Bittersweet Tastes of Traditions
The food on the table represents a yearly, multigenerational tradition. We start with the chopped liver (“tzibeless mit layber”) and gefilte fish. Then come the chicken soup with matzah balls (“knaydelach”) and the salted egg soup. There’s meat (usually brisket or roast beef) and/or a chicken dish. Maybe salmon will make an appearance. The sides will include carrot “tzimmis,” a sweet potato thing, a concoction of broccoli and other veggies. The dessert items will be fairly bland, somewhat tasteless pastries and a prune-peach-pear fruit mixture called “Compote.” It is all a perfectly retro, eastern European Passover meal.
Ironically, despite the elaborate spread, debates about whose recipe is better, and positive or negative reactions of our taste buds, no one really cares about the food on the table; except perhaps the women who spent countless hours preparing it. What’s important is who is sitting around the table…
When I think of Passover, recollections take me back to the time of my high school years. My grandfather – my Zaydie – is at head of the table, waiting and getting ready to lead the Seder. My father is collecting the Haggadahs and the Kippot. Baba – my grandmother – is in the kitchen with my mother and Aunts Debbie and Rosalie making final preparations. My sister, Wendy, is focused on perfecting the balance of ingredients in the chopped liver. Uncles Lou and Joe are outside, getting in a few last puffs of their cigarettes. My youngest sister, Randi, and the cousins – Stephen, Bryan, Alon, Julie, and Laurie – are being shepherded around (kept out of the way) by my brother, Craig, and plotting a strategy to find the Afikomen and get Zaydie to buy it back for lots of money. I am hanging out with my boyfriend, praying that he’s not freaked out or bored by the long evening, weird food, or my large family. In all of these memories, the scenes are the same; whether we are in Boston or New City, NY. I really miss those days…a lot.
This home-based Jewish holiday is the most popular and widely observed of them all. Its primary objective includes the reading of the Haggadah — the story of the exodus from Egypt and the Israelites transformation from an enslaved nation to a free one in its promised land. But it also serves to unite young and old in a narrative that resonates as much today as it did in biblical times. The Passover Seder integrates rituals, prayers, songs, and food that can be related to by all those present. Each and every participant has a part to play.
Miraculously, Zaydie and Baba are still with us, as are their three children and associated in-laws. The nine grandchildren have morphed into eighteen, with the addition of spouses. And now, my grandparents are blessed with twenty-three great grandchildren and one great-great granddaughter. (Not bad for two Holocaust survivors!) But, as the family has grown and people have moved around, it’s been harder and harder to relive the memories of the past. Sadly, we’ve been forced to adapt, “divide and conquer,” and develop new family traditions…though the food on the table pretty much remains the same.
This year, once again, the food on the table will be pretty much the same, but mostly made by a caterer. It’s who will be sitting around the table that I most care about. Of the “main cast” of fifty-one characters, thirty-four of us – plus additional in-laws and other extended family – will be together in Florida. My brother, now a rabbi, will lead the Seder alongside Zaydie who will mumble through it. In the aging faces of my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, I will search for pride and fond memories of years gone by. In the words and actions of my siblings and cousins, I will recall the fun times when we were kids (and sat at “the kids’ table”) and drove the adults crazy. With our children, I will look and pray for the ways in which they will create meaningful new traditions, binding ties, and memories that will last for many years to come. For me, I simply will enjoy the presence of everyone around the big table.
I don’t know where we’ll be next year, or who will be around the table, but there’s some comfort in knowing what we’ll be eating…