A Night Like No Other 

Dressing up, going the distance for Passover

Dressing up, going the distance for Passover

In the early 1960s, my parents lived with their five children, all below the age of 13, in a small one-bathroom house on the northwest side of Detroit. During “normal” times, my parents could manage reasonably well, getting us fed and cleaned each day, but when the family had to get ready to go some place that required “dressing up,” the thin veneer that separates chaos from civilization was stressed to the cracking point.

The annual Passover Seder was always one of these occasions.

Each year on the first night of that ancient festival we would gather, along with assorted aunts, uncles, cousins, and other invited dignitaries, at the suburban home of my maternal grandparents. There we would fulfill our religious obligation to stuff ourselves with enough cholesterol-rich food to clog the arteries of an elephant.

Before we could leave our own house, however, my father would announce that we had to “get ready to go,” his signal to undertake the military-style operation of washing, brushing, and dressing five children whose favorite pastimes were getting dirty and torturing one another. Unfortunately, when it came to military efficiency, our family more closely resembled the Italian than the Israeli army.

My parents’ main method for keeping order was the tried and true technique of yelling and screaming. I wonder how many times I heard the command, “SIT DOWN AND KEEP STILL!” It never worked, of course. My little brother, Phil, was like the Little Engine That Could Provoke. Invariably, he would make faces at me or pinch my sister, and I would be forced to teach him a life-lesson. Naturally, at the very instant that my fist reached his shoulder or my elbow made contact with his stomach, my dad would walk into our room. Usually, he would already be irritated, most often because he couldn’t find something. Whether it was a sock or a shoe or his tie, he would be yelling, “WE’RE GOING TO BE LATE AGAIN, DAMMIT. DID YOU SEE MY (fill in the blank)?” My brother, sensing a golden opportunity for mischief, would wait until my father’s irritability reached its peak. Then Phil would cry out in a yelp of pain, even before I had actually inflicted it.

His reward was the delight of watching as I received a slap on the back of the head.

It would take perhaps two hours of frantic preparations before we could be ready to depart. Our car was a glorious landboat, a 1961 white Chevrolet Biscayne. The three oldest children sat in the backseat, and the two youngest shared the front seat with Mom and Dad. During the drive to our grandparents’ house my brother would snigger and yell things like, “David hit me,” or “cut it out!”

My father, perhaps the most impatient man on the planet at that moment, would turn around and warn us, his neck-veins sticking out like ropes, that he was going to “STOP THE CAR.” He never said what he was going to do when he stopped the car, but the implied threat was ominous. In every case, because I was the oldest child, my parents would assume I was the culprit. My devious little brother would nurture this misapprehension like a fine wine.

We always arrived at my grandparents’ house in a state of anarchy. But now there were other distractions. When we roared into the house, we were immediately struck dumb with a rush of aromas of the most exquisite variety, all emanating from the kitchen of my Old World grandmother. The sight of her working in that kitchen is still vivid in my memory. A tiny, plump, rosy woman who was raised in a shtetl among the vast, and now extinct, community of East European Jewry, she stood like a general in the midst of the boiling pots, cutting boards, and saucepans that were part of her bustling command.

We were not allowed to put anything in our mouths. If we ate even a tiny morsel before the meal, it would surely “spoil our appetites,” and we would have committed one of the most horrific and egregious of all childhood sins. Even so, my beautiful bubbe usually managed to slip us a piece of salty matzoh or a chewy macaroon, extracted at the price of a grandmotherly kiss on the forehead.

My mother always donned an apron and joined her mother in the kitchen, while my father walked into the family room near the back of the house, joining the men who were “drinking schnapps” while they gossiped or argued politics.

In the family room my grandfather held court. The children were never allowed to join these discussions, and if we made any noise or caused any distractions my grandfather would bark a command for us to leave the room. He was a rancorous man, a dealer in scrap metal who was never able to get the dirt out from underneath his fingernails. Years later, I learned that he was considered the black sheep of his extended family. As a young man he had been sent from his home in the Jewish ghetto of the Polish city of Lublin to live with relatives in Toronto. It was a last-ditch attempt to improve his prospects.

My grandfather wore his resentment like a coat of armor. Ironically, his exile certainly saved his life, given that most of his kin were obliterated some years later in the Nazi Holocaust.

At last my grandmother’s voice would call us to the Seder table. The main table was reserved only for adults. In order to sit there, a boy had to be a bar mitzvah or a girl had to be of bar mitzvah age. (Girls did not become bat mitzvah in those days.)

Sitting with the younger children was a great shame to an 11- or 12-year-old, but no amount of pleading could alter what seemed to be an immutable law of nature. The preadolescents sat around two tables placed next to the main table; the table for the oldest children was nearest the adults. I recall two years that, for me, were particularly delicious: I sat at the main table, and Phil sat with the youngsters.

The Passover Seder is, of course, a very important event in the Jewish calendar. It is the ritual that tells and retells through the generations the story of the liberation of the Jews and their subsequent receipt of the Law. The story is told around the Seder table before the dinner is served. Parts of the story are read in response to the famous “four questions,” usually chanted by the youngest male grandchild who is able to read Hebrew. It begins with the preface to the questions: “Ma nish-ta-nah ha-li-lah ha-zeh me-cole ha-lay-lote?” (Why is this night different from all other nights?)

The four questions were my grandfather’s cue to begin his recitation of the Passover story. He undertook that task with the same angry ill temper that he lavished on everything else, exacerbated, on Passover, by a gnawing hunger and a copious amount of premium Canadian whiskey.

My grandfather was a heavy smoker. Frequently during his exhortations, made in a Hebrew that was spoken so fast that even those of us able to read along in the Haggadah frequently lost our places, he would suddenly begin to cough violently, unable to draw even a thimbleful of breath and turning beet-red in the face. His hacking gasps were so deep, so seemingly endless, and so utterly predictable that it was difficult for the youngsters to keep from giggling.

My struggle against the urge to laugh was not helped by my brother, who would start to make faces and mimic my grandfather. I can remember getting a strong pinch from my mother if she happened to notice that my anti-laughing efforts were beginning to fail. Alas, all that my brother received for his provocation was a finger wag or a semi-stern look.

Finally, after the four glasses of wine were consumed (four sips for the older children, grape juice for the younger children), and the song Dai-yay-nu was sung, the ceremony was finally completed and it was time to eat. And what a feast it was. The first course was always chicken soup with matzoh balls, fluffy, large, and made with plenty of schmaltz (chicken fat). The schmaltz imparted a flavor of such exquisite wonder that, even after 35 years, the memory is as vivid as if I had eaten those matzoh balls for dinner last night.

Next, we ate gefilte fish with ground horseradish. It was a family ritual to see how much of the bitter herb anyone could consume without gagging. My father was the champ. His technique involved taking deep breaths of air through his nose in an attempt to mitigate the powerful effects of that pungent root.

My grandmother, my mother, and my aunts would then bring on the main course. Heaps of steaming roast chicken and beef brisket, mounds of delicious kasha made with chicken fat, pans of creamy potato kugel with raisins, and steamed carrots in a honey glaze were the usual fare, washed down with seltzer water, wine, or ginger ale. For dessert there would be sponge cake or steamed prunes, with coffee for most of the adults and more “schnapps” for my grandfather. Grandfather, after a few more glasses of wine and not a few more shots of whiskey, would soon doze off into a humorless slumber, and the children could finally relax and play.

After dinner all children under bar mitzvah age searched for the afikomen, a piece of matzoh held over from the Seder ceremony and hidden somewhere in the house.

In our family the Seder ended with the hunt for the afikomen. There was great fun watching the children run through the house looking under furniture and in drawers in expectation of winning a crisp $5 bill, an impossibly large sum of money at the time. More often than not, Phil managed to win the prize, but despite my threats and pleadings he would never tell me his technique. Even after all these years the secret of his success has never been revealed.

Back in the car we would sit quiet and subdued as Dad drove home, our bellies full and our hearts content. Then, to get us ready for bed, my mother would take the two girls, and my dad would take the three boys. We would undress and wash, get into our pajamas, and wait for Dad to tuck us in under the covers and turn out the light. Even Phil would be too tired to make trouble. My father, who in those days was younger than I am now, would kiss me goodnight as he stroked my hair and molded the blankets to my body.

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