The holiday seemed to come out of the blue every year and for my sisters and me, it meant work. Remove everything from the kitchen to make sure there was no hametz. Vacuum everywhere. Bring up a cluster of pots and pans and a modest set of glass plates and cups from the cellar that were used only on Passover.
My mother would dutifully set off toward a series of kosher butchers to oblige Grandma’s menu. From her perch in our Swampscott kitchen – on a chair closest to the stove, refrigerator, and sink – Grandma would oversee the operation. When all of the food arrived, it rose up from the kitchen table and counters and seemed to transform the room into an Old World cookhouse. As a child of America, none of it seemed appealing.
Still, I admired the process and was curious about the transformation for Passover. I also liked it because it was one of the few days of the year that our family would be together. Money was tight: My father worked long hours with his brothers at their Chelsea deli; my mother was a realtor and ran a clothing store in Revere. Despite the food, the Seder (we only did one back in the 1960s and ‘70s) was my favorite night of the year because everyone could relax and not have to do much except eat. (Until the cleanup began after the Seder.)
And, so, as she prepared the brisket and chicken, Grandma would throw clues about the holiday my way. I knew the storyline, as it was taught in Hebrew school, but found it hard to resonate with such a brutal story of slavery, and killing of the first-born, and the drama of the splitting of the sea that also came with the death of the Egyptian army. Then there was freedom, but that called for wandering in the desert for 40 years. And what to make of this salty and bland food that somehow emerged from this narrative?
“The Aibishter [Highest One] helped then, and helps now,” Grandma would volunteer, as she instructed us to fill a pot with water for the chicken soup, or to grab a jar of Nyafat or to attach the grinder to the stool below our rotary phone so we could make our own chopped liver. This, along with Kashrut and Shabbat, was her testimony of faith. But where did it come from and why did she have so much devotion?
When I would ask these questions, the subject would come back to the meal. There were kneidlach to make, and for that task she’d stand over the soup and monitor it like she was pondering a diamond with a jeweler’s loupe. Then there were the halupches (stuffed cabbage) which, each year, I’d make note to decline. (One of the worst sins, I reasoned, was to have leftover food on your plate back then.)
Grandma’s greatest challenge, were the kiggelach. No matter how long she’d fuss over her version of popovers, she’d never get them right. Looking back, that was my favorite food from the Seder, and the only thing that tasted like bread.
The cooking, the cleaning, the delegation of chores, and the foundation of faith – the urgency to Make Passover as she would say, placed her front and center during the holiday. It’s not that the rest of us didn’t care about Pesach. My parents knew all of the holiday’s Kashrut laws and what was and wasn’t permitted on the intermediary days. And the truth was our family wore our own form of cultural Judaism on our sleeves.
While many of my friends’ parents were running away from the religion, my family was running toward Judaism. We were not observant, but my mother lit Shabbat candles and much of the adult conversations in our home were conducted in Yiddish. Eretz Yisrael was holy, and Zionism gave us a sense of strength and connection. Education, honesty, and ethics were valued above wealth or neighborhood status. We were hardly perfect, though, and the lack of money was the source of frequent family arguments.
Grandma wasn’t perfect, either, and she vacillated between genuinely being fascinated with the American Dream and criticizing everyone around her – especially family. And that was the most perplexing part about her since family was the center of her life. She loved beautiful people, listening to music, watching “The Lawrence Welk Show” and counseling her grandchildren. But even during these moments, she could easily find fault with one of us – and she was usually accurate but lacked a filter.
For Grandma, no one was ever busy fulfilling their potential; people could always do better. Still, we loved her. She served as a cheerleader and had a soft spot for musicians – her son, Sollie, was a gifted pianist. She even bought me a guitar for a graduation present that plays as brightly today as it did in 1977.
But she seemed happiest alone, and her therapy was writing letters to her nine brothers and sisters while she was cooking in the kitchen. She’d write about our family’s successes and failures, and then check the chicken. If something was good she’d tell the family, if something was bad she’d write about it in the letter and then sip from her tea. That was her process – writing and cooking went together – and it was her way of connecting to people she loved.
Family had carried her from Galicia to the far-flung border town of Amesbury, where she landed with her parents in 1904. As the oldest child, Grandma was given the task of looking after her nine siblings. They varied in age but some were 10 or 15 years younger than her, and she took on a maternal role – a similar position that she assumed in our family once she moved in with us following the death of my grandfather.
She alternately loved and resented the role of caretaker but ultimately believed that no one was more capable of raising children and instilling common sense.
After she passed in 1981, the family Seder grew more modest and less chaotic. But Grandma’s influence lives on. In Tel Aviv, my sister Phyllis has perfected Grandma’s kiggelach. In Los Angeles, my sister Sheri lights Grandma’s Shabbat candles each Friday night, and during the Seder honors Grandma with chopped liver. And, at my Seder table in Swampscott, we place a mystical small dish filled with salt water next to the karpas. It belonged to Grandma’s father, and was carried from Galicia to Amesbury to Swampscott. It is a reminder of connection that comes with the mystery of family and love. When I look at the dish, it is salty but precious – not unlike Grandma. And if I listen hard enough, I can hear her raspy voice now cheering me on, and also casually asserting that I can do better.
Steven A. Rosenberg is the editor and publisher of the Jewish Journal. Email him at email@example.com