Why Is This Night Different?

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.

Rabbi Lymon with Temple Akiba students, Culver City 1958

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.

The seder with Howdy Doody

9 Responses to “Why Is This Night Different?”

  1. Laura Stickney Says:

    Your Rabbi was able to lead a creative powerful life even with the weight
    of his illness. That is an accomplishment. But he was overtaken. Part of the work of such struggle is working against the exit.

  2. Frances Phillips Says:

    What a great piece, Louise! And what a brave woman you have been.

  3. Charlotte Says:

    Wonderful, wonderful! How each of these elements fit and swirl around each other: your beloved rabbi’s death with the seasons, with the seder, with you finding your voice as an artist. Love this piece, and so fitting for Passover.

  4. I marvel at the synchronicity of this piece, Louise. A very close friend committed suicide several weeks ago. Like your rabbi, this woman had much to give — achieved impressive career goals, led boards of directors of major philanthropic organizations, was kind and gentle to all. My heart aches that she hurled herself toward the exit, as Laura called it. I’m sorry for your loss. But cheered by the lovely story of your father, the bodystocking and the afikomen. Love how you’ve embraced life so gracefully and with such compassion. Happy Passover!

  5. Beautiful, L!

  6. Zach Shapiro Says:

    Dear Loiuse,

    As the current Rabbi of ate ole Akiba, I aleays feel the echo of Rabbi Lymon’s voice embedded in the walls of our community. Thank you for this blog!

  7. David Geneson Says:

    My parents were charter members of Temple Akiba, and my dad, who died in ’61 of a heart attack, and whose job was as classified advertiser for the Culver City Star News, worked tirelessly to solicit funding for the fledgling congregation, that initially met in some vacant offices off Venice Blvd., near downtown Culver City. He only spoke in the most exalted terms of the Rabbi, and. growing up, I mirrored his respect for this man, who, as I recall, did not shy away from discussing the issues of the day, from the pulpit, and of course, need I say, from a point of view tied to our faith’s loftiest ethical principles. For this, the Rabbi took some heat, from those who possibly felt implicated, or who just wished that he would talk religion and leave the world to the world. I won the prize for my graduating Confirmation class, and therefore was commissioned to deliver the “valedictory.” I remember how the rabbi met with me, took my rough draft, and basically turned it inside out, but admittedly, I really had no clue what I was talking about; after, I had a little more. Later, while at Berkeley, I happened to be listening to a recording of Dr King’s speech from the March on Washington, got very emotional, and wrote the Rabbi a letter in which I thanked him for having awakened in me the precursors of the social conscience that would pretty much undergird my life’s efforts from that point on. He invited me to have lunch with him next time I was home, and we did that. He introduced me to the contractor then in the process of building the new temple in south Culver City; he was so proud, and I wished that my dad could have survived to see his work brought to fruition. Overall, the Rabbi was a great role model, but there seemed to be this note of sadness, which is consistent with his condition, which of course I wouldn’t have known anything about at the time.

  8. Lana Ayeroff Brody Says:

    Hello Louise, I am Lana Ayeroff Brody, Jeff’s sister – Jeff
    is a friend of your brother Larry. I loved this story which
    was sent to me by Paul Geneson who lived in our old
    neighborhood on the East end of CC.

    I, too, suffered over Rabbi Lymon’s suicide. He, along with
    Perry Polski, was a huge influence in my life in awakening my
    intellectual curiosity. I adored him and looked forward to
    the high holidays when he would give such stirring sermons.

    Keep on writing and shining your light, Louise.

    Fondly, LAB

    intellect.

  9. My brother committed suicide in January after a long bout with anxiety and depression; our family is riddled with it. Yet we are all high achievers and have led very successful lives.

    Oddly enough, what stood out to me the most was Laura’s comment “Part of the work of such struggle is working against the exit.” What a powerful observation and put so succinctly.

    Thank you, Louise, for sharing your heart through your journeys. Your lovely followers and companions and are lovely as well.

    Joan

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