We were so lucky as children to have three living grandparents. Every Pesach (Passover), my maternal grandparents hosted our Passover Seder, one of my favorite holidays because I was with my extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins.
My grandparents lived in a smallish row house on Shirley Avenue in Baltimore City. The dining room was probably average size for those days, 1950s-‘60s, but when I picture it now, it was pretty small, especially for the 13-17 people who attended Seder. It depended on whether Uncle Bob and Aunt Pat were in from California and whether Uncle Jack and Aunt Sareba were not at her mom’s that year.
Somehow, Grandma managed to get plenty of chairs around the table. The babies just sat on their mom’s laps and eventually were put in the portable beds the parents brought. If someone needed to use the bathroom, we would slide down our chair and crawl under the table between legs to get to the hallway that led to the upstairs.
Grandpa went through the entire service in Hebrew. We all had books, but most of us kids couldn’t follow along because we hadn’t yet learned Hebrew, or in the case of my sister, my cousin Lois and me who never did learn Hebrew. It didn’t deter us. We whispered and laughed while our parents tried to shush us, but my grandpa ignored us and soldiered on.
Near the end of the Seder, Grandpa would fill a wine cup for Elijah. When we came back to the table, the cup was empty, and I knew that was part of the magic of Pesach. Of course, our favorite part was looking for the afikoman. I think my brother Chuck found it most of the time. That was kind of annoying.
When Grandpa died, Grandma went to live with Aunt Lil who had a big house up the street from us on Sulgrave Avenue. By then, I was 14 and my baby sister was six months old. I used to put her in the stroller and walk to my aunt’s house to visit her and Grandma.
Aunt Lil and Uncle Ducky inherited Seder. There were more of us by then. My sister and another cousin had been born and Uncle Ducky did not adhere strictly to reading every word of the Haggadah. We usually finished by 10ish as opposed to the midnight time with Grandpa. Most of us were old enough by then to help clean up, but Aunt Lil always hired two ladies for that chore. This left us time to go in the living room and visit. Or in the case of my sister and me, to hang out with our cousin Lois in her room. She had a huge bed with a canopy that made me think she lived like a princess.
As we got older, married and had children of our own, Seder once again was moved. Aunt Lil hosted her children and grandchildren, and my family all went to our parent’s home. Every year it seemed there was a new person or people. When I married, I brought not just my husband but also his parents. Mom couldn’t stand that they would be alone. When my brother Richard married, sometimes his wife’s parents (who lived in New York but often visited on holidays) added more people. Then there were children. Eventually, the children married and brought their mates.
We had so much fun being together, but it was a lot of work for my mom. She started weeks in advance to make the brisket and freeze it. The matzah balls and soup she prepared a day or two in advance. But the gefilte fish!
That was the real work. She made it with three different kinds of fish bought at Hollins Market. Using a large wooden bowl that had belonged to her mom, she cut and mixed the different fish and added other mystery ingredients. The recipe died with her. Mom would add a piece of diagonally sliced cooked carrot for color, a trick she learned from her mom. Now we buy it in a jar and add the carrot, but trust me, it’s not the same. One year, Richard and I wrote a poem about how hard Mom worked and how she had to rest for three days after! But that’s a story for another time.
My sisters and I used to go to our parent’s condo (as they’d moved from the big house several years earlier) a few days in advance to help set the table, put out the Haggadahs, and anything else she needed us to do.
Like Uncle Ducky, my dad was not a stickler about the time. We skipped some pages and shortened others. Also, Daddy did not read the entire service. He would start and then we went around the table, and each person read the next passage, paragraph or page. We did almost all of it in English. The four questions, however, were always in Hebrew, read by the youngest boy. I think this was the highlight of our Seders, and the children were definitely the most important part of the service.
There was one year, though, that my nephew, who was seven years old at the time, did an entire rap of the story of Pesach! I remember how he stood on one of the dining room chairs and just rapped with abandon! It was adorable.
When I married my second husband, we came with our combined four children. This was Teddy’s first Seder. When it was over, my dad asked him, “So, Ted, what did you think of the service?”
“It would have been better if everyone wasn’t so rude,” he replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, everyone was talking and not really paying attention!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” my dad said, perplexed. “Every single person knew their place, and I didn’t have to remind anyone it was their turn!”
That was the thing about our Seders: they were relaxed and fun, but everyone cared about the service. Still, I think my grandpa would not have been pleased.
My dad died in March of 1994, shortly before Pesach. We ordered food from Miller’s and gathered at Mom’s but it wasn’t an actual Seder, as we didn’t have a service. We did open up the dining room table and got extra chairs. Mom, my siblings and I with our spouses sat around the table. Our children and the spouses of those who were married found places on the couch or chairs in the adjoining living room. The youngest ones sat on the floor on a tablecloth that Mom spread out.
After that, my brother Chuck and his wife Adrienne took Passover as their holiday. But it was never the same. Adrienne invited her family (as well she should) and us. She had three separate tables, and though we all sat with some of our family, it always felt like something was missing.
After my son and daughter-in-law bought a lovely home and my first granddaughter, Arianna, was born, Jillian decided she’d like to hold Seder. Of course, she invited us, my daughter and son-in-law, my step-daughter and her family as well as Jill’s own parents and grandparents. New traditions were added.
One of my favorite parts was when we sang the Chad Gadya. Each of us would take a part. If you were the cat, you meowed, the dog barked, or woofed, etc. Whoever had the water made something up like glug, swish or gurgle. If you were the staff, or some other inanimate object, you had to be truly creative. And we were. Everyone sang the chorus together. “…my father bought for two zuzem.” When they were elementary school age, the children would wear costumes and put on the Pesach show for the adults. They had such a good time, and we all loved it.
But my original family was split up. My siblings either had their own Seder or went to their children’s homes or the home of some other relative. As more children came along, our Seder expanded. Soon, the grandchildren were inviting their friends, and as Jillian’s grandparents died, they were replaced with friends of Jill and Geoff.
Maybe because I’m older, maybe because my husband has some health issues, maybe because it’s a long ride at night, maybe it’s the late hour. Maybe all of these. I’m not sure, but most of the magic of Pesach has diminished for me. Still, some of my favorite memories are of those early days, and my siblings and I still reminisce about them.
Drew’s Passover Rap
The task inhuman,
Too great to bare.
The Jews cried out.
G-d heard their prayer.
G-d told Moses
You must go
Down to Egypt
And see Pharaoh.
Moses spoke verily
“Pharaoh, my man,
We just got
To be free.”
What G-d would bring
If Pharaoh did not
Let freedom ring.
Plagues there’ll be:
One to ten.
Death you’ll know
Just like a friend.
To free the slaves
To release the Jews
The plagues began
Frogs and lice
Seven more things
That weren’t real nice
To be an ass.
His ass was grass!
The final plague.
All Egypt cried.
When his own son died.
Like a modern day King
Moses speaks from the past.
“Thank G-d almighty
We’re free at last.”
Free at last,
Free at last.
Thank G-d almighty
We’re free at last.
Read more by Linda Miller.