If this were a contest I’d surely be a contender for first place! How many seders have you attended? Over 70? A minor accomplishment indeed. I’ve been attending seders since infancy. At two a year that would be coming up on to 166! But for the sake of total honesty, I’ve spent many of those nights in Israel, so that’s worth a deduction. I’ll take off 20 and still be at 140, still a pretty hefty number. Still lots of seders.
The seders are always the same, and always remarkably different. The Haggadot are clearly different, at least these days. They’re morreflethetimes we live in, especially in terms of recognizing women. The menus are mostly predictable, although these days we cater more to gluten-free celiacs, to fish eating vegetarians, and to the greatest culinary challenges, strict vegetarians. In the old days, when Mom was the chief seder maker, everyone ate whatever she prepared. There were no specials. It was enough work to manage the festive meals, without checking the gluten or dumping the chicken.
As March rolls on and April and spring come to mind, Pesach is always on top of the planning Jews do. Where will you be? At some luxury hotel? On a kosher cruise? Or squeezed into a stretchable dining room or living room with a table that always can accommodate more, and often does, and did!
For many years after I met my husband we attended sedarim at his grandmother’s small apartment on President Street in Crown Heights. We started as a twosome and finally, when the Big Bubba, as she was known, all 5 feet of her, as compared to the Little Bubba, at 4 feet 10 inches, left us for the seder in olam ha ba, we were up to six, with four kids. Our son, who was the last in our family to arrive, was the apple of his great-grandmother’s eyes. It was he who was the only one possibly destined to carry on the family name. She left us before he became father to two daughters, and no sons of his own.
The Big Bubba never knew from take-out or frozen. Even the wine was made at home in a specially designated keg brought up every year in time to ferment for the seder. It was strictly by the book which clearly stated somewhere that the fish gotta swim until the slaughter, and the bathtub was the appropriate place. When I joined the family, and at all the subsequent seders, I was never witness to the bloody mayhem. I’m sure the fish were unperturbed by the sight of an ancient woman wielding a deadly device, whatever it was. Fish are not known for their intelligence, but the taste of the delicious, totally fresh, gefilte fish, was unforgettable and totally unrelated to the loaves that I am known to buy and boil. But, then again, thankfully no act of butchery is required on my part.
The meal progressed with the deeply chickeny soup with its abundant feathery kneidlach, and lots of hearty vegetables. The Big Bubba peeled all the vegetables herself and certainly went to the neighborhood schochet for the most divine chickens, chickens that needed flicking, so that they themselves were not feathery, and disembowelment, amputations of feet and heads, and other desecrations. Unlike today when the chickens don’t seem to be soup-able without all sorts of additives, her soup was distinctly ambrosia-like, memorable, well over a half century later.
While the meal continued with a main course and dessert, the first two courses were truly the stuff of dreams. Or nightmares, depending on how claustrophobic you might have been. The room was best described as being elastic. It just grew and stretched beyond what was humanly possible, but it did it anyway. No one was turned away. After all, they were all progeny or spouses. If I decided to count today, with my own failing memory, I’d come up with a huge number, so large that even I wouldn’t believe my own retelling.
Of course, the raison d’etre was the Haggadah. The ancient holy book, known as a retelling, was a gift to the family from the nice people at Maxwell House Coffee and there were always enough of them for each guest. Many bore stains or scars from seders past, some recognizable. Was that horseradish? Chocolate from cookies? In actuality many of the Haggadot were barely looked at as Grandpa Bernie mumbled away at the service, alone, and with a far from captive audience once the moment we all awaited, the Four Questions, proudly asked by the youngest kid in the crowd, was over. Except for the exuberant intermittent singing, much of the text was background. Happily our seders since then, while still food and crowd-control spectaculars, are meaningful with active discussions and opportunity to learn, and teach. We often go on until after midnight and the singing is truly a magnificent holy choir.
Some seders are more memorable than others. There was, for example, the first seder we shared with our grandson Yonatan Ezra. Yoni had been invited to the seder which his mother had been preparing for days. The minor issue was that he remained in utero. Then, abruptly, he made the decision that being there would be the preferred method of participating in the event, so he was born, the morning of the seder, delivered to perfection, and then brought home a few hours later. We all sat around the table with the beautiful and precious unexpected new arrival, rejoicing and celebrating. I believe even Eliyahu Ha Nevi was surprised to see this addition to our family. No better Pesach present than Yoni!
Then there was the seder where I burned the chicken soup. That is hard to do, but I actually did it, making a beautiful broth into a charred mess in which the bottom of the pot would never be cleaned or rid of its horrible scent. This happened moments before the soup was to be served. Kol ha kevod to our daughter Amy who solved the problem efficiently and easily and without anyone knowing the sordid details. She poured hot water from the “kum-kum” into the soup bowls, added a teaspoon or so of Osem chicken powder into each, and, voila, the soup was ready to serve, even pareve. The kneidlach were added and the mandlen were already on the table. The soup, according to the guests, was delicious!
On the other hand, we Jews tend to see events in our lives as before or after particular holy days. My father, Dad, called Sam, lay dying a few days before the first seder. He knew it and so did all of us. I remember sitting on a chair next to his bed in Raanana, when he said, entirely cogently but notably using the third person, which was not his way, “Sam won’t be at the seder this year.” I couldn’t argue. His vibrant long life was coming to a close. He died two days before Pesach, peacefully, and predictably, a few weeks shy of his 98th birthday.
One thing I have learned about Pesach in my own life. It’s a terrific marketing tool, at least in America. Pesach foods start to appear on the scene way before they have to. It’s a powerful weapon to make us all nervous that we won’t be ready on time. I’m willing to lay odds that many of you have already started your shopping. Israeli markets, just as greedy but a tad more realistic when it comes to holiday commemorations, will be completely chametzdik until a week or ten days before the seders. I cannot tell you why. But, perhaps I’m even contributing to that anxiety!
I can tell you, however, what Pop, my mother’s father, used to always say about Pesach. If the cake tastes good it’s not Pesachdik! Mark those words. He was a smart man.