Seders Over Timeby Patricia Goldblatt February 26, 2018
In my mind’s eye, there’s the tumble of my cousins in their best clothes, itching to leave the Passover table, their parents’ voices droning in singsong that seems to delay my grandmother from finally serving dinner – or at least getting to the part where we can dip celery or parsley into the salty sea of tears or recall the mortar that tastes sweetly of apples and walnuts and wine. There’s a general hubbub that is friendly and warm. The wine of fermented grapes is made in Buby and Zadie’s basement. All other times wine is forbidden to children; parents are all so fearful we will become drunkards. We try to explain that children in France always dine with wine. But this special Passover wine, the most delicious of wines I could ever imagine, is now being savored in the special chipped crystal glasses set out for this night. And we deliriously happy children are actually encouraged to drink up.
My grandmother serves the unending courses of food and waits on everyone, she never sitting with us at the table, her face immobile, although I notice her silently sucking on chicken bones in the kitchen, apart from the clatter and clutter. I never recall a hug or a kiss from this woman, not even a holiday greeting where most chubby grandmothers throw their arms around their kinder. Only when I begin to prepare festival dinners will I know the work involved in shopping for food, planning menus, chopping fish, creating broths, cooking vegetables and roasting meat. As a child, I’m disinterested in her travails, only responding to her stoic ability to perform the backdrop for all of us seated, wondering why she is so very sullen in her apron. As usual my father is late, not wanting to be a part of this chaotic Passover scenario. But for me, the chanting is somewhat magical and a prelude to roughhousing with my cousins who make me laugh so hard I fall over onto the floor. All year I look forward to the late nights and the family gathering, bursting the tiny house on Atlas Avenue.
Years later, the Seder occurs at my parents’ place, the infinite preparations now accomplished by my dead tired mother, who like her own mother, bounces continually in her serving the table. Yet she will hug and smile with her twinkling blue eyes as she greets us at the door, pulling us close. I’ve heard that some families create tents on the floor to approximate the flight out of Egypt. And others insist on placing an orange on the Seder plate to connote difference. Suggesting these transgressions to my mother, she does not reply. My son approaches my father to ask if the reading might be in English so we can all participate, instead of the multiple cacophony of voices that race like speeding trains, at their own pace and timbre, eager to reach the terminal first. My father in his rust-colored sweater listens intently, and I think perhaps he is considering the request, as he puts his Peter pointer finger to his head. But he shakes his head and maintains the reading will be, as it always has been, in Hebrew. My son, dejected, turns away. Angered by the denial of such a simple request, I find reason to argue with my sister who, fluent in Hebrew, unblinkingly accepts my father’s pronouncement. He pauses and raises his eyes from the Haggadah, loudly reprimanding me by scolding, “Can’t you two ever get along?”
When my father passes, there is a huge hole in our yearly Seders. Now held at my sister’s, my mother is the guest: quiet, lonesome without her numerous preparations, duties and interactions. Each of my sister’s family has a different version of the Haggadah, most serious hard covers, some illustrated, others with large golden print. My brother-in-law encourages his children to ask questions of the text, as each performs their portions in Hebrew. To be petulant, I too pose difficult questions regarding freedom and slavery, targeting whys and reasons for behavior sanctioned by the sages. My own family rolls their eyes, knowing I’m trying to spread anarchy into the text, trying to insert contemporary wisdom into biblical commentaries. When my youngest daughter stands after her cousins, every single one of them having laboriously demonstrated a diverse rendition of The Four Questions, she intones her traditional version quietly, respectfully, her Hebrew letter perfect. They all applaud and she is besieged to sing more in her unearthly sweet little voice. When she intones “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” we all fall silent, the Seder stopped, for the often trite little tune binds us together in a place where we might still be celebrating with my father, recalling the dreams of the Israelites leaving Egypt, reflecting on happy memories of Passover past, and contemplating hopes for peace in Israel.
Now my children have grown up and one has dispersed to a place too far to return home for Passover; some have intermarried so our rituals seem strange to their spouses. I am of an age that I want my grandchildren to take memories of this holiday into their hearts and their futures, guiding their own children one day, in English or Hebrew, into the stories I once learned in Hebrew School. I want them to remember my loving squeeze as they light up my doorway. I want them to savor my homemade sizzling chicken soup. I want them to share in traditions so they can understand how the holidays have been passed down throughout time, morphing, but still present and significant in our lives: a tiny seam of sweetness, amidst ordinary days, that threatens to be washed away. I want them to associate Passover with love and the essence of being Jewish. I want them to remember the Passovers, all different: the tumult, the faces, the songs that go deep into the night as we open the door to Elijuah.
I want them to comprehend why this night is different from all other nights. Α