My family was not observant. We didn’t belong to a synagogue or keep kosher (in or out of the house). But like most second generation Jewish families, we gathered twice a year, on Rosh Hashanah and Passover, to honor the ancient tradition of overeating in the presence of one’s relatives.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was that rare, joyful holiday in which no one had tried to kill Our People. But we still sat down to stuff ourselves on gefilte fish with horseradish so strong it felt like I had a blowhole on top of my head. Then came the matzo ball soup, brisket, kugel and vegetables cooked several years past perfection.
Passover, or Pesach, as it was called in my house, was more serious. For weeks before the Seder, my mother would be in a frenzy of housecleaning. Don’t make a mess in the living room. Don’t use the downstairs bathroom. Don’t walk on the carpet. That left two options. Walking on the ceiling — which, to an eight-year-old, was a tempting proposition — or stay out of Mom’s way until she summoned me to get “dressed” for dinner and put Haggadahs (Haggadot for you linguists) at each place setting at the table.
The Haggadahs which set the order of the Passover Seder at our house were the free pamphlets provided by Maxwell House Coffee. A genius marketing strategy! However, it really wasn’t necessary. No matter what was printed in the Haggadah, the order at our house was always the same. My grandmother arrived four hours early; the aunts and uncles arrived a half-hour late. By now, Mom was crying. The chicken was burnt. The cat was eating the gefilte fish. The wine, a sickly sweet Manischewitz Cream Sherry, had gone bad. No surprise there, as it had been under the sink for five years.
And my sister and I were vying to behead each other. Think: the Boleyn sisters on a bad day. Being the youngest, I asked the Four Questions. However, not necessarily the ones in the Haggadah. I asked more thought provoking questions. What’s Valium? (I found them in Aunt Marcy’s handbag).
The part of the Seder I liked most was when they spoke of the Exodus from Egypt not just as a miracle that happened thousands of years ago, but as a personal liberation that occurs in every generation. You! Me! Here! Now! We were asked to contemplate forms of enslavement from which we’d like to be set free.
My sister and I eyeballed one another warily. We never read the entire Haggadah, but skipped ahead to the “good parts” where we got to EAT and SING. My favorite song was Dayenu which dates back to the 9th century and lets God know that his gifts far exceed our expectations. You parted the Red Sea for us? Thanks, but you really shouldn’t have. You gave Moses the Ten Commandments? Five would’ve been enough!
This year, my family elders will be gathering at that big Seder table in the sky, evaluating the hardness of the matzo balls, the dryness of the roast chicken and whether the wine had turned to vinegar. Yet, Mom and Dad will like what they see when they look down (or up, as the case may be).
I’ll be celebrating Passover at the home of a female rabbi — unheard of in my parents' time but commonplace now. There won’t be any Manischewitz. Passover wines now come from all over the world. I’m bringing an Argentinean Malbec. There won’t be any speed-reading of the Haggadah. We’ll take it slow and make all the stops along the way, from Pharaoh’s daughter finding baby Moses “amongst the reeds” to entering the Land of Israel.
For over 3,000 years, Passover has been one of the three holy days on which Jews are supposed to make an annual pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s customary for those who can’t to say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” After this winter, I say, “Next year in Sarasota!”