Every year we drove from Holyoke to Worcester to spend the first few days of Pesach with my father’s parents in their third-floor walk-up apartment. It was 60 or more years ago, and who can separate the “real” past from the past as remembered.
I hear today over those six decades the sound of an ocean I had never seen as I press my ear against the conch shell on the table in my grandparents’ front hall. I feel in my spine the screech of the pre-dawn trolley car reluctantly descending the Providence Street hill, the lament of a soul in Gehenna.
My brother and I would prod each other on our temporary bed, a tortuous horsehair sofa, and announce “the first trolley.”
At that early hour, it was still dark, certainly not past 5 a.m. My grandfather would be where we had last seen him the night before, in the Morris chair in the kitchen, a book spread across his lap; my grandmother already at her post preparing tonight’s Seder.
My Uncles Mike and Arbie, my Aunt Irene, my mother, my father, my sister, we boys, and as time passed, new additions to the family – husbands, wives, cousins – had gathered for this holiday.
And among us there was frequently a mysterious stranger.
My grandmother was a fine cook. Her kitchen passed the most stringent test for kosher purity and the family was both charitable and in need of an extra dollar – so strangers, angels, dwelled there. There were the “meschulochim,” men who had been dispatched years previously from yeshivas, old people’s homes, and orphanages in the Old Country or the Holy Land itself to collect donations all over the world. Some traveled for years and some, I am sure, never made it back home. Some were eminent scholars, others simply beggars.
Arriving in a city like Worcester, they would seek the advice of the Orthodox rabbis on a home where they might stay and feel comfortable eating the food for which they paid a little money. My grandparents home became a regular haven.
One such mysterious stranger was a Persian Jew with a beard of toasted almond color, who carried in one of his satchels spices from the Orient, or so he said, and taught my grandmother to include them in fruit kneidlach, kugels, and puddings. He also made fresh vegetable salads, a dish unknown to our Litvak cookery.
The Persian insisted that in his homeland rice was eaten on Passover, there being no biblical injunction against it. This horrified my grandfather and grandmother, and almost cost him his bed and board. (Decades later my father and mother attended a seder in an Orthodox synagogue in Iran, the former Persia. Rice was served.)
My Passover memories center in my grandparents’ apartment, the Passover smells, dim oval-shaped pictures of the Zivs of Rasseyn, Lithuania; the furniture either too stiff or rattan and too creaky, a wind-up phonograph with shellac records of cantors, but also of Caruso, Galli-Curci, Alma Gluck and Chaliapin. The last two were Jewish or so we thought having no other way to account for their names. It was there that my love of opera began.
I have virtually no memories, however, of the many synagogues we attended, because we seldom attended any one of them as much as two years in a row. This was because of my grandfather’s imperious, uncompromising nature, particularly unfortunate for a shamus, which, along with selling religious articles and books, was his principal trade. Virtually every year he would have a falling out with his rabbi or influential members of the congregation, accusing them of hypocrisy and failure to live up to his rigid standards, and he would move on to a different shul.
We feared, but on Passover, revered him. Imperial in his flowing robes, a handsome, dark man, he an emperor and we kings and queens and princes and princesses; uncompromisingly repeating our prayers and rituals which God and tradition ordained to celebrate our emancipation.
I realized much later that we were what we never called ourselves – “poor” – and that my grandmother was the real spiritual and economic heart of the household. She combined the grace and dignity that has become the caricature of the Jewish grandmother with sharp insight and precision of mind.
She was a natural teacher. It seemed that I was fated as the youngest son to recite the Four Questions year after year. She taught them to me with sweet rewards, dates, figs, nuts, as I sat at the kitchen table watching her cook. My father recalled that, with absolutely no formal education, she seemed instinctively to grasp algebra, and helped him with his high school work.
Her matzah balls were delicious, but also perfectly round and of exactly the same size, as though measured with a micrometer, the very pattern of her mind.
I listened to the talk around the kitchen table as she worked, told stories, and shared her wisdom. She called me “Wise Motele” in Yiddish when I told her a Bible story I had learned in cheder. It made me proud.
And so we traveled back and forth, several times a year, our journeys following the Jewish religious calendar. This was simply a condition of being a Jew and a member of a Jewish family. We accepted it, often with love, sometimes with the sense that it was an immutable fate whether we accepted it or not, but in time, like itself, it drew to a close.
Professor Howard Ziff grew up in Holyoke and was one of the founders of the Journalism Department at UMass-Amherst. He died in 2012.