Passover has always been a major holiday in our family. Right after Purim, our thoughts always turn to preparations for Passover.
Growing up, there was no question where the seder would take place (the seder is the traditional Passover meal accompanied by the Haggadah, the book that provides the order of prayers and readings celebrating the liberation from slavery in Egypt. Two nights were always spent at Uncle Meyer and Auntie Pearl’s spacious home. Auntie Pearl was my mother’s sister and Uncle Meyer was her first cousin, so they united all of the family for the holidays.
We celebrated most of the Jewish holidays in their home. Thirty-plus of us from both sides of the family filled their home for two nights in a row. Days before, all the women came over to start the food preparation and table set-up. When I was old enough, I was allowed to cut vegetables and arrange the silverware and napkins. It was a fun women’s get-together, sometimes with small disagreements about how things should be, but mostly laughter and storytelling and catching up with details of life.
Our home needed to be prepared for this eight-day holiday, as well. Mother took very seriously the order dictated by Jewish law for ridding the house of chametz (unleavened foods made from grain and water that is allowed to ferment and rise). Checking the nooks and corners of each room, as well as our car, became a major spring-cleaning task. Of course, we all had to pitch in and help by cleaning our own rooms, closets, drawers, floors, school bags, bookcases etc.
Meal planning and shopping started with visits to multiple stores to purchase the items on sale. They were safely stored in the basement until the house was “kosher for Passover.” Dishes, silverware, pots, pans, and all utensils were changed. Then, cooking could begin. Since there were still a few days left before the holiday, a small corner was designated for our chametz until the morning of the first Passover seder, when we searched for any remaining chametz – any crumbs left. Mother added extra pieces of bread for the fun search on the first floor of our home. We swiped the chametz with a feather and then burnt it all in the backyard, accompanied by some newspapers to feed the flame and turn it into a real fire.
A special part of the holiday anticipation was the possibility of purchasing new clothes and sometimes even new shoes, as well since we had to dress up and look our best for the seder.
The seder was conducted by Uncle Meyer. His brothers also participated. Since I was the youngest in the family, my “forever” job was to recite the “Four Questions,” one of the prayers in the Haggadah, to my father. Uncle Meyer went around the table and each family had its youngest child or children recite the prayer to the father. We all got to participate in reciting the answers, with each person at the table reading a paragraph in English and the grownups hoping we would all understand the Passover story and its meaning. Uncle Meyer would recite all of the blessings with a chorus of our voices behind him.
Once we had our delicious seder meal of eggs, gefilte fish and chicken soup with homemade noodles followed by roast beef, potatoes and vegetables, Uncle Meyer and his brothers went to the corner to “finish the seder.” The rest of the adults schmoozed over dessert and tea. The children ran around the house, grabbing dessert here and there while playing a version of hide-and-seek. The younger ones crashed from exhaustion.
Once I was married and had my own home in which to prepare for Passover, I continued the preparations much like my mother and have done so ever since. That includes selling my chametz through our synagogue (since a Jewish home should be without chametz during Passover, it is a tradition to turn over legal possession of it even though it can be kept in our physical possession until the holiday ends).
As part of my Passover preparations I send a donation to the Mois Chitim Fund, a special fund that provides Passover food to those in need at Yad Ezra, our local kosher food bank. The Haggadah states, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.” With this fund, we ensure that our brothers and sisters have the means to celebrate this holiday of freedom.
But the similarities end there. My husband Mickey’s family seder was totally different from the one I knew. His family is Israeli. They all speak Hebrew, so they read and understand everything written in the Haggadah. The children were educated at Hillel Day School, where they learned the Haggadah from front to back, or “aleph od tof” (the A to Z of the Hebrew alphabet), as Mickey says in Hebrew. It is a joyous event, with lots of enthusiastic singing sometimes accompanied by musical instruments.
Their afikomen tradition was also different from ours (the afikomen is a piece of matzah that the seder leader hides as part of the seder ritual). In our family, each father seated at the table broke off his own afikomen and hid it on his person or chair. His children had to look for his afikomen. Since the seder would not be completed until the afikomen was found and matched to the rest of the piece on the table, it was an opportunity for each child to return the missing piece in exchange for something that the child wanted.
Each father handled it differently with his children. Some gave them a set amount of money. However, my sister and I found this to be a wonderful bargaining opportunity to get things that we were craving. Sometimes, bargaining dragged on until a compromise was reached. But my father always fulfilled the promise of the afikomen.
At Mickey’s family seder, there was only one afikomen, it was possessed by the man leading the seder and it was hidden somewhere in the house, not planted on his person. Finding it was a group project, like many Israeli traditions, versus an individual one. The search kept the children busy most of the evening. The group had to present the afikomen together to the leader, who made the matching process an entertaining event. All were rewarded, usually per request, during the following week by our cousin, the seder leader. At this seder, the concluding songs “Had Gadyah” (“One Little Goat”) and “Ehad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One”) are orchestrated with hand motions, animal sounds and full family participation in booming voices. This was a much-anticipated event by the younger set and a wonderful way to conclude our long evening together.
As Conservative Jews living in the United States, we have two sedarim (plural for seder, in Hebrew). Thus, we are able to go to Mickey’s family on the first night and then to my family’s for the second. Uncle Meyer’s son, Yale Levin, and his wife, Anna, eventually took over hosting the sedarim at their home. Like his father, it was important to Yale to have the family together for the holidays. He and Anna created a special room at the back of their home to accommodate us all, now often 60 to 80 people. Yale has carried on his father’s traditions but created his own Haggadah and added some English songs about the holiday.
After the meal, thanks to my children’s education at Hillel Day School and their participation in Mickey’s family seder, our family is able to join Yale in singing seder tunes and “finish the seder” with him while others eat dessert and schmooze. It is a wonderful blending of both sides of our family.
Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday celebration. Chag Kasher & Sameach!