come see it. A few weeks before opening night she called with a surprising announcement: “I bought you a body stocking.” Why? Yes, it was true there was a naked scene in the piece. But so what! This was art! There was a pause. Then my mother repeated, “I bought you a body stocking.” Another pause, then, “…your father’s coming.” Of course, my stubborn younger self did not take wise counsel, would not compromise.
Passover is a brilliant holiday– telling a story through the ritual consumption of food. We eat unleavened matzoh at the Passover seder to remind us of the haste with which our ancestors left Egypt. During the meal, the leader of the Seder hides a piece of matzoh… the children scramble around to find it, demanding a reward for its return. It’s a great device for keeping the children attentive through the long meal, ensuring that they hear the whole story. At the (untraditional) seder I attended this year, the Hagadah explained the symbolism of the afikomen thus: “When the afikomen is found it will remind us that what is broken off is not really lost to our people, as long as every generation remembers and searches.”
I hid the afikomen as part of my performance of “Lents Passage.” I taped a piece of matzoh under a random seat and informed the audience the performance could not continue until someone found it. At first no one believed me. No one budged. Then there was a general shuffling around and then a gasp… from my father. He stood up and we faced each other. It was a moment of recognition like you might have in a bad dream– I was standing naked in front of my father in public– and he was offering me a piece of matzoh.
“You weren’t kidding,” he repeated. “No,” I said slowly, “I wasn’t kidding.” I accepted the matzoh from my father’s outstretched hand. And then I continued the play.