Wiesenberg (s056 pan): Sophie hosts a seder

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Card Player. This entry in the "Aunt Sophie" series covers pan (or panguingue), which is a multi-player form of rummy, often played for money..

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Black and white photo of Michael Wiesenberg

Michael Wiesenberg

Aunt Sophie hosts a seder

Mah nishtanah halayla hazeh meekol halaylot?” came the high, clear voice. “Sheh b’khol halaylot ahnoo ohkhlim…

Why is this night different from all other nights? I unconsciously translated in my mind. My goodness! Had a whole year gone by already? Was it already Passover again?

It seemed just yesterday I had first met my Aunt Sophie’s second cousin Minnie’s niece, Sara, at a seder, and now here we were all gathered again for the same ceremony. Not at the same place. Aunt Sophie has just bought a town house, making a substantial down payment with the profit she’d made selling her Diamond Head condominium. It had a formal dining room, where much of her “little bit of Mishpocheh,” as she called us, were gathered about the laden table. With the two leaves inserted, there was plenty of room for Sophie’s second cousin Minnie, Minnie’s niece Sara, Zaydeh, Sophie’s first cousin Moisheh, my cousins Harry and Pearl, my ex-wife’s nephew Joel, Sophie, me, and the young stranger who was reciting the Fier Kashehs. Joel, now eleven, was no longer the youngest at the table, and reciting the Four Questions was always the duty of the youngest.


Actually, I mused, the youngster might not be a stranger for long. Sara had arrived last, just as the rest of us were sitting down to the table. She had a decidedly un-Jewish-looking little boy in tow.

“This is my son Cecil,” she had said. “Cecil Suzuki.”

I knew that Suzuki was not her last name, or at least not the one she used. What other secrets might this young lady with whom I had been keeping some company have? “My ex-husband has him most of the year,” Sara had continued. “In fact the court awarded him sole custody of Cecil. However, Yosh has finally allowed himself to take a chance on me, and Cecil will get to see something of his mother’s heritage. If we’re good,” she had added bitterly, “I might get him for other Jewish holidays.”

I had been somewhat at a loss for words, but had managed to gasp out, “How old is he?”

Sara had plopped into the chair two positions from me, and setting Cecil on the chair between us explained that the boy was three years old. And now I marveled at what a wonderful job the kid was doing with the Four Questions. Obviously he knew no Hebrew, so Sara must have taught the whole thing to him by heart. This kid with the window-pane glasses, striped tee shirt, gym shorts, and high-top tennis shoes must be some kind of genius.

Sara had never wanted to go into details about her failed marriage. Not till now had I known there had been any offspring. But if she was only just now getting time with her Cecil in the two years since her divorce, it was understandable that she hadn’t mentioned him. Now how could that be possible? Certainly in California unless the mother was a murderer the court would give her at least visiting rights, if not joint custody. Ah, ha! I thought, applying a little deductive reasoning. Not a California court. In fact, possibly not even an American court.

When Cecil finished his recitation, I leaned back and whispered to her behind his back, “Does Yosh happen to live in Japan?”

“Why yes,” she replied. “How’d you figure that out?”

“I’ll tell you later,” I murmured. “Zaydeh’s anxious to continue with the service.”

Beyond tolerance

Zaydeh wasn’t really anyone’s grandfather; we just called him that. He was Aunt Sophie’s great uncle, and incredibly ancient. Sophie always asked him to lead the Pesach seder, probably because he was the only person she knew who was capable of conducting one. She wasn’t observant, and I was less. Her cousin Moisheh had been too busy all his life making money to have had any time for religion. My cousins Harry and Pearl were products of a mixed marriage. Minnie wasn’t capable of leading a horse to water, let alone anything like a family religious service. And, anyway, Zaydeh loved his yearly task. Unfortunately, his long-winded attempts to explain and educate as he went along were lost on the rest of us near-heathens. And that just dragged things out almost beyond tolerance. Finally, however, we got to dinner.

Over the kneidlach-laden soup Sara sussurated, “Now, how did you know Yosh doesn’t live in this country?”

I looked around. The others were all absorbed in their own conversations. “Well,” I answered quietly, “you haven’t seen your son since he was a year old, apparently by court order. That couldn’t happen in California, and I don’t think it could happen anywhere in this country. The courts really bend over backwards for the mother, unless she’s a totally unfit human being, and that’s certainly not you. And even if you had been restricted by some unenlightened judge in America, you surely would have made some effort to see your son. And you likely would have told me about him, too. No, something really traumatic prevented your discussing Cecil with me. Only some other country would have laws that would award total custody to a father. Given the names of your ex-husband and your son, Japan seemed a likely choice. Not such difficult reasoning, really.”

Sara directed a few words of Japanese to Cecil, and then slipped some of her matzoh balls into his bowl. “Pretty clever, actually,” she complimented.

I could tell she was struggling to keep back the tears. I didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t set her off. “How long will Cecil be with you?” I finally asked.

“All of Pesach,” she responded, “eight days. Then I put him on a plane for Osaka. Yosh is very influential in the government. At first I was surprised he was willing to send Cecil to me at all, but then I thought maybe he doesn’t hate me as much as I think.”

I glanced warningly from her to the boy, concerned about his hearing these words, possibly reporting back to Papa-san. “It’s okay,” she reassured me. “Cecil doesn’t know any English. Yosh speaks only Japanese to him.”

“Oh,” I remarked, “then you must have taught him the Mah nishtanah in Japanese.”


“Right,” she returned. “Anyway, as I was saying, maybe Yosh really does have a bit of feeling for me in his heart. But this is a test, I know that. He’s like that. First I wondered how he could let Cecil go after two years of withholding him from me. Wouldn’t he be afraid I might not return him? But then I realized that with his influence he would just turn it into an international incident. Our government is so anxious, or at least certain members of it are, to keep on his good side, that they would see that Cecil was returned if I kept him even a day extra. And then I’d never see my boy again.”

“He must be pretty powerful,” I observed.

“Oh yes,” she explained, “he’s sort of a power behind the throne. Or at least the throne that those certain members I mentioned want to stay on the good side of. He’s the chief adviser to the minister who makes the decisions about what electronic products can be imported into Japan. And the minister knows nothing about electronics or economics. He follows Yosh’s advice to the letter. Cecil was born in Japan. As far as our government is concerned, he’s a foreign national. If I kept him against Yosh’s wishes, I would be accused of kidnapping. I’d never see him again. But if I follow instructions, I may get to see him once or twice a year.”

To this I could say nothing, so I just dug into the brisket.

“Look,” she put in, “this doesn’t affect anything between us. It was over with Yosh and me long before I left him. He got back at me by keeping Cecil. Cecil’s my son, but I’ll never have much time with him. And that’s quite enough on that subject. Why don’t you tell me something about pan, or about poker?”

“Why don’t I do that another time?” I suggested. “Looks like Zaydeh’s getting ready to continue. If we don’t let him, we’ll be here till past midnight, just like last year.”

Next: 057 Aunt Sophie asks about booze


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