Read The Passover Murder Online

Authors: Lee Harris

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

The Passover Murder

Mel looked troubled in a way I had never seen before, as though once again she was forcing herself to review the details of a night she would rather forget. “We all got there—the early ones early, the late ones late—and we talked and helped in the kitchen and sat down later than expected. Just like any other year. Nothing at all was different.”
I said nothing. I had no idea what was coming, what terrible event was about to transpire in her narrative.
“We ate the Passover meal the way we always did and I helped clear the table and then we all sat down again for the rest of the service. Grandma had a special cup, it was silver and very ornate, that we always used for Elijah, and Grandpa filled it and Aunt Iris said, ‘I’ll get the door,’ and she got up and left. And what happened was, she never came back …”
By Lee Harris
Published by Fawcett Books:

A Fawcett Gold Medal Book
Published by Ballantine Books
Copyright © 1996 by Lee Harris

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 95-90821

eISBN: 978-0-307-77532-0

First Edition: April 1996


In memory of my Uncle Abram and Aunt Sonia
and for all the cousins in Toronto
who made the seders of my childhood so memorable.

Why is this night different
   from all other nights?

      —from the Passover Haggadah

The author wishes to thank
Ana M. Soler, James L. V. Wegman,
and Arthur Rich
for their help and priceless information.


“What I’m really trying to say,” my friend Melanie Gross said over the telephone, “is that it’s going to be a slightly crazy experience, but I think you’ll enjoy it.”

“I know I’ll enjoy it. And if it’s a little crazy, I’ll enjoy it more.”

“You’re so easy to get along with, Chris. It’s a relief after my family.”

“For someone who takes on more than I could ever handle, you seem too worried about this, Mel. This is the third time you’ve talked about it.”

“I guess you’ll just have to see for yourself. See you tomorrow night.”

Tomorrow night was the Passover seder, an event I had been only dimly aware of for most of the years of my life, fifteen of which had been spent in St. Stephen’s Convent in upstate New York. But since my departure, since becoming a layperson for the first time in my adult life, my friendships and experiences had so expanded that at times I had felt nearly breathless. I had become a homeowner first, an amateur investigator into unsolved murders next, and rapidly after that had fallen in love and become good friends with people I would never have met had I remained in the convent. Mel was a Jewish neighbor, and now closest friend, who had taught me to bake Christmas cookies and helped me arrange the most beautiful wedding St. Stephen’s had ever hosted. Now my husband, Jack, and I were to be guests at her seder.

For weeks I had seen the shelves in our local supermarket fill with tantalizing foods, some of which I could not even pronounce. There were special mixes for cakes, cans of macaroons, boxes of matzohs, jars of fish, packages of candies, all labeled “Kosher for Passover.” When I bought myself a container of yogurt recently I noticed that it, too, was marked “Kosher for Passover.” What did it all mean?

“Traditionally,” Melanie explained as we sat sipping tea in her family room one cold afternoon, “all the food in the house is cleared out before Passover and replaced with new, special foods.”

“You mean you throw out all your leftovers?”

“You throw out everything, not just the leftovers. If you have a can of soup you haven’t used or a bottle of Scotch in the cupboard, that all goes out, too. Clean out the shelves, the refrigerator, the pantry, everything. Then you buy all new food that’s kosher for Passover.”

“How is it different?”

“Nothing is leavened,” she said. “No flour, no rice, no corn. That’s a reminder of the time in Egypt, when there wasn’t any bread, just matzoh. It was baked in the open in the sun, and that’s why it looks and feels the way it does. It’s hard and crisp and thin and has an uneven surface.” She showed me a piece. “So we remember that and we eat unleavened bread. And everything we use, the dishes, the pots, the eating utensils, are special for these days.”

“You have another set of dishes and silver?” I asked.

“People who keep kosher have two, one for meat and one for dairy.”

“But what about my yogurt? What makes that different? The label says the same things are in it.”

“Once a year the company cleans out its equipment or buys new equipment and they use it first to make Passover foods. The milk is put in new bottles, not old ones, things like that.”

“And when Passover is over you go back to the usual dishes and food?”

“Right. We can use up the Passover leftovers, but the dishes get packed away till next year.”

“I had no idea it was such an extensive transformation. It’s like a different way of living for a while.”

“That’s just what it is. And you’ll get a taste of it at the seder.”

“Can I help with anything?”

“Oh, thanks, no. My mother’ll spend the day with me and we’ll cook together. It’s much easier nowadays because you can buy those foil bakers and throw them out when you’re finished with them. In the old days, you had to keep a separate set of pans for the occasion.”

“Tell me who’s coming.”

“Most of my crazy family.”

“You always say that and they’re the sanest people I’ve ever met.”

“Keep an open mind,” Mel said. “You may have to change it. Would you like to read a Haggadah before the seder?”

“What did you say?”

“The Haggadah. It’s the special book we follow during the seder. It explains the seder.”

“I’d love to see it in advance. At least I’ll have some idea what’s going on.”

Mel shook her head. “You won’t, but it won’t be your fault. I don’t know why it always works out this way, but we rarely use two Haggadahs that are the same. Every translation is different, and if you lose your place, you won’t be alone. Some people will read in Hebrew, some people will read in English. One of my uncles will fall asleep and one of my aunts will start to cry and have to leave the table and two or three cousins will go with her and everyone will forget where they were.”

“Is it such a sad occasion?”

“The seder? Sad? Oh, you mean because my aunt cries. No, it’s not sad at all. It’s really a very happy occasion, the deliverance from Egypt. The children are there and we sing and eat a lot. It’s just that my aunt—well, it’s a sad occasion for her. Something happened a long time ago. I really can’t go into it. You know how it is; something happens around a holiday, and whenever that holiday comes, you think of it. I think you’ll have a good time. My grandfather will love you and he’ll talk your ear off, my mother’s looking forward to seeing you again, and everyone else is reasonably nice.”

“And slightly crazy.”

She gave me a big smile. “You got it. Let me find you a Haggadah to give you something to do with your idle time.”

Since I couldn’t cook or bake anything to help Mel, and I don’t know enough about wine to make a good choice, I decided to send flowers for her table. They arrived in the afternoon and I got an ecstatic phone call thanking me and saying how perfect they were. When the call came, I was sipping a cup of tea and reading the Haggadah Mel had given me. What I learned was that the ceremony was the story of the Exodus from Egypt, that the children ask questions and their father gives the answers, the answers being the story. While the narration was going on, the guests would drink four glasses of wine and eat the special foods Mel had told me about. Although the explanation was in English, there were transliterated words I could not pronounce, but I assumed I would get by. I was rather pleased to see that a description of the table included flowers. I was starting off on the right foot.

My one concern that afternoon was Jack. Jack is a detective sergeant with the NYPD and works out of the Sixty-fifth Precinct in Brooklyn. The previous day he had become involved in what looked like a major crime and he had worked late the night before and gone in early this morning. I knew better than to ask if he thought he would be home in time for the seder; if he could make it, he would. But when the phone rang at six, the time he would normally be leaving the station house, I sensed what the call would be about.

“You still love me?” his voice said when I answered.


“And you’re a very forgiving person, right?”

“You can’t make it.”

“It’s iffy. What did Mel say, eight o’clock?”

“Seven-thirty to meet the family. She’s adamant about sitting down at eight.”

“I may get there for dessert.”

“Don’t push yourself, Jack. You know Mel will have plenty for you to eat even if you don’t get there at all.”

“The woman is an angel.”

“How’s it going?”

“This is a tough one and everything has to be a hundred and ten percent correct. I can already see myself on the witness stand next year.”

“Take it easy driving home.”

“Have a good time.”

It’s one of the things I’ve had to get used to, a schedule that’s never as fixed as it looks on the chart. Other more normal people live by schedules or books; detectives live by charts. Even Jack’s evening law school classes have suffered when he had to remain at a crime scene hours beyond his tour. It’s a job he loves, and that’s part of the price.

At seven-thirty I put my coat on and walked down the street to the Grosses’ house. There were cars in the driveway and along the curb, and all the lights were on inside. Mel’s mother, Marilyn Margulies, opened the door and wrapped her arms around me.

“Chris! You look marvelous. Come in, dear. What lovely flowers you sent. Where’s Jack?”

Mrs. Margulies helped me select my wedding dress and handled a lot of details for my wedding, so I think of her as part of the family. She ushered me inside and introduced me to so many people that their names simply passed through my memory as I greeted them.

“And this is my father,” Mrs. Margulies said with obvious pride, “Abraham Grodnik. Pop, this is Christine Bennett Brooks, Mel’s friend from across the street. It’s Chris’s first seder.”

He was old and thin—I guessed near ninety—and had a small beard trimmed to a neat point. He wore a dark blue suit with a vest and a small, round satin cap that Mel had told me was called a yarmulke. But what was most striking about him was his eyes, bright, intelligent, and very blue. He held out his hand, grasped mine more firmly than I expected, and said, “I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Talk to her, Pop,” Mrs. Margulies said. “I have to run back to the kitchen.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” the old man called after his daughter. “I still remember how.” He turned back to me as I sat beside him. “So this is your first seder?” He shifted on his chair to make himself more comfortable. “I don’t remember my first one anymore. I was maybe three or four. It was a long time ago. We lived under the czar in those times. You know the czar?”

“I know the history, yes. When did you come to this country?”

“Nineteen-oh-seven,” he said precisely. “With my parents, they should rest in peace, and my sister, she should rest in peace. The rest of them were born here, down in New York. You know the lower east side?”

“I’ve been there.”

“A lot has changed. It’s a place you come to first. Then, when life gets better, you go somewhere else. The Jews are gone and other poor people are there now. When they do better, they’ll pick up and move, too. This place—” he looked around the large, comfortable room we were sitting in “—this beautiful house my granddaughter lives in, this is the place you come to last. My granddaughter and her husband are very rich to have a house like this.”

“They’re very nice people,” I said, not anxious to discuss the economic status of my friends.

“You’re right. Nice is more important than rich. Rich comes and goes. I have seen this. Nice is forever.”

“I like the sound of that.”

He smiled. “You like the sound of the words. Seventy-five, eighty years ago I knew in my heart I would be a poet. In my house I got a whole carton full of poems by Abraham Grodnik. You know what they’re worth?”

“Probably a lot more than being rich.”

He inspected my face before he responded. “You’re a nice girl,” he said. “My granddaughter got herself a nice girlfriend. So tell me, you know what this seder’s all about?”

“I’ve been reading the book.” I was a little afraid to say the Hebrew word aloud, but I showed it to him.

“The Haggadah, it’s called. That one you have is a little different from the one I have, but we all get along here. You sit next to me. You have any questions, you ask me. By now, I know the whole thing by heart.”

“I have one question before we start. Do I really have to drink four glasses of wine?”

“Nobody counts in this family. You drink what you want, you eat what you want. Here we tell the story and we have a good time.”

I was about to say something when a young couple came over and greeted Mr. Grodnik effusively. I gathered they were grandchildren, or grandchild and spouse, and I was impressed that he knew their names and asked relevant questions about them. There was no doubt about the sharpness of his mind.

“This is Christine,” he said after a minute, “Melanie’s friend. Tonight is her first seder.”

“Oh, I know who you are,” the young woman said. “Mel’s told me all about you. I’m her cousin Bobbie, and this is my husband, Miles. I’m so glad to meet you.”

“Thank you. Same here.”

“Just have a good time and eat a lot. Mel’s food is the best.”

“I know.”

“Well, we’ll leave you two. We have a lot of hellos to say.”

“Hellos, good-byes, it’s the story of life,” Abraham Grodnik said. “They should take a little time between the beginning and the end and enjoy what’s in the middle.”

“You’ve enjoyed the middle,” I said.

“A lot of it, when I could. It wasn’t always easy. Today everything is easy; nothing is hard anymore. The bagels are full of air, the beds are soft. Nobody walks anymore. They got rid of the hard part. But for me the middle is over, Christine. This is my last seder.”

I felt a chill pass through me. “What do you mean?”

“Next year this time I won’t be around anymore.”

“Are you ill?”

“Ill, failing, whatever you want to call it. I hope to see spring, that’s all. I like to see the leaves come out on the trees. It’s my favorite season.”

“Mine, too,” I said. “It’s right around the corner. I’m sure you’ll make it.”

He nodded and smiled. “You have to be young to be sure. You get older, nothing is certain anymore.” He looked at his watch. “Eight o’clock. I thought my granddaughter said we sit down at eight sharp. What good is a promise if you don’t keep it?”

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