Seder Stories That Last A Lifetime
Tue, 03/27/2012
The seder, a time of tradition, often spawns untraditional tales and memories. Illustration by Debbie Richman
The seder, a time of tradition, often spawns untraditional tales and memories. Illustration by Debbie Richman

Resorting to a Questionable Song

My first seder, one I would never forget, was celebrated as an 8-year-old at Grossinger’s in 1945. My mother, Karla, a cousin by marriage to the famous Jennie Grossinger, and I had recently moved to the New York area from Los Angeles, where I had attended (I still don’t know why) Christian Science Sunday school.

This particular Passover was the first I was to celebrate knowing I was a member of the Jewish faith. A stage had been erected in the Main Dining Room, from which the cantor, choir and rabbi conducted the service. Each table was set with the traditional offerings: matzah, bitter herbs, charoset, hard boiled eggs in salted water and, of course, enough wine to fill each glass four times.

My mother, the hotel’s social hostess, spent most of the evening circulating among the guests to make sure all was in order. In her absence, whenever others at my table lifted their glasses to drink, I followed suit, so proud of being treated like a “grown-up.” Toward the end of the evening, it came time for everyone to join the choir in singing the Passover favorites “Dayenu” and “Chad Gadya.”

Of course, I didn’t know the words, and felt very left out. I was also dizzy from the wine. To this day, I don’t believe what I did next. When everyone finished singing, I stood up all alone to sing the only religious song I could think of.

Which is how 1,000 Grossinger guests had to sit through three choruses of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Tania Grossinger , The writer, a travel writer and public relations consultant, is author of “Growing Up at Grossinger’s.”

A Revolutionary Passover In Colombia

My husband Jules and I lived in Bogotá, Colombia, for close to a decade. We went there in 1963, three weeks after our wedding. We befriended many members of the Jewish community and other Colombians as well.

In the late 1960s, we were excited to host our own seder, after years of enjoying the hospitality at the homes of our friends. Jules managed somehow to make a business trip to the States and brought back some kosher l’Pesach products. The Bogotá community had permission to bring in matzah and kosher wine from the Government. We did very well without the many products we see today. Yes, there were a lot of potato and egg dishes, salads and fruit desserts.

The long table was set, the seder plates were put out — our family custom was to prepare a seder plate for each male and child present. My family’s recipes of maror and charoset were carefully followed. Excitement was in the air in more ways than one!

The guests arrived. Suddenly, the housekeepers of those present made their way to our home, announcing that a curfew had been announced. The former dictator, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla or his politically involved daughter, María Eugenia, would be attempting a return to an involved political life. The officials were preparing for possible unrest.

I will never forget the speed with which we all recited the first part of the Haggadah, ate our meal and recited the Birkat Hamazon [grace after meals].

All the guests hurriedly left. Jules and I sat at this long empty table and recited the rest of the Haggadah, finished those cups of wine and sang “Chad Gadya” with joy and tremendous bewilderment.

Daniele Gorlin Lassner, The writer is a Manhattan resident and retired dean of admissions at Ramaz who served at the day school for 35 years.

The ‘Simple Son’ Becomes a Leader

Growing up at my parents’ seder table, I remember the approving nods when my studious oldest brother would ask the Wise Son’s question, and the loving laughter when my delightfully mischievous middle brother assumed the role of the Wicked Son.

As the third child in our family, I gave voice to the Simple Son. For 26 years the Simple Son’s seat was as familiar to me as the middle seat in my mother’s station wagon.

My father loved Passover and the seder’s spirited conversation, the incredible quantity and quality of food my mother prepared and how silly we got after Four Cups.

During our seder in 1995 my father sat at the head of the table. That was the year my father had pancreatic cancer, a plague feasting on him from within. Whatever internal challenges he faced, there was reason to celebrate being together.

The seder began as usual — “Kadesh, urchatz….”

Then, shortly after the Four Questions, Dad got out of his chair and left the room. It was as if the conductor had left the pit mid-note. He simply needed to rest.

All of sudden there wasn’t just an empty seat at the head of the table; we were without the only seder leader we had ever known.

No one moved. This wasn’t part of the script. After some awkward, hushed, rushed discussion, the consensus was that I — the future rabbi — should carry on with the seder. Suddenly the Simple Son had moved into a new seat, the leader of the seder.

Conducting the seder from my seat, I found ways to underscore the symbiotic relationship between courage and hope. As we discussed the tremendous strength and fortitude our ancestors displayed when imagining a new beginning for themselves and their children, I would like to believe that my father could hear us from the other room and was encouraged by this message, even if just a little bit. With the empty seat at the end of the table, the centrality of hope pertained as much to the Israelites in the face of adversity as to our family facing a potential loss.

The seder continued without my father in the room, but our thoughts were focused on him throughout. That night was his final feast of freedom. That night his liberation came not from matzah and four cups of wine, but from rest.

I occupied my new seder seat for eight years. Since Julie and I got married, we have celebrated Passover with my in-laws in Florida. My father-in-law leads a fine seder with enthusiasm and his own deep family traditions. With Julie and her oldest brother, Ken, in attendance, I have a new seat, that of the Simple Son-in-law — I am back to reading the Simple Son’s question.

Our oldest son, Joseph, has learned a great deal about seder in school. Last year my lifelong game of “seder musical chairs” took an interesting turn. Seated next to my father-in-law at the seder sat Joseph, practically the co-leader.

At this year’s seder I look forward to watching Joseph sit next to his grandfather to assist with creating a memorable and meaningful Exodus from Egypt.

It is truly the best seat in the house.

Rabbi Charlie Savenor, The writer is the international director of kehilla enrichment for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He blogs on parenting at www.familyinorbit.com.

One Pesach’s Burning Issue

My wife is a volunteer at a used bookstore that raises money to help support the local public library.

Several years ago, she called me from the store for advice. She had found a book by a Holocaust revisionist praising Hitler and minimizing the Shoah. “Buy that piece of garbage and bring it home,” I answered. “At least this way we’ll get it out of circulation so it won’t fall into the hands of the innocent, the ignorant or the bigots.”

We also realized that once in the house, it couldn’t simply be discarded in the trash without first destroying it lest it fall into the hands of those whom we were attempting to deny. But with no idea on how to destroy it — with other matters requiring our attention, I put it in the closet with the kitty litter and forgot about it.

A few months passed. During preparations for Pesach, I rediscovered the book, and its fate suddenly dawned on me. “We’ll use it for the ritual of Biur HaChametz, the burning of chametz,” I said. 

We perform this ritual outside the house on the morning before the first seder, where we burn the few breadcrumbs that the kids have searched for, found and collected the previous night.

The following morning I cut some wood, built and lit a small fire in our yard and let the kids toss in the bag of crumbs along with the traditional feather and wooden spoon. Following a short discussion on “how they burned our books” and the biblical admonition to remember and not to forget what Amalek did, I handed them the book. Then in the spirit of retribution and justice, they tore up the book and fed the pages, one by one, into the fire. 

Shel Abelson, The writer lives in Niskayuna, N.Y.

Seders That Inspired For A Lifetime

Sad to say, unless my extended family was present, the best part of my childhood seders was how quickly they ended. If my parents and I were the only participants, my father would speed through the Haggadah faster than the Israelites escaped Egypt.

As a result, after we moved to Kew Gardens, Queens, I walked up the block to join my friends Aryeh and Esther at their seder at the conclusion of ours. Actually, I stalled. I would be embarrassed to arrive for Kiddush. I tried to time my entrance somewhere between Ma Nishtana and Dayenu.

The Weils welcomed me with open arms. There was always a place setting for me, and ample food. What impressed me however even more than their mother Grace’s cooking, was the manner in which their father Sigi conducted the seder.

Sigi was as gregarious as my father was withdrawn. Consequently, his seder was like a party. Ours felt obligatory; his felt festive. He would unpredictably invite each of us to recite a particular paragraph, rather than everyone reading everything in unison, as at our seders. Interruptions for questions, insights, jokes and stories were encouraged. The evening’s soundtrack alternated between laughter and music. It was the first time in my life that I actually enjoyed the seder itself, rather than just the company. Their seders lasted forever; yet, I wished they would never end.

Eventually, I got married, had children, and conducted my own seder for the first time. I only realized at its conclusion, that I had unconsciously emulated Sigi’s Seder, rather than my father's.

This year’s seder will be another first.

Sigi passed away this year. I will again conduct the seder in his inclusive, joyous manner. For the first time however, I will explicitly acknowledge our family’s debt to him, something I should have done while he was alive.

Rest in peace, dear Sigi. Your seders live on.

Isaac Steven Herschkopf, The writer is a psychiatrist living in Manhattan.

Teaching About Pesach In Harlem

The most memorable seder I attended was the model seder I led as a rabbinical student many years ago at an African-American Church in Harlem. Although I informed the church pastor of all of the food requirements to make it as authentic as possible, as soon as I arrived, a small group of children pointed out a piece of uncooked shank bone swimming in blood and asked me, “Are we going to have to eat that thing?” 

They also did not heed my admonition to buy grape juice since it was only to be two hours long. They bought Manischewitz wine. I never heard a better and more robust singing of “Dayenu.”

The only disconcerting aspect of the seder was when a woman shouted out the question, “Why do rabbis drink blood? This gave me the opportunity to strongly debunk the infamous “blood libel” and present a mini-course on classic anti-Semitism.

The pastor wanted to use this experience to enhance his parishioners’ knowledge of the “historical Jesus.” I used this as an opportunity to teach about authentic Jewish ideas and practices.

Rabbi Alan Lavin, The writer is spiritual leader of the Farmingdale Wantagh Jewish Center.

An Expansive Pesach Memory

I will never forget the year I made my first seder in Cliffside Park, N.J. My husband was the rabbi at the Conservative shul nearby, so we were not able to go home to family, as most young couples do.

In the home in which I had grown up, my grandmother had been the cook — the kind of experienced cook who made everything without a cookbook and added ingredients until things “looked” or “felt” right; I had no family recipes to guide me.

I turned to a synagogue member, Ellen Hirsch, who had become a guide to me. She and her husband were Holocaust survivors. We spent several Shabbat and holiday meals with them.

When I needed a recipe for matzah balls, who else would I turn to but my good friend?

She was gracious enough to share her recipe with me — little did I know... she had not left out any ingredients or specific instructions, but neglected to tell me that matzah balls expand when they are boiled.

I am sure it just never occurred to her that I didn’t know.

Erev Pesach, I was frantic and frenzied and ferklempt; the house was a mess; but I was serene and confident about the matzah balls. The recipe called for one spoonful of batter per matzah ball. I was having 22 guests at my seders; it seemed that a spoon-sized matzah ball was pretty small, so when I realized that the recipe only made about 26 matzah balls, I figured I better double the recipe in case any of the guests might want more than one.

Pretty soon, the 50-plus matzah balls started simmering and took over my brand new 12-quart soup pot. What a disaster! I kept adding water to keep them from sucking all the liquid out of the pot! Eventually, thankfully, they were done — but where was I going to put them? I needed to use that pot for the soup.

By now it was only a few hours before the first seder; my husband had plenty of his own to do to get ready for the holiday, but I didn’t care. “Get in the car,” I told him, “and go find me containers to hold these things!” Bravely, he went out to the stores and came back with several large plastic containers. We carefully moved the matzah balls into the containers and got them into the refrigerator.  Problem solved for the time being . . .

That night, I put the matzah balls into the soup and served them.  Everyone oohed and aahed about how delicious they were — I was so proud — but they were large, so no one wanted more than one.  After the seder, I realized, we had only begun to solve the matzah ball issue. We had used up almost all the soup—and we still had another seder to go.

That soup had been pareve — at that time, we ate meat dinners and dairy lunches, so I almost always made pareve soups. I didn’t have enough vegetables to make another 12 quarts of soup, so I quickly improvised and threw canned chicken soup into what was left of the vegetable soup and used that for the second seder. Even after two seders and 22 guests, we still had at least 25 leftover matzah balls — and we had three different kinds of matzah balls in three different containers: pareve matzah balls that had only been boiled in the water but never put into soup; matzah balls that had been in the vegetable soup and were still pareve; and matzah balls that had originally been pareve but were now “meat” because they had been in the chicken soup.

For the rest of Pesach, we ate matzah balls at every meal — and I have never forgotten that matzah balls expand when you boil them!!

Lisa Levy, The writer lives in Forest Hills.

More Passover stories are available at the Jewish Week website, www.thejewishweek.com.