Writing 101: Happy Pesach!Posted: September 28, 2014
I’m not a picky eater anymore, but I still love the twice-yearly Passover Seder more than any other meal. The Seder is an experience, not just a meal, celebrated for two consecutive nights in March or April by Jews all over the world. It is both a remembrance of what God did for us as a people years ago when He freed us from slavery in Egypt and a celebration of what He continues to do for us up to the present. My memories of childhood Seders are so rich and so entwined with who I am that it will be hard to consolidate them into one post.
My mother came from Austria and my father from Russia, both as children with their families. Some of their siblings did well and others not so well; those who were successful lived in nice homes in Long Island. We were on the lower economic end of their families during most of my childhood, and I grew up in a succession of apartments in Brooklyn. Going to my aunt’s house for the Seder was also a treat because I got to spend time with my cousins whom I saw only at holidays and special occasions.
When I walked in the door, the smell of frying latkes enveloped me. Crisp, greasy, hot – we would nosh on them, plain or with applesauce, while waiting for the Seder to start. When everything was ready, we all sat at tables arranged in a T, with a short horizontal part at one end and a very long vertical piece going down. The men sat up at the front, next the older boys, then the older girls, then the children and the women. The table was always decorated with fresh yellow daffodils, and their sweet smell brought Spring into the room. Small cut-glass bowls of salt water were placed along the table, along with plates of celery and carrot sticks. Everyone had a goblet of water and a cup for the dark, sweet Manischewitz wine we had to drink at four different points during the recounting of the Passover story. At the head of the table was the Seder plate, with various elements significant in telling the story, and at an empty seat was the large wine cup of Elijah.
Seder means “order,” and there is a definite structure to the progression of the Seder, a lot to go through before you get to the actual meal. My father and uncles were experts at verbal Hebrew speed-reading, so things usually progressed fairly quickly. The actual Seder meal came about two-thirds of the way through the Seder, so there was a good reason why the men chanted at such lightning speed. At different points there would be general participation, like when we all dipped 10 drops of wine from our fingers to represent the 10 plagues God visited on the Egyptians, or tasted the horseradish root, the parsley, the charoses (a delicious mixture of apples, walnuts, and wine), and the matzo. The salt water on the table was for dipping: parsley, boiled potatoes, and boiled eggs. I traded my yolks with my cousin for her egg whites. There was lots of music – traditional songs, blessings, and the Four Questions chanted by the youngest child and answered by all the men.
Finally, it was time for the feast, and a feast it certainly was. First there was gefilte fish with horseradish – I passed on that. Then bowls of clear chicken soup with one or two matzo balls; my father fondly called them “sinkers.” Meats – roasted chicken, beef brisket – and vegetables – carrot tzimmes and potato kugel – appeared next. We ate until we were stuffed, and then went off to play until the adults finished their eating and conversation and it was time to resume the Seder service. When we had finished the stories, the songs, and the last cups of wine, we had desserts, all made without traditional leavening. There were sponge cakes light and fluffy because made with so many eggs, nuts, coconut macaroons, chocolates, pies. After the desserts, when our eyes were heavy-lidded and our bodies lethargic, the last excitement of the evening roused us to pay close attention.
Part of the Seder involves hiding half of a matzo, called the Afikomen, in a napkin. The Afikomen must be eaten at the very end of the Seder, the last morsel in our mouths. The procedure was that one of the men would have the napkin on his knee, one or more of the kids would steal it and hide it, and then a committee of children would bring it forth and bargain with the men for a price to give it back. Depending upon the condition of the Afikomen – it must be as close to a whole piece as possible – and the bargaining skills of the committee, we could end that evening with quite a bit of cash in our pockets. After we prayed and ate the Afikomen, we always sang Hatikvah and God Bless America.
Our family has always been close-knit and the cousins kept up the Seder tradition each year for a long time after my aunts were unable to do it any longer. We have had a few Seders at our home, done larger group Seders in our churches, and have been guests at others’ Seders. All of them have been immensely enjoyable, yet none of them has quite captured for me the overall experience of the Seders of my childhood, when I was full of delight and anticipation, filled with good things to eat, and enveloped in an atmosphere of family, faith, and tradition.