Saturday, April 23, 2005

It is Passover--Good Pesach, y'all! I don't have any seder plans this year, but I thought I'd share this tangentially Passover-related piece (even though it's a bit long by blog standards.) I was artistic director for an anti-death penalty concert, Poetic Justice, last year, and wrote this piece for the event:

Last Suppers

I have always been fascinated by last meals. I have been opposed to capital punishment since I was a girl, but I've always been curious to hear what people on death row choose for their last supper. On July 14th, in Ohio, Stephen Vrabel asked for a BLT with extra mayo, a ham and cheese omelet with extra cheese, two hot dogs with mustard, pork and beans, potato salad, vanilla ice cream, chocolate pudding, and six Cokes, before he was executed by lethal injection. I wonder if those were all foods from his childhood. Comfort foods. I wonder if he savored every last flavor he was going to taste on this earth, or if he was unable to taste anything, knowing his death was imminent.

Of course, most of us won't have the luxury of choosing our last meal. Most of us will have no idea when we are enjoying our final plate of spaghetti, our last swooning bite of crème brulee. The victims of murder certainly don't have the luxury of choosing their last suppers, and it's important that we acknowledge the victims as well as those put to death by the state. The victims whose memories are so often not served by execution; many innocent people are sent to those death chambers.

I think the practice of the last meal on Death Row gives me some hope. It is a small gesture of compassion by the state, an acknowledgement of the fact that these inmates, even though they may have done unspeakably horrific things, are human beings. Human beings whose lives are about to be extinguished. Then again, it's hard to see the compassion of the state when a man like Rickey Ray Rector is executed, a man so severely retarded that he asked, while being escorted to his execution chamber in 1992, if he could save the rest of his pecan pie—part of his last supper--for the following night.

Of course, when I talk about last suppers and compassion, it makes me think of You Probably Know Who. As a Jewish girl, I have to admit, I don't know a whole lot about "the" last supper; much of what I've learned about it is through the DaVinci Code. One thing I did learn growing up, however, was the fact that Jesus' last supper was actually a Passover seder. For those of you unfamiliar with the Passover seder, it is a ritual meal held every Spring to commemorate freedom from slavery in Egypt. Several items sit on the seder plate—including horseradish, a bitter herb representing the bitterness of slavery, and parsley, representing the freshness of spring, which we dip into saltwater to remember the tears of those who were enslaved. A roasted egg, representing the cycle of birth and death and rebirth, the cycle of hope, also sits on the plate.

I don't know what I would choose for my own last supper—something involving mangoes, most likely, maybe the Tallerine casserole my mother used to make, maybe that wild mushroom pasta dish I had at Mario's Place that was so good it made me cry. But as I think of people's last suppers on Death Row, suddenly I have a desire to pull out the seder plate, to take a whole bunch of parsley in my fist, to dip it into a bowl full of salt water. I want to taste the sadness of the victims of murder, the sadness of their families; I want to taste the sadness of the people being led to their state-sponsored deaths; I want to taste the sadness of their families, as well. I want to taste the sadness of the whole damn situation. And I also want to feel the crunch of green beneath my teeth, to let its sharp fresh promise fill me up, the hope that we can learn to grow and evolve as a society, the way any green thing grows from this earth.

On Passover, we ask "Why is this night different from all other nights?" When someone is eating his or her last supper, that is an easy question to answer—this night is different from all other nights because this is my last night alive. We can ask the same thing tonight: why is this night different from all other nights? Well, this night, we are raising our voices together, raising awareness; this night, no matter what we ate for dinner, I hope we'll all leave with the taste of justice, the promise of justice, in our mouths.


Damian McNicholl said...

Excellent essay and thanks for sharing the explanation about the Passover meal. I knew what Passover is of course, but didn't know anything about the herbs and their symbolism.

gayle said...

Thanks so much, Damian! I am sad that I missed being part of a seder this year--it really is a lovely ritual.