Elijah visited our house this year during the seder.
I knew he would. Before Passover, my 2-year-old grandson repeatedly dialed Elijah’s number on a toy phone and said, “Eyijah, it’s me. Happy Passover.”
My other 2-year-old grandson knew Elijah from the books we had read in preparation for the holiday. Sometimes Elijah was a cat, but more often than not he was what you would expect — a bearded old man with a warm smile and twinkly eyes. A Jewish version of Santa, if you will, minus the reindeer and the red suit. When the story was over, Micah always pleaded, “Eyijah, come? To my house?”
Erev Pesach, when my husband, Andy, announced we were ready to begin the seder, the boys cried “Eyijah!” and rushed to the front door. We certainly were not about to risk losing the attention of two toddlers, so we bumped the official order of the seder — Kadaysh, Urchatz, Karpas, Yachatz — and gave Elijah top billing. Andy surreptitiously donned a wrinkled white sheet and cotton beard, and held a long, gnarly branch. He snuck out the back door and then appeared at the front door when our grandsons opened it to welcome the prophet.
To the joy of the boys, Elijah had, indeed, arrived.
Elijah arriving at our house for the seder is always a magical moment. After all, there is a cup of wine waiting for him. He has his own song welcoming him! He delivers his message of hope and redemption, which grows increasingly urgent each year. Why wouldn’t he come?
But Elijah has not been the only magical visitor to our house. Rip Van Winkle — yes, Rip Van Winkle! — has visited us twice in the last 20 years! Now that was totally unexpected.
Maybe he was lost the first time he appeared at our house in Montclair. Although Rip Van Winkle’s own house was “sadly time-worn and weather-beaten,” as Washington Irving told us in his famous short story, he was familiar with the houses in his village, “built of small yellow bricks brought from Holland having latticed windows and gable fronts, surmounted with weather-cocks.” Our 100-year-old colonial house in suburbia had none of these features, common in the Kaatskill Mountains (as Irving called the Catskills) and the majestic Hudson River Valley where he lived. Maybe he had taken a wrong turn on the Thruway.
In any event, I remember that first time we met. It was August 2004. Andy and I had just returned home from driving our son, Dan, to college. I looked around the tidy house. The suitcases, the cartons, the clutter — all gone. All those sneakers — gone. The perpetual motion of two kids in the house — gone, relocated to dorms and apartments in St. Louis. The silence and stillness were eerie.
And that’s when I saw Rip Van Winkle. His 20-year deep sleep “had been to him but as one night.” Similarly, for me, 21 years of raising two children suddenly felt like only one night had passed.
We had watched our kids grow up to the rhythm of the seasons and the calendar, never imagining it could happen so quickly. Fortunately, memories sustain me, like honey stuck in my teeth. If I close my eyes, I can picture backyard birthday parties, holiday meals in the dining room, everyday meals in the kitchen, and homework. I can picture one Halloween, when Dan and about ten other members of the Montclair High School marching band converged on our living room. They tuned up and abandoned their instrument cases, and then embarked on a musical night of trick-or-treat/fundraising.
I can see our daughter, Emily, and the MHS Art Club “working” all night in our basement. Sewing machines whirred and music hummed from the boom box, while the kids mass-produced pajama bottoms. Eighteen years later I am still wearing my Tartan plaids!
Rip Van Winkle reminded me how deceptive time is. But when he arrived at our doorstep a second time, in May of 2020, he taught me another lesson. This time, he visited us in the guise of our son, his wife and their 2-month-old son. They had vacated their NYC apartment and moved in with us, indefinitely, at the outset of the pandemic. Except for Andy and me, and Zoom, our house had been woefully silent and empty since March. We gleefully accommodated this new family and their paraphernalia.
“Yes, time goes quickly,” he told me. “Nothing stays the same. All the changes that occur seem strange.”
He spoke from experience. When he awoke, he said, “I’m not myself. I’m somebody else- that’s me yonder — no — that’s somebody else got into my shoes — I was myself that night, but I fell asleep on the mountain…everything’s changed and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name or who I am!”
He was prescient. Andy and I no longer recognized our house or its new inhabitants. Everything was topsy-turvy. Who was this new young father? Wasn’t HE the baby in the house just yesterday? And this nursing mother? That was me once upon a time. Where did I go? I saw a crib in our bedroom, but I thought we had retired our crib 34 years earlier. And most importantly, who was this newborn who confused day and night?
How did our dresser with all its tchotchkes and photos become a changing table? Why was there someone else’s underwear in my bureau, and where did my underwear go? How had my son’s old bedroom become our bedroom by night, and his remote office by day? How had my husband’s attic office become my daughter-in-law’s office?
Why did I hear baby music in every room of the house instead of Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air” interviews and WNYC news? And finally, who were these grandparents living in our house, “stiff in the joints” like Rip Van Winkle when he woke up from his nap?
As I reflect on my two magical visitors, I wonder what I have learned. Rip Van Winkle reminded me how misleading time can be. The changes it brings can often feel strange and disorienting.
But Elijah taught me something else. No matter how quickly the years pass and life changes, we always need hope and compassion. We need a reminder to help the homeless and the hungry. Whether we welcome him to our seder, to a brit milah, or at the end of Shabbat, Elijah will usher in the miracles that will make the world a better place.
What if my magical visitors overlap next year at the seder? We will always be ready for Elijah, but how do we prepare for Rip Van Winkle? I’ll put a flagon of liquor next to Elijah’s cup. I’ll write a new song welcoming Rip Van Winkle to his first Seder. What rhymes with Winkle and Kaatskill? My husband will need an additional costume, perhaps something with a fishing rod. He’ll definitely need a dog to accompany him.
And my two grandsons? I can already see them laughing and welcoming the guests!
Merrill Silver and her husband live in Montclair; she’s a freelance writer and teaches ESL at JVS of MetroWest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Hadassah magazine, the Forward, the New York Jewish Week, and other publications. Find her at merrillsilver.wordpress.com