Saturday, December 27, 2008


Len Klein
Memory Sketch # 37
Thursday, March 28, 2002

It’s funny that when I think back over the Passovers of my past, the many Seders I have attended, I have clear memories of only a few of them. There was, as I have written about before, the Seder at which my Great Grandmother (Rifka) lay in the bedroom dying. Another one that comes to mind now took place many years later on Chester Street. Perhaps I am remembering more than one Seder there and what I recall is a composite, but in any event, it is a memory of the Seder night.

The middle room of our apartment, normally a living room, but for us a bedroom for my brother Arnie and my sister Linda, was completely cleared. The beds were dismantled and placed in my parent’s bedroom. I guess the bureau remained in the room. There was a very long table made of boards and wooden horses; it ran almost the whole length of the wall opposite the kitchen. With no one in the room the table looked incredibly huge. The glare of the overhead lights in the mostly empty room gave it a very strange look. Where we got all the chairs for everyone to sit on, I’m not sure. I think some people brought their own chairs with them, folding chairs from card table sets or just supplementary metal ones. We had four kitchen chairs and another folding chair that I used to sit on when I listened to my little radio that sat on the windowsill of the only window in the room.

In the afternoon before the Seder began, all the holiday-dressed Jewish boys on the block used to gather outside to play our favorite Passover game of rolling hazel nuts. We would roll hazel nuts toward the building wall while standing at the curb. We each rolled three times and the one who placed a nut closest to the building won all the nuts. I was usually good at the game and won quite a few nuts – see, even then I was gathering nuts. When we wanted to eat a few of the hard-shelled nuts, the technique we used was to place the nut in the center of a handkerchief and swing it hard into the curb thus cracking the shell. Of course, in short order we all had holes in the center of our hankies. Inevitably, there came the time when we were called to attend the Seder, and it was always painful to leave the game.

Upstairs the family was gathering, and everyone was dressed up for the holiday. Who do I remember being there? Uncle Jack (three-finger Jack) and Aunt Bea, Uncle Israel and Aunt Lilly, Uncle Irving and Aunt Sherry, and a whole bunch of us kids. There were my cousins Lila and her younger sister Figgie, and my brother Arnie and sister Linda, and me. It seemed like a large group at the time.

The ceremony itself was the tough part to sit through and almost everyone pleaded with Uncle Israel to cut it short … cut it short … make it shorter still. But, there were some who remembered how it used to go when they were at their father’s Seder and they kept asking where this verse was or that dish, or that the ceremonial sequence was out of phase. For the most part, the requests were for shortening it. ‘Make it short,’ reminds me of a quip from a nineteenth century poet who wrote: “Make it short, on Judgment Day it will come only to a fart.”
No matter short or long, I had to take my turn saying the four questions, and in those days, I recited them in Hebrew, in Yiddish, and in English for each line as I spoke them. This made the asking of the questions seem endless, but we did get through it.

Uncle Israel, who led the Seder, always sat on a pillow placed on the chair he used. Was it just for his comfort or did it have some symbolic Judaic meaning? I never figured it out. Israel had a great voice for speaking and when he read the Haggadah the Hebrew words just seemed to vibrate in the air, vibrate full of meaning and mystery, words that were addressed to God.
We knew that Passover was the holiday commemorating the Exodus from ancient Egypt. The Jewish slaves that had been building one of the pyramids were released by Pharaoh after God had sent down several plagues as Moses had warned, and finally He slew the first born of the enemies of Israel. It’s very righteous stuff and bloody too. I had my doubts as to whether the story was accurate but I did believe there had been an exodus and that it had been led by Moses. The rest of it seemed to be just like many other myths of the culture hero. Of course, even myths are made of something, so who knows for sure.

The women brought the plates of food to the table and carried away the used ones. The men just sat and discussed. Uncle Israel told stories and asked questions as befits a patriarch. I found myself wondering about the future, when I would bring a woman to the Seder and she would in turn carry the plates of food back and forth to and from the table. Would I then be a part of the history of the Jewish People in a celebration unbroken in its observance since the Exodus? Pretty heavy stuff, but also heart warming in the way of belonging to family and people and culture. Did I have to believe to belong, I wondered. Or did one belong whether one believed or not? The beliefs of the Jewish people are one powerful aspect of being Jewish, but for me my family and my upbringing were my path to being Jewish, and it was more than enough to make it so. Years later I would read Freud saying that he had no particular use for religion in his life, nevertheless he was a Jew, a cultural Jew which he would always be, and so it is with me.

During the Seder, throughout the ceremony and as we ate, we kids all watched the silver cup in the center of the table to see if Elijah (who we called Elianohoo) had come in and taken his entitled drink. When the part came in which the front door was opened, we all sat wide-eyed expecting the air itself to absorb the wine, to quench a ghostly thirst, and satisfy Elijah. Of course, some of us swore that we saw the wine level go down in the cup, which meant that Elijah had had his drink, but others were dubious. Even the adults took part in the mystery.

The gefilte fish served was a treat because we didn’t have any of it during the rest of the year. Chicken soup was, of course, commonplace every Friday night with and without matzo balls. Chicken was the Friday night meal for as long as I can remember. It was mostly boiled chicken until the advent of the pressure cooker, which really destroyed the chicken so that the meat just dropped off the bone in an act of surrender so as to avoid further cooking. But, Chicken was always a good dish to me, no matter how it was prepared. Of course, fried chicken was much tastier and had delicious breading to go along with it, but on Passover, there was no breading allowed. Nevertheless, all chicken was good eating to me. I was only moderately fond of boiled potatoes but they became something special on Passover with the addition of the salt water, so I enjoyed them too.

Of all the holidays, Passover was the best, and it was even better in the earlier days when the little Pesach Haggadahs were only printed in Hebrew. Then I could imagine the most powerful and poetic things being said to God, being sung to God, being prayed to our very own Almighty. But, when they began to print the English translation opposite the Hebrew, I was quite dismayed to see that we were speaking the very same words that everyone and anyone said to their Gods, and it all sounded very trite and phony. I can appreciate how some resented the change from the Latin Mass to the English; it destroys the mystery, shrivels the fantasy, and reduces the belief. That’s what I think anyway.

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