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.