The Final Ingredient
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Amram’s second opera, The Final Ingredient, with a libretto by Arnold Weinstein, was commissioned in 1965 by the ABC television network in cooperation with the Jewish Theological Seminary for broadcast that year on the Seminary’s national program, Directions. The libretto was based on a play by Reginald Rose, which takes place at the infamous German concentration camp Bergen-Belsen.
The opera is related to the Holocaust in terms of its specific situation and its backdrop, but it is not so much a drama about the Holocaust as it is about faith, Jewish national survival, the rediscovery of heritage, and the triumph of the spirit over degradation and oppression. ABC, however, was more concerned with its Passover dimension, and they conceived of it as a potential “Passover opera” that might be shown annually—almost as a Jewish counterpart to Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and its place as an annual Christmas-related opera.
The plot concerns a group of Belsen inmates at Passover in 1944. Although the observance of Passover is not even required by Jewish law under such life-threatening and dire circumstances, the inmates determine to improvise a seder—the annual Passover home ritual that recounts the biblical story of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their liberation from slavery so that they could receive the Torah at Mount Sinai as a free people and take possession of their land. At every seder, each Jew is supposed to regard himself as if he were personally brought out of Egypt on that ancient night. Thus the seder is a reaffirmation not only of Jewish national existence in collective terms, but also of each individual Jew’s identification with the Jewish people. For this group in The Final Ingredient, their determination to hold a seder, however primitive it might be, represents their refusal to succumb to defeat or to renounce either their faith or their perpetual Jewish distinctness. This seder becomes an act of spiritual defiance.
The inmates must first assemble the ritual seder table. For this they need to locate or fashion substitutes for the required food items and symbols used to explain the principal themes in the telling (haggada) of the story and in considering the significance of the Festival and its observance. Obviously, in the concentration camp, they cannot find the necessary items. Rather, those items must be metaphoric versions of the traditional symbols—which also relate to their present situation. They have managed to provide something to represent all the items but one: the egg for the seder plate, where it serves as a memorial to the burnt sacrificial Festival offering in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem (zekher l’hagiga). The association of the egg with the seder has acquired additional aspects and points of significance, which have generated a variety of explanations. Among those is the egg as a symbol of regeneration and of the continuum of the life cycle.
Just outside the barbed-wire fence of the compound, there is a small tree on whose branch is a bird’s nest with eggs in it. Eli, a fellow inmate, tries to persuade a young man named Aaron to risk the dangers of scaling the fence to procure one of the eggs, since only Aaron has enough remaining physical strength. But Aaron is interested neither in the seder nor in any Judaic observance. He has rejected Judaism since childhood, which has placed him at odds with his father and his father’s religious concerns, and there is lingering antagonism and resentment in their relationship. Moreover, Aaron has succumbed to total despair. “No one cares less than I,” he sings in the opening scene (not recorded here), not even the dead—not even those murdered there by the Germans—“whom we bury every day by the hundreds.” So complete is that despair that as the curtain rises, he admonishes the bird that it has no right to sing: “Who are you to sing, bird? Don’t you know, God has told each creature that we are here on earth to suffer? No, you poor deluded bird …” Those words sum up his spiritual defeat. For Aaron, there is no purpose in a seder—no purpose in reaffirming Jewishness, survival, freedom, or anything else. Nothing has any meaning.
Aaron’s elderly father—who, with the others, still clings to his belief—tries to persuade Aaron to go after the egg, even in the absence of faith. He asks it simply as a father’s request of a son. But Aaron still refuses. When Walter, another inmate, asks if their suffering cannot be allowed to provide some lesson for future generations—if at least they will have died for a cause—Aaron replies that there is no cause and nothing to learn or be learned: “World, rummage through the ashes! Nothing will you learn. Look for no lessons.”
Scene 5 (the first of the three excerpted here) takes place in the women’s barracks, where the women—their babies in their arms—are mourning those who have already been murdered by the Germans. Their hummed lament becomes a lullaby to their babies, while the guards taunt and mock them by calling to be entertained and heckling them to sing louder and more lustily. Such demands were not unfamiliar in the camps, and they had roots in medieval incidents. The women responded by singing Psalm 137 (al naharot bavel—By the Rivers of Babylon), which refers to the Babylonian captivity following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. In that scenario, too, the Babylonian captors made similar mocking demands that their captives sing them their “song of Zion.” But that Psalm also contains assurance of eventual Divine restoration: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem …” In the following scenes (also not recorded here) Aaron ultimately accedes to his father’s plea, but only after witnessing and being moved by the guards’ vicious brutality. First his father attempts yet again (still in vain) to prevail upon Aaron by recalling his earlier bravery and sense of compassion. He reminds Aaron of an incident in his youth when he overcame his fear and climbed a much more forbidding tree in order to restore a bird’s nest filled with hatching eggs that had been dislodged by a windstorm and was dangling from a branch. But Aaron remains unmoved, as if embarrassed by the reminder of his youthful deed.
Whether or not they were known to the playwright and librettist, there are irresistible talmudic and rabbinic echoes here, rooted in two biblical commandments. One of those commandments (Deuteronomy 22:6–7) prohibits the taking of a mother bird from a nest while she is sitting on eggs or tending to her young; and, in the event that one must take either the young or the eggs (highly unlikely, since they would have scarcely any food value), he must first shoo away the mother bird, taking the young or the eggs only in her absence. Keeping that commandment carries with it the reward of prolonged life—one of only two of the 613 commandments in the Torah that have this reward specifically attached to them. The other is the commandment to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16). Comparison of those commandments has not been lost on rabbinic commentators, who have found meaning in the provision of the same reward for two unrelated commandments: one of the least significant and one of the most important—what may be the easiest and what may be the most complicated and difficult ones to observe. In an account in the Talmud (kiddushin 39b, hullin 142a), the great sage turned apostate Elisha ben Abuya (first half of the 2nd century C.E.) is said to have witnessed a father instructing his son to climb a tree to fetch chicks from a nest. The lad does so, remembering to observe the provisions of the related commandment, but he is killed falling from the tree. Some have attributed Elisha ben Abuya’s renouncement of Judaism to that incident. The son had obediently fulfilled two commandments promising long life: he had honored his father by following his instructions, and he had remembered to shoo away the mother bird.
In Amram’s opera, only when Aaron witnesses the guard brutally beating his father—after discovering hidden wooden clubs that he and the other inmates were intending to use in making a ladder to scale the fence—does Aaron change course in an instant and determine to honor his father’s wish. It is Aaron’s revelatory moment. Despite his earlier protestations, there remains within him a dual spark of defiance and Jewish connection—a spark ignited as the threat of physical terror and humiliation becomes even more real and more personal for him. While the other inmates stage a diversion, he successfully scales the fence and snatches the egg, but he is shot and killed by the guards as he returns with it. For his father, heard in his anguish as Scene 9 opens, Aaron has died with some purpose after all—and as a Jew once again. “Now he believes!” cries the distraught father over Aaron’s lifeless body. He summons forth the words of the central monotheistic Judaic credo and proclamation of faith that Jews recite twice daily in their prayers, as well as, when possible, at the moment of imminent death. Even though it is too late for Aaron, his father calls upon him to “Say it with me, Aaron my son.” The other inmates respond in repetition, refusing to permit their tormentors to rob them of the only thing they have left—their unalloyed faith.
In Scenes 9 and 10, the inmates make their final preparations for Passover and for the seder. As one of the men tosses out the rotted loaf of forbidden bread that the guards have left them for their daily ration, another man symbolically recites the customary pronouncement, normally invoked on the night before the eve of Passover, that no hametz (leaven)—any food items or ingredients forbidden on Passover—remains in their possession. (Of course, they can be only “symbolically” free of hametz in the camp.) As their seder commences, the participants refer to the various symbols. Max holds up a piece of improvised matza, which they have baked in secret from a handful of stolen flour, and he recalls the prescribed Aramaic words from the haggada that refer to matza as the “bread of affliction” and invite “all who are hungry” to partake. Another inmate, Walter, substitutes a clump of freshly pulled grass for the prescribed bitter herb (maror), which traditionally symbolizes the bitterness of Egyptian slavery. For the inmates, it is this “bitter” grass upon which they must “walk in slavery.” A handful of earth replaces the usual sweetened condiment, the haroset, which is eaten at the seder as a reminder of the bricks and mortar used by the Israelite slaves in their forced labor for the Egyptian pharaohs. Instead of the usual salted water for dipping a vegetable (the karpas, or “fruit of the earth”) before proceeding to the full deliberations on the Passover story, their actual human tears are used to represent the tears of bondage. Under normal circumstances, a lamb or other shank bone is required for the seder. It symbolizes the burnt sacrificial offering in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and it also symbolizes the paschal lamb the Israelites sacrificed and roasted in preparation for the exodus from Egypt—which was to be eaten together with matza and bitter herbs on the eve of the exodus and whose blood was wiped on the doorposts and lintels of the Israelite dwellings to signal the “angel of death” to “pass over” their homes when visiting the tenth plague upon the Egyptians. Aaron’s father provides his dead son’s belt as a substitute, proclaiming that “his lamb” had been slaughtered by the Germans. And the egg that Aaron retrieved now symbolizes for them the eternal survival of the Jewish people and the perpetual regeneration of its spirit despite the avowed genocide in progress.
At the conclusion of a seder, Jews customarily pronounce their hope that the messianic era will have arrived by the next year: “Next year in Jerusalem! This year we have celebrated Passover in the diaspora; next year at this time may we do so in Jerusalem as an ingathered and reunited people.” The inmates, too, hold out that hopeful expectation, noting that their diaspora context this year has been “the bloody earth of Belsen.”
The opera concludes with the communal singing of Yigdal elohim hai, a stalwart hymn of faith based on Maimonides’ “thirteen principles of faith” but erroneously referred to in the libretto as a “hymn of rejoicing.” Yigdal is not part of the seder ritual, although it can be sung at the conclusion of the Passover eve service that precedes the seder, as well as on other liturgical occasions. But it was employed here by the librettist in an exercise of artistic license, probably because of its theologically powerful statements.
Unlike the Holocaust itself, which is not an appropriate transcendent metaphor for broader humanistic or universal themes—or for anything that diffuses its historical centrality as the planned, calculated, and culminating annihilation of the Jewish people by a highly developed Western society with no scarcity of willing collaborators—this particular story can support, on its own terms, universal parallels and lessons. Indeed, Amram was attracted to what he perceived as its universal message: the consequences of hatred.