Friday, April 14, 2023

Memories of Seders Past

Went to temple Thursday. It was the last day of Passover. More importantly, it was the day yizkor was recited, yizkor being the prayer of remembrance for the departed. 

This is not a posting about how wonderful my parents were. In some ways they were. In other ways they weren’t. 

They did, though, cultivate memories around the Passover holiday that are still very much alive in me, and within my brother and sister. 

One of my earliest recollections is of a seder in the basement of our row house on Avenue W in Brooklyn. I was less than 10 years old, probably closer to five or six. Tables were set up in a huge U-shape with chairs on the outside and inside of the formation. There must have been 40 attendees, many more than our aunts, uncles and their children would total. The other attendees were friends and distant relatives almost exclusively of my father’s, immigrants, perhaps refugees, from Ottynia, his home shtetl in what is now western Ukraine that was conquered first by the Russians, then by the Germans and again by the Russians near the end of the Second World War.

One person in particular stands out in my memory—Kobi, a handsome, youthful Israeli who worked for Zim shipping lines. I never learned how my father knew him, but it was obvious my parents held Kobi in great esteem. Perhaps he was a friend or relative of one of my father’s relations in Israel and, being in America, needed a seat at a seder. 

My father practiced in real life the Haggadah precept, “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover (with us).”

He left it up to my mother to figure out how to feed them. Should an unexpected guest show up she’d nonchalantly quip, “No problem. I’ll just throw another cup of water into the soup.”

My mother made great chicken soup. Our son Dan always looked forward to spooning down her soup with egg noodles. For Passover, soft matzah balls accompanied the broth.  

I emphasize “soft” because one year she secretly chose to put a “surprise” inside each matzah ball. Expecting the usual softness, her guests luckily did not chip any teeth while biting into a matzah ball with a solid, blanched almond hidden inside. 

Whether it was 40 or a more manageable 25, my siblings and I never figured out how our mother was able to cook for the hordes of hungry invitees. Or where she stored the food she must have prepared weeks in advance. Our house had a small stovetop, oven and refrigerator. No doubt she procured refrigerator and freezer space from nearby friends she repaid with samples of her delicacies.

The night of the seder attendees had to contain their appetites. She served no hors d’oeurves prior to the seder beginning around sunset. The pre-meal ceremony took over an hour with only a cup of wine and a piece of boiled potato or sprig of parsley passing through one’s lips at the beginning. Everyone was hungry by the time we tasted some matzah, horseradish and charoset just prior to the meal being served. 

The meal had multiple courses: a sliced hardboiled in salt water; homemade gefilte fish; the aforementioned matzah ball soup; for a lucky few, a rib or two of crown roast or rack of lamb; for everyone else, roast chicken and brisket; potatoes, vegetables and a stuffing of matzah farfel and mushrooms. 

In our home, we deviated from strict religious protocol that prohibited eating anything after the afikoman was redeemed and eaten. Dessert of fresh fruit along with an assortment of home baked and store bought cakes came after we read and sang our way through the second half of the Haggadah, usually not before 11. 

A seder for 20-25 was the usual number my parents hosted. Those seders would be held in our living room after couches and armchairs would be shifted into the adjacent dinette. Sitting around the series of tables extending some 25 feet, my brother, sister and I craftily chose our seats on either side of our father or Uncle Willy as they both formed an afikoman bag children were expected to “steal” from them, to be returned for a price after eating concluded and the second half of the Haggadah would be read. Aside from being crafty enough to steal the afikoman one also had to be wary that another youngster didn’t pilferage it from your hiding place. The redemption prize went solely to whomever possessed the afikoman.

Securing a prime seat had a downside. It meant being next to my father and uncle as they chanted in Hebrew in their Eastern European trope from the Maxwell House Haggadah. As my brother, sister and I attended Hebrew day schools we were expected to drone along with them. Our public school educated cousins, as well as their parents, were exempt from singing. Instead, they filled the room with small talk, often loud enough to prompt my father to bang on the table for silence. He threatened to stop the reading, thereby prolonging the wait for food to be served. Decorum would be restored, for about 10 minutes. 

Aside from how she prepared and stored the food, I am ignorant of another crucial part of the evening. Who did the cleanup? Everyone ate on full sets of china and silverware. Nothing disposable. Yes, we had a dishwasher but it would have taken multiple washes to clean everything and I can recall no mounds of stacked dirty dishes awaiting their turn in our Kitchenaid. 

I can’t remember any hired help. Perhaps my mother’s three sisters donned aprons to help out while the second half singing filled the house with song. 

It’s a mystery I’ll have to ask my brother and sister to unpack. All of my aunts and uncles have passed. 

Gilda’s and my seders of a dozen to 16 participants are more child-oriented. We start way before sundown so the children are not sleepy. Nor are they and the adults fidgety from hunger. Gilda provides ample finger-food treats prior to the formal beginning of the seder.

Most of the prayers, even the songs, are recited in English. We alternate readers. Though this year we used the PJ Library Haggadah, in the past we read from a Haggadah pieced together from a variety of sources. Questions and commentary are encouraged. We read the Haggadah while sitting comfortably in our living room, not squeezed in on folding chairs around the dinner table as in my parents’ home. 

It’s been a little more than three decades since Gilda and I assumed responsibility from my parents for preparing and conducting the seders. Our seders have evolved in detail but not in concept—they are touchstones of connection between family, friends, tradition, heritage and culture.  

Sunday, April 9, 2023

More News Linked to My Life

The news media keeps coming up with articles that touch upon my life. Here are news stories just in the last two weeks with links to my past. 

Mimi Sheraton died last week. I became aware of her existence when I worked as a field editor for Nation’s Restaurant News, sister publication of Chain Store Age, and she was the food and restaurant critic of The New York Times (

In the fall of 1977 I was looking forward to my first visit to New Orleans, that year’s site of NRN’s annual foodservice conference. Gilda would be accompanying me, but our excitement was tempered by a review Sheraton wrote of the food scene in the Crescent City. She found it wanting, except, she noted, for an out-of-town humble shack called Mosca’s where she had the most divine fried oysters, garlic chicken and barbecue shrimp, all cooked Creole Italian style.

Naturally, we decided to go there, cautioned by Mimi’s article that no reservations were taken and that the last guests must arrive by 9 pm. Along with a fellow editor, Connie, and her husband, Bill, we left plenty of time to taxi from the Fairmont Hotel in downtown New Orleans down Highway 90 to Avondale, almost 20 miles away. 

Though the cabbie claimed to know how to get there, it quickly became evident he did not. We kept double-backing and crisscrossing roadways, looking for Mosca’s. This was way before cell phones; there weren’t any public pay phones along the dark roads we rambled on. We were four hungry and squished adults sitting in the back of a Mercury Marquis (the unofficial New Orleans taxi model). Since I had recommended Mosca’s, my seatmates were getting quite upset with me. 

Finally, at 9:05, we came upon two whitewashed buildings supporting a backlit Budweiser sign. Lots of cars out front, on the grass. We begged entry, explaining the taxi driver couldn’t find Mosca’s. They took pity on us, but advised it would be an hour and a half before we’d be seated. We could stand at the bar. 

Gilda, Connie and Bill were not happy, even with $1 drinks, 25 cents for sodas (remember, this was Louisiana, 1977). We waited just 45 minutes to be seated, a few tables away from where Momma Mosca sat watching over her customers. We ordered Mimi’s recommended dishes. They were more than divine. They melted away Gilda, Connie and Bill’s collective anger. It was, we all agreed, one of the best meals we ever ate. 

Shun Lee Shines: Unlike the current brouhaha over the quality of Shun Lee 98th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (, some of the best Chinese food I’ve eaten was inside Shun Lee Palace, the much-lauded, and rightly so, restaurant on East 55th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. Because the restaurant was around the corner from my long-time office on Park Avenue my colleagues and I ate there quite often, at least once every two weeks. 

The food was so good that it smoothed over a major rift between Chain Store Age and Sears, Roebuck & Co. 

In 1983 we ran a long article about problems at Sears, Roebuck & Co. Upset, the CEO of Sears dispatched the head of the public relations department from Chicago to express corporate displeasure. I took him and his assistant to Shun Lee Palace. Considered by some to proffer the best Chinese food in the city, Shun Lee melted away any semblance of protest from my Windy City visitors. 

They so thoroughly enjoyed the meal that we ordered a second round of each dish. For such an honor, the chef emerged from the kitchen to personally bow his respect. 

Balancing Act: The other day National Public Radio interviewed one of the hosts of its “All Things Considered” program, Mary Louise Kelly. She has just written a book, “It. Goes. So. Fast. The Year of No Do-Overs,” a memoir about balancing parenting and work.

Kelly turned down a second assignment to cover the war in Ukraine so that she could spend time with her son James during the last weeks of his senior year in high school. She previously had to miss seeing him play soccer because most games started at 3 pm when her radio show is broadcast live. 

By making time for family she was able to be at a game when he scored a winning goal with just three minutes remaining. “Oh, it was not just any soccer game. The soccer game in question was James’ senior year. It was for the state championship. He scored with a header with three minutes on the clock,” Kelly related.

I, too, missed seeing our son, Dan, play for his high school soccer team. Work. Travel. Travel for work. But I did show up, for an away playoff game against Mamaroneck in his senior year. 

I got there at half-time. The score was 0-0. Dan was the starting goalie for White Plains. As the second half began Dan was not in goal. He wasn’t sitting on the bench. I asked some spectators what happened. They said Dan had been injured preventing a goal. A few minutes into the second half Mamaroneck scored the game’s only goal.

Dan didn’t play college soccer. He played Ultimate Frisbee. Gilda and I travelled to watch him play tournaments in the New York metro area, and went to Boise for the college championships (the Tufts men’s team finished 11th in the country). And we were in Sarasota, Fla., when his post-college club team finished second in the country (we did not go to Prague to watch the team earn the rank of fifth in the world). 


Tuesday, April 4, 2023

The Spectacle of Trump in Criminal Court

Not since O.J. Simpson led police on June 17, 1994, on a near hour-long chase of a white Ford Bronco he was riding in along Interstate 405 in Los Angeles has the nation been treated to as mesmerizing a motorized spectacle as it was Tuesday. O.J.’s caravan of police cars in tempered pursuit ended when the Bronco parked in the driveway of his Brentwood home. Police arrested him for the alleged murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

By contrast, it took just 15 minutes for Donald Trump to be driven from his one-time main residence at Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue down the east side FDR Highway to the Manhattan Criminal Court Building where he was arraigned on 34 counts of Class E felonies of “falsifying business records in the first degree.”

Seven cars comprised Trump’s “honor guard,” a white police car in advance of six large, black SUV’s manned by an assortment of security personnel guarding the former president. 

On the way down to court, traffic had been cleared along the highway. On his exit from court as an indicted suspect, Trump’s motorcade had to deal with afternoon traffic along the FDR as it made its way to LaGuardia Airport where his private jet awaited his return to Mar-a-Lago in Florida. 

As Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg began a short news conference following the arraignment in New York State Supreme Court, a split television screen displayed Trump’s jet at the head of the runway awaiting takeoff.

As New York is the financial capital of the country if not the world, Bragg emphasized that Trump’s alleged crimes, falsifying business records, were the bread and butter of his office’s criminal prosecutions. 

Another Indignity: When it was time to leave the processing area before entering the courtroom, Trump emerged after two uniformed court officers. Neither of them held the door open for him. He had to push it open himself. 

If you’re looking for numbers to play for your next Power Ball or Mega Millions purchase, you might want to use Trump’s criminal indictment number—71543-23. 

Returning to the O.J. parallel, Trump, no doubt, is hoping for a similar court result—not guilty. 

Historical Perspective: Thanks to Gilda, here’s an article on the last time one of our most senior elected officials had to appear in court to answer a criminal indictment: