I can still see my parents now, Ruby and Sam Rosenberg, “making Pesach” – as they called it – in our home on Orchard Road in Swampscott. The instructions would come down a few days before the holiday: I would vacuum and help box up all of the chametz from the cabinets and carry it down to our basement; my sisters, Phyllis and Sheri, would find big rocks from our backyard that would be dropped into enormous pots of boiling water that would ensure they would be kashered – at least to the satisfaction of my Galician grandmother; and then they would assist my grandmother and parents in the kitchen while I would disappear only to return a few hours before the Seder.
Just before the first night of Passover, there was controlled chaos in the kitchen. The brisket, chicken and turkey were prepared and slid into the warm oven. My mother would carefully monitor the chicken soup and kneidelach. Meanwhile, my Old World grandmother, Esther, fussed over her kiggelach – a type of popover that’s nearly impossible to find today. There was the Seder plate that needed to be put together, chopped liver to serve as an appetizer, halupches (stuffed cabbage) and a small salad of lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes that I would never eat. There was also a mystical small glass dish filled with salt water that sat next to the karpas. My mother took pride in it – it had been her zaide’s, and had been used at Seders in the Old Country.
If anything, we were a family based on common sense. “Do the right thing. Be a mensch,” my parents would often say. They had grown up in Orthodox homes and knew a lot more about kashrut and Jewish law than I would ever know, but never seemed to make a big deal about it – except on Pesach. They never explained why. Perhaps for them, it was an opportunity to pause and assess how far they had come in life and just how much they appreciated freedom, family and America. As children, they each had known abject poverty, and worked every minute of the day to make sure their children would never experience it.
For my parents, a home and a family in Swampscott was something out of a fantasy they could never have imagined as children. Back then, in the 1970s, they each worked 12- to 14-hour days, six days a week, but had “made it,” as they liked to say – my father ran a deli in Chelsea with his brothers, Murray and Eddy, and my mother sold real estate and later opened a clothing store in Revere.
When it was time for the Seder, my father would sit at the head of the table, pour himself a glass of Manischewitz that he would never finish – he was a Crown Royal guy – and look out over his family. He didn’t have to say much, nor did my mother. Their smiles held our family together those nights. It had not been an easy road to the Seder table but their children were their reward.
Then my father would begin reading from the Haggadah. Everyone would read a paragraph, my sister Sheri would chant the Four Questions, and the Seder would end after we’d sing Dayenu.
“OK,” my father would say, “Bring out the soup, Ruby!”
On occasion, there were hiccups. There was the year the stove broke, but somehow we found a way to fill our bellies. And there were some exotic guests, like Shaiki, the guitarist from Israel who had played on Arik Einstein albums. And Uncle Harry, a New York Times staffer and bachelor, who never called before visiting but was always greeted with hugs. And there was no shortage of judgment: One year, I invited a Jewish woman who had never attended a Seder. The conversation quieted when she asked if one of my sisters was an aunt.
All of these years later, my wife Devorah and I have embraced Passover like no other Jewish holiday. The house is cleaned, chametz is removed, and we’ve invited countless guests. One year, a young Russian boy stood up in the middle of the Seder, and pronounced, “God is within everyone this evening.” Another year, we quietly dissuaded a Russian woman from going to a Jews for Jesus Seder, and she surprised us by picking up my guitar and singing a Russian lullaby. Israelis have led Dayenu at our Seder table; Druze, Christians and itinerant Jews have hummed along to Chad Gadya. One Pesach, the late Globe columnist Al Lupo spent most of the Seder talking about baseball while complimenting Devorah and her mother Phyllis on their Ashkenashi food. “I haven’t eaten like this in 50 years,” he said.
At the beginning of every Seder, Devorah delivers some words of Torah – usually something drawn from Kabbalah – and then we go around the table and listen as each person says something about freedom and what they’re grateful for.
We started this tradition a few decades ago, and before one of our first Seders my parents arrived early. Opposite their chairs sat the precious glass salt dish used for karpas from the Old Country. Our son Aaron was just a few months old, and my father held him close as we all looked on. I didn’t have to ask him what he was thinking. We were all smiling and our eyes seemed to say the same thing: family is a miracle; love is a miracle; freedom is a miracle.
Steven A. Rosenberg is the editor and publisher of The Jewish Journal.