Next week millions of Jews around the world will celebrate Passover, or Pesach, the quintessential festival of freedom. It is fitting that this week's Guest Voice is a story about Passover. It is written by Harvey Monder, who resides in the American state of New York, with a story about family, tradition, loss and how they shape our views.
My relatives were blown in through the door on the April breezes. They milled and chattered like a flock of magpies in their somber black coats. Their dark suits and dresses belied the joyful nature of the celebration. The long trestle tables, covered with white table cloths were set up in the dining room with backless wooden benches providing the seats. My grandfather had built the tables and benches many years before and they were taken out only for these special occasions. The cut glass carafes of red wine were arranged along the center of each table with the holiday plates and gleaming dinnerware neatly designating each place at the table. Small bowls of salt water, beet stained horseradish, and chopped eggs, plates of matzohs covered with cloth, and bowls of haroses and horseradish were evenly spaced between each place setting. The house smelled warmly of gefulte fish, chicken soup and roasting meats. The murmur of conversation filled the air as everyone greeted each other.
Grandma bustled about setting everything on the tables. She looked a little tired. As usual, she had refused help in getting things ready over the previous few days. My mother and aunts quickly threw their coats on the bed in my grandparent's bedroom and scurried into the kitchen to begin helping grandma set up for the long ceremony that was about to start. All the burners on the stove had pots simmering above their soft blue gas flames. Grandma bent over the stove, lifting the cover from a pot and giving the contents a quick stir, blew on the spoon before tasting. With a satisfied look she replaced the cover.
Grandpa, in the final stages of Parkinson's disease, rested against a pile of pillows at the head of the table. The strain in his eyes was palpable even through the expressionless mask of his disease. He knew that this was going to be his last Passover. He shifted uncomfortably as his weak, hoarse voice bade everyone to their places. His trembling hands held his Haggada and, with an audible Parkinsonian tremor he began the service. As the night progressed it was obvious from the weakness of his voice and his sallow complexion that his strength might not last to the end of the evening. Uncle Bernard kept his eye on grandpa ready to step in and help if he could not last.
As was traditional for us, each child, from the youngest up to the pre-bar mitzva boys got up and recited the four questions. Each piping voice starting, 'Ma nishtana halaila hazeh...'. Their parents had been drilling them for weeks before Passover getting them ready for the task. Grandpa spent the rest of the evening answering the questions and telling the ancient story of slavery, hope and redemption..
As the evening progressed, the ceremony and the glasses of sweet red wine began to work their magic. A happy mood permeated the family. There was a feeling of harmony. Conversation swelled during the breaks in grandpa's reading. It was time to catch up on family gossip. No current events were allowed. Uncle Bernard, as usual, flushed redder and redder as the wine went to his head. Toward the end of the ceremony, as the traditional songs were sung, Bernard jumped up on to a bench and, off key, started to sing. He had almost no singing ability but he made up for the lack of talent with his enthusiasm as he lead everyone into song.
Meanwhile grandma and mom bustled back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, bringing in dishes of food and removing empty plates. They had been taking breaks to eat and join the ceremony but both were starting to slow down as the hours passed. Their faces held a satisfied glow and finally, with sighs of relief, they sat and joined us to finish the last course; compote, macaroons and flourless layer cake and tea. The afikomen had been hidden and found and the lucky child rewarded. Children were running around the apartment between the living room, kitchen and dining room. Some were squirming under the tables among everyone's feet or playing games in the living room. They finally had to be dragged out for the trip home. Reluctantly we all said our goodbyes. It was another successful Seder.
Sadly that was our last Seder with our grandfather. His energy failed and he was not able to complete the second night. Uncle Bernard stepped in and completed the service. We had our meal, but we all knew that it was a celebration of the end of an era. Grandpa died a couple of months later. Over the following years we tried to have family get togethers for Passover, but even that faded away as family relocated and priorities changed. They had become only traditional meals and no one performed the Passover services. There were some half-hearted attempts at shortened and modified seders but something was missing. Grandpa was gone and grandma no longer had the energy to continue preparing meals for all the relatives. Fewer and fewer family members showed up and finally, once my relatives moved to Florida or Long Island, or out West it was over.
I wish that someone had recorded the Seders. There is a one minute clip of a movie an uncle took at one seder. It is a tantalizing glimpse into the past and most of those relatives are gone now. In my mind's eye I am still ten years old, crawling among the feet under the table while everyone is getting slightly tipsy on that sweet concord grape wine. Someone has hidden the afikomen and we are all getting ready to search for it. Everyone is singing the traditional songs that complete the family Seder. And Uncle Bernard is still dancing on the benches while we are all swaying in time to the music. There is an empty place setting and seat and the door is open and we are waiting...
Haroses – A sweet spread usually made with nuts and dried fruits. It symbolizes the mortar that was used by the Jewish slaves in Egypt to cement bricks together.
Gefulte Fish – Fish dumplings. Actually it means 'stuffed fish'. In the traditional recipe the chopped and seasoned fish is actually stuffed back into the fish skin before being simmered.
Haggada – The Passover prayer book that tells the story of the flight from Egypt
Ma nishtana... - The youngest child, at traditional Passover seders, asks four questions relating to the reasons for the ceremony. It is asked in Hebrew. In our family each child under the age of 13 asked the questions.
Afikomen – After the house is cleaned of all leavened products a piece of matzoh is hidden. The children search for the mazoh and the one that finds it is given a reward, usually money.
The empty place setting – One place setting at the table is left vacant. This is a place reserved for Elijah. At one point in the ceremony the door to the house is opened as if to invite him in. In the old tradition the place is to welcome a hungry stranger to join in the seder.
Harvey Monder lives in the Hudson Valley in New York State.
He has been writing mostly memoirs for the past many years. He also
writes about people he may or may not have met and who may or may
not exist. He also likes writing about places that he might have
visited. He holds a doctorate in an area unrelated to writing. His
veracity is unquestioned by the gullible and, as a spinner of tales,
has been known to keep an audience awake for minutes.
Copyright ©2011. Harvey Monder. All Rights Reserved.