Did I ever tell you about our Seder when I was a kid in a mystical dreamland of coming home, now that I am at the cusp of my seventies?
I remember so vividly the Pesach as we celebrated it in our home on Seeley Avenue, Chicago, in the 1950s. I am 7-years-old, very proud of having mastered the Hebrew of the “Four Questions,” very determined to stay awake until Seder’s end, and to drink “all four” of the ritual cups of wine. I never notice that I am the only child amid a sea of aunts and uncles sitting around a kitchen table made festive in an apartment so tiny that we have no dining room.
Pa, my grandfather, conducts the Seder in the singsong of the Polish shtetl of his childhood. Grandma Ida fusses over dishes as consecrated as any Divine law: matzo balls, sweetest carrot tzimmes, potato kugel, the lightest sponge cake. Auntie Levin grumbles on as usual, with or without cause. It is understandable from a woman who once traveled the vaudeville circuit with a poodle act. Uncle Joe and Aunt Minnie put aside long-standing differences to harmonize lustily on the chorus of Dayenu.
By the third cup of wine, my always-ebullient mother does her yearly imitation of Little Orphan Annie, placing a cap from the Mogen David bottle over each eye. Even my straight-laced Colonel father loosens up, providing the barnyard noises for the singing of the arcane “Chad Gadya.”
Pa puts another chicken fleigele on my plate, because “little (120-pound) Maishe Chayim” did so beautifully in asking all Four Questions. By dinner’s end, I am sent off to bed. I awaken the next morning to a buzz in my ears that I have not yet learned is a hangover.
This is the real Pesach. This is home. And my longings puncture a yearning pain in the depth of my soul.
The years take their toll. Pa, Grandma Ida, Auntie Levin, succumb to old age. Death has brought blessed respite to my Alzheimer-ridden father. Joe dies still in his prime from too many cigarettes and too much rare steak. Minnie, my mother’s soulmate (and namesake of our beloved Labradoodle), is killed by a reckless driver. My mother, so vital and good-natured to the end, finally succumbs to heart disease as a new century begins.
And “little Maishe Chayim”? He has ventured too many miles from home to make himself a life, far too attentive to his transitory crises and myriad of maladies, physical and emotional, and not nearly attentive enough to the yearnings that inevitably tug at him at this heart-tugging season.
An edge of reality seeps into the bittersweet. There are many beautiful Pesachim yet to be celebrated with a loving wife and a third generation of Wilson’s. I will chant the ritual to Pa’s ancient Litvish singsong. Linda will make the most outrageous kugel. Perhaps little granddaughter Racheli will provide the barnyard noises. Yet to be determined, who will perpetuate my mother’s memory as Little Orphan Annie, bottle caps deftly over her eyes. Perhaps it will be our own Little Annie, my nachas’l daughter-the-doctor, herself edging up to middle age.
Our kiddies and grandkiddies will whoop and holler in glee. Elijah the Prophet will surely pop in for a visit. Little Izzy will do an exemplary job with the Four Questions and will awaken most probably with a Mogen David-induced buzz.
An edge of reality seeps into the bittersweet but never entirely overtakes it. Rationality says that we are creating our own body of memories, our own melodies and customs. (Did you ever hear of whacking one another over the head with scallions while singing Dayenu?)
These will define our “home.” They will tug at our progeny the way that Seeley Avenue tugs at me. But, who can be entirely rational when overwhelmed by an urge so compelling as the need to return to 1958 and to the life-giving source of warmth and nurturing that I call “home”?
As he approaches his seventh decade, Marc Wilson (by now AKA “Rabbi Marc”) sits at the head of his dining room table, conducts his Seder, and works at creating a legacy of melodies and memories that his own children will inherit.
But a little part of him that he cannot, will not, repress forever remains little 7-year-old Maishe Chayim, sitting next to a doting grandfather at a very ordinary kitchen table lifted magically by the aura of unshakable wellbeing that enveloped us.
Don’t worry, Pa. I’ll be home for Seder . . . if only in my dreams.
WILUDI (MARC H. WILSON) is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC