I grew up in a vacuum of family holiday traditions. No handed-down cookie recipes, ornaments, mandatory gatherings. Holiday traditions thrive on proximity and continuity. World War II decimated my father’s Vienna-Prague Jewish clan and dispersed the survivors to the winds. I assume my grandparents and great-grandparents had holiday traditions. Several generations lived in one building. They had Rosenthal china and monogrammed linen. It seems that there was a Seder in Vienna in 1938. Poignantly, my grandparents’ exit visa was issued a year later on April 3, 1939, Erev Pesach, and they sailed from England three weeks later. For whatever reason, in America, Jewish holiday celebrations devolved into jause (a sort of Viennese afternoon tea) and suppers, on the aforementioned china and linen.
Meanwhile on my mother’s side, her childhood made her quite cynical about religious traditions. My nominally Catholic maternal grandmother was married five times. We did celebrate a rigorously secular Christmas when I was little. (I liked decorating the tree.) Even that fell by the wayside what with overseas transfers.
And yet, Passover snuck into the family, like Elijah, when no one was looking. The State Department posted my father to Israel in the late 1970s, and when my parents came back to Washington a few years later, Passover was a landing point on their calendar. My parents didn’t host their own Seders. But they attended them enthusiastically at friends’ houses or community centers.
Passover became part of my life in my early thirties in New York, when my boss, a woman who mothered me in multiple ways, invited me to her family Seders. The communal reading and singing, the stories of the Exodus, of Abraham and Isaac, the symbols of spring and rebirth in the food, the mix of seriousness and play in the four questions and the search for the Afikoman all spoke to me in ways that other holidays never had. The messages of Passover felt universal in a way that no other holiday had or does.
I began to hold Seders with Jewish, mixed, and Gentile friends. In May 1990, I married David, a Jewish man with a similarly unconventional upbringing and German-Jewish heritage.
Later that year, I was posted to Paris as a foreign correspondent. France has a different mix of Jewish practices than the U.S. Libéral, the most modern Jewish tradition, is closer to Conservative than our Reform. I went to High Holiday services counting on transliterations and translations. The texts were almost entirely in Hebrew.
France had a particular significance because my uncle had fled there from Austria. My father, then 18, had a college acceptance in the U.S. and a student visa. He left from Antwerp in early September, 1938. Seventeen-year-old Hans had no exit visa and spoke French, not English. So my grandfather sent him to France on what must have been a harrowing train journey through Germany in the company of a paid guide. In Aachen, Hans and his guide took a streetcar that passed within yards of the Dutch border, where he got off and was pushed (gently or roughly, depending on the accounts), and joined others casually crossing. From there, he went to relatives in Amsterdam, who sent him to France, after calling to report “the package has arrived,” the code employed out of fear the phones were insecure.
Regardless, my uncle, exceptionally optimistic and good-humored to the end, talked of his exodus, to me anyway, as a sort of picaresque adventure. He worked at the Hotel Negresco, a great white meringue of a hotel on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, as a busboy, but after dropping a large tray of bombe desserts in shallow glasses (details courtesy of his daughter, my cousin), his hospitality career came to an abrupt end. A photograph labeled “29 XII 1938, Nizza [Nice in Italian]” shows him smiling, handsome, and dapper in jacket and tie, presumably before the dessert disaster.
From there, he made his way to Paris, where the French Lichtblau cousins welcomed him ambivalently. One can imagine their fears. The influx of Jews from Eastern Europe and Germany during the Depression, who were concentrated in business and the professions, became the pretext for anti-Semitic laws and a wave of political anti-Semitism as early as 1933. The inopportune arrival of their young Viennese cousin may have posed a danger. In any case, he went from there to England, spent three months learning English, perhaps with a family, leaving from Glasgow July 26, 1939.
An oil economist, he came to Paris several times on business in the four years I lived there. The first time, we were living in the very bourgeois 16th arrondissement. We took him for a walk. Suddenly, he asked, “Is this the Boulevard Lannes?” He recognized the Lichtblau’s neighborhood from his sojourn some 60 years prior.
The second time, we were living in the Marais, blocks from Rue des Rosiers, the old Jewish quarter. His arrival happened to coincide with Passover. We called Stéphane, our only close Jewish friend, and invited him to Seder with my uncle. They were both surprised and amused. In France, people are very discreet about religion and religious observances, outside of weddings and funerals.
I bought Haggadot in French and thick round shmurah matzah pierced in lacy patterns like doilies. Smoked salmon for the first course. A kosher Bordeaux, raifort (horseradish), lamb, spring greens, and bitter herbs, all to be had within a block radius.
We had a beautiful apartment with huge ancient beams in a 17th-18th century convent. It overlooked the National Archives in front, and an opera backdrop of staggered rooftops behind. The spring evening light flooded in from both sides as we worked our way through the Haggadah. It was a dreamy experience. The familiar phrases – “Why is this night different from all others?” – are more archaic, less colloquial in French. “En quoi cette soirée diffère-t-elle des autres?” Someone might say that this was a form of costume drama, a reenactment of a certain type of cosseted, secular European bourgeois Jewish life.
Yet, all four of us were marked by the end of that world. And there we were, my uncle and three of us from the next generation, honoring his exodus and the fact that we were alive to gather in this place.
Julia Lichtblau writes from Brooklyn.