Zaide Aaron had grown up in Bialystok, though as far as I knew when I was young he had come from “The Old Country” and lived on Commercial Street in Lynn. His Oldsmobile’s speedometer rarely pushed past 30, and may have never hit 40 in its lifetime. His food was unsalted, pepper unheard of. It seemed like Zaide was forever hovering around age 60, as I am today. With his bulbous red nose, plagued by allergies, modest height, and mostly bald head, he reminded me of a Jewish Elmer Fudd, with glasses but no rifle. “Be careful,” he’d say, whether you were going out to pilot one of his high-flying magazine page kites, or just walking upstairs to bed.
He and Bobie Ruth raised my mom on a lot comprising two houses with a shared concrete yard, crisscrossed with clotheslines. It was Bobie and Zaide, my mom Sippie and two siblings, her grandmother, her aunt and uncle and four cousins. Bobie and Zaide lived in the second floor apartment of one of the houses which were classic, wooden two-flats with dark brown molding everywhere. I once told Bobie Ruth it was embarrassing to have underpants hanging outside, and was reminded of this story many times growing up and as an adult. My blind great-grandmother, “Bobie Alta,” lived downstairs. She assigned my two older brothers and me Hebrew middle names, each a wild beast – Wolf, Bear, Lion – I’m guessing to imbue us with strength and resilience. I have a dim memory of visiting her when I was about three or four letting her feel my face to get to know me, just as many years later, Bobie Ruth would feel the faces of my own children.
The arrival of Pesach meant I got to go a week or two ahead to Bobie and Zaide’s and help with bedikat chametz, the search for any evil, leavened breadcrumbs lurking on the premises. Bobie had a special brush and pan for this ritual, which naturally appealed to my slight OCD when it came to cleanliness. At a very young age this was kind of mystical: Why do we have to search for crumbs? What will happen if I don’t find them all? And, what do I get for doing this? Of course, Bobie’s amazing chicken soup with the nearly whole carrots and celery stalks was enough. That, and getting to sit on her heavy, yellow stool with the pull-out steps.
Pesach also signaled the need for charoses, which I totally considered a treat and loved to help make. Chopping apples and walnuts and adding the right amounts of wine and cinnamon was no doubt the beginning of my love of cooking. We always made plenty to have during the week of Passover to bring to school or have around for snacks. And of course there were all the other preparations – tying up our cabinets (brimming with chametz!); bringing boxes of Passover dishes and silverware from our creaky, creepy attic; stocking the kitchen with matzah farfel (which I dowsed liberally with sugar and ate for breakfast) and those chocolate-covered marshmallow treats that came in a long, flat box, along with the sugar-coated, half-circle, simulated fruit gels I reluctantly tried every year, hoping the taste had somehow improved since last time. It never did.
It seems like every Passover I remember on Commercial Street (1963 to 1968) there was something on TV someone wanted to see – most often an important Celtics game. For me, I remember “The Wizard of Oz” aired one year and I hated not being able to watch, since Zaide ran a strict house when it came to Pesach. And, for that matter, pretty much at all other times.
It’s him I remember most from those Seders when our family gathered with my aunts, uncles and cousins. Zaide manned the head of the table, reclining slightly into a pillow, reminding us at the start that “Seder means order,” then reading or chanting the words, and I mean every single word of the Haggadah, in Hebrew. He’d be uttering ancient prayers and commentaries of one rabbi or another while a low murmur of conversation continued around the table. Meanwhile, the cousins snuck sips of Manischewitz or Bobie Alta’s homemade wine, while keeping a watchful eye on the uncles for where they might hide an Afikoman. If things got too animated, Zaide would pause and call for order, then retreat to his murmuring, occasionally calling attention to key prayers and cups of wine.
I wondered why he insisted on reading it all, even when others at the table weren’t listening. Did he really care that much about what it actually said? Or was it just the way it had always been done in his family? We waited for Zaide to amble through, reciting the full text, mainly to himself, as though it were essential to completion of the task. I’ve since learned that the mitzvah of the Seder is indeed to tell the story of Passover for the guests. Being a pious man, it was simply his duty. This all came naturally, as he spent a lot of time at shul throughout the week, slipping back in time to share the prayers and text his ancestors had recited before him.
Then finally, mercifully, came the meal.
Naturally, we did this two nights in a row.
Now my siblings hold just one Seder, always on the weekend, using an English Haggadah, but still chanting in Hebrew as we were taught. Many in the extended family are not Jewish, but have learned the traditions and prayers and participate fully. The men still ceremonially wash hands at the table. We skip more quickly through the steps – Kadesh to Urchatz to Karpas, etc. – dipping scallions (house favorite) in salt water, schmearing horseradish and charoses on bits of matzah, dabbing our fingers while reciting the plagues and drinking (at least) the four cups. And the Pesach songs carry on, vividly, with our own twists and some Yiddish included for good measure.
Pesach is still a special holiday for my family, and it brings us together in Jewish tradition. It’s one of the few times I feel connected to others around the world engaged in the same ritual; one that has been going on since ancient times. And for me, it is a direct extension of practices handed down by my ancestors. Zaide Aaron must have felt this same thing: the connection to people who came before, a direct path, a thread, which gives all the little rituals added meaning. Our Seders may not be exactly as Zaide would want, but he’d love that we still cherish every step of the way it’s done, all in order.
Neal Stamell grew up in Swampscott, has since lived in Chicago for 35 years, and these days tends to find himself in the very last place he looks.