April 20, 2000
By Marlene Adler Marks
Four is a magical Jewish number, as we read in the haggadah, which tells the story of our journey from slavery to freedom. There are Four Questions, of course, which provoke four types of kvelling (especially after drinking the requisite Four Cups of wine): There is the pride of the parents that Jessica or Jonathan really can chant the traditional singsong melody. (God bless the preschool!). There is the kvelling of the grandparents, even from long-distance the next day, when they learn that it was little Nathan who asserted the famous words "Mah Nishtanah." And there is the third- and fourth-degree pride of friends and community at the table as the next generation of Sophies and Samuels are brought into the fold.
But this year, with the children in our set mostly too old for show and tell, the Four Questions seem like Sesame Street -- we've graduated, somehow.
Instead, it is the Four Children that have particular meaning to me.
The Four Children section comes right after the Four Questions and, being addressed to parents and not children, is easy even for seasoned seder-goers to miss. It is less dramatic than the spilling of the blood for the 10 Plagues. It is less fun than the search for the afikomen. But it's the part of the seder that most accurately reflects the family pecking order, as it adapts and changes year to year. Like undiluted horseradish, the Four Children is potent stuff, with a taste that lasts all year.
I was the oldest of four cousins. Our family went -- in descending order -- me, my brother Alan, my cousin Lorraine and her brother, Andy. We were two families but usually one unit, sharing every family holiday and most weekends. I sometimes felt I had four parents, Anne and Jack and Libby and Bernie.
My father or Uncle Bernie led the seder each year depending on whose turn it was to host the event, but our parts never varied and were determined by both character and chronology:
I was the Wise Son (this was before feminism), in love with the tradition in ways that the other cousins felt was slightly nuts. Alan was the Wicked, whose affection for the tradition became hidden after his Bar Mitzvah. Sweet Lorraine was the Simple child, eager to please, and young Andy was the child who didn't know how to ask. One year, Andy and Alan reversed roles, but otherwise, this was the natural order of the universe.
And then we grew up. Libby and Bernie died. Lorraine got married, and I moved away. I never got to see how our Four Children would have evolved, naturally, and whether we might have chosen different roles for ourselves.
Time went by. Soon there were four new children at my table, close as cousins: Samantha, my daughter, and our dearest friends, Ariel and Jason and Sarah. In this new generation, birth order counts for nothing; the roles are self-selected. Jason, like my brother Alan, loves being the Wicked Child (we use a new haggadah), but he has to fight for that part with Samantha and Ariel.
To be Wicked in our family means to have an edge, an attitude, to love the tradition by dissing it. Many can be wise but it takes an independent American spirit to be wicked. (Shy Sarah has devised her own updated version of the fourth child, the one waiting to be asked.)
But as I say, we're all moving on. We've all become more contemplative. Passover is no longer a holiday of coloring books and plastic frogs. We don't rush through the evening so fast.
And these days the children no longer have the monopoly on role-playing. We power through the Four Questions but linger with the Four Children, parents and offspring now suddenly intellectual equals. We take more time -- reflecting the greater need -- to go to the next level. The Four Children have become, my goodness, the Four Adults.
The Wise Adult -- now what is she? It's one thing to know the rules and rituals for a responsible life; another thing to achieve contentment.
The Wicked Adult -- what is wicked, anyway, but resistance to change? Is it good to dismiss and suppress the agent provocateur, the voice of the questioner in our society and ourselves? Anyway, at least the Wicked Adult has energy!
And what of the Simple Adult -- think the Dalai Lama here. Surely there is something admirable here I didn't see in those years I declined the role of Simple Child. Don't I seek simplicity now, the capacity to focus on the most important aspects of life? Isn't simplicity wisdom?
Finally, there's the fourth Adult, who, faced with relentless, frightening chan-ges in myself, my family and my world, no longer knows precisely what to ask.
Oh, to have Four Children once again.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal.
Her website iswww.marleneadlermarks.com.