Friday, April 2, 2010

Passover Wonders

How did she do it?

How did my mother, who worked full-time with my father in his business, manage to cook and store food for 20 to 30 people for our annual Passover seders when all she had was an old oven and stovetop and a small International Harvester refrigerator-freezer?

It’s always baffled my brother, sister and me, especially when I see the preparations Gilda makes each year for our seder of equivalent size, the food she cooks in advance and stores in our two fridges with their freezers and our stand-alone freezer.

Our mother no doubt bartered space in neighbors’ kitchens in exchange for portions of gefilte fish and matzah ball soup. I’d be in charge of delivering the goods each year, not one of my favorite chores as I was rather possessive of her handiwork. Her gefilte fish was an exquisite blend of pike, carp and whitefish she personally bought from the fish monger’s truck at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Avenue W, a block and a half from our home in Brooklyn. Simply put, her gefilte fish was to die for.

My sister Lee loved her matzah balls (I was more partial to the kreplach she made for Rosh Hashanah). Each matzah ball was exceptionally soft and fluffy. So it was more than surprising when one year everyone almost broke their teeth, literally almost broke their teeth, on her matzah balls. Without telling anyone, she had hidden a blanched almond inside each sphere. Her unsuspecting family and guests assumed their knedlach would easily melt inside their mouths. The crunch and resistance we all felt made everyone uneasy. Too embarrassed to say anything, we wondered if she had somehow mixed chicken bones into the matzah ball batter. When she finally noticed everyone avoiding finishing their knedlach, she volunteered that she had hidden a “surprise” inside each matzah ball. Enlightened and relieved, we gobbled up the rest, and thereafter joked about it at all subsequent seders.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, we lived in an attached two-story row house. Before I turned 13, we’d hold the seder in the basement. Tables would be arranged in a U-shape. Our immediate family, aunts, uncles and first cousins totaled 18. On top of that came mostly people related to our father by kinship or friendship, swelling our numbers to 25 or more, as many as 40 one year. Uncle Willy, who ran a dry goods store on First Avenue in the East Village in Manhattan, always brought us new clothing for the holiday.

In the 1960s, after the seder moved upstairs, my brother Bernie and I were tasked with rearranging furniture to accommodate a long table run down the center of the living room. We moved the couch and chairs into the dinette. Our father presided at one end. Willy sat a few seats down. Our mother sat at the far end, gossiping with her three sisters. In between, the nine cousins, two more uncles and assorted guests, most of whom could not read Hebrew, and even if they could they would find it hard to follow the melody Dad and Uncle Willy brought with them from Galicia. But that didn’t stop our father from plowing ahead in Hebrew, expecting participation from his Hebrew school-trained children and at least silent devotion from everyone else. He didn’t skip a word in the haggadah. It was an excruciatingly long service, broken up by the not-so-occasional remonstrance from Dad to be quiet. When the noise overwhelmed him, he’d threaten not to continue, which made us all the more fidgety and anxious to get to the midpoint of the haggadah so we could eat.

Food. It always came back to the food. No matter how long the service, no matter how many at the table, the seder hinged on the quality and quantity of the food. Mom piled on the food. Each year she’d make a crown roast, until she traded that signature dish in for rack of lamb. Same meat, different presentation. Almost 25 years ago, it became too much of a burden for her to prepare the seder. We knew it was time to transfer the torch, er, spatula, to the next generation, to Gilda, when there wasn’t enough meat to adequately serve everyone. Because there were no leftovers, Mom thought she had ordered “just enough.” It was one of the first signs she was failing to appreciate reality.

Over the years, the cast-in-stone liturgy of our haggadah has changed as we graduated from the Maxwell House version Dad used to a text assembled by Bernie, then me and now our daughter Ellie. The themes of liberation, equality, emancipation, egalitarianism remain constant, updated to reflect current humanitarian concerns. Constant, too, has been the function of the meal, a celebration of plenty, a symbol our generation are not slaves in Egypt, or shtetl dwellers in eastern Europe, or refugees squeezed into Lower East Side tenements.

I witness how exhausted Gilda is after preparing the seder meal, how taxing it is for her to do this while working full-time, how physical it is even with all the modern day cooking conveniences. And I wonder how our mother was able to do it all. It was, no doubt, another miracle of Biblical proportions.

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