I know it’s getting really boring to talk ad infinitum about our dysfunctional families. But trust me, pilgrims — when it came to the Passover seder at the Shindler homestead in the Bronx, dysfunction didn’t even begin to describe the chaos and torments of Gehenna that afflicted my small nuclear family. Indulge me for a moment, while I get some of the angst from those years off my chest.
I grew up in a fairly traditional kosher family, where in theory we had one set of dishes for dairy and one for meat for everyday use, and a parallel set of dairy and meat dishes for Passover use. Except that I also grew up in a rather poor working-class family, who couldn’t afford an indulgence as special as matching dishware or flatware. Instead, each of our four sets of dishes were a motley crew of hand-me-downs, chipped and broken family heirlooms, garage sale and flea market finds, and various plates and bowls that had arrived of their own accord.
Only my mother knew which plates and utensils fit into which designated culinary zones. Though she never figured out how to drive a car, she was a savant when it came to recognizing instantly that I was eating my My-T-Fine chocolate pudding with a spoon intended to be used with boiled brisket. If I (or my sister) mistakenly used the wrong utensil, the punishment was that the food was thrown out, and we went to bed hungry. The offending utensil was simply washed off, and returned to the confusion of the kitchen drawers.
Come Passover, a normally chaotic situation turned downright apocalyptic. About a week before the first seder, my father and I would drag out the boxes of Passover dishes from the back of the closet, and my mother would set about hand-washing and hand-drying every item in the boxes. The non-Passover dishes would then be boxed and dragged into a closet for storage. Then my father would bring up the notion of having one of the seders with his family. This marked the beginning of our annual impersonation of World War III.
To call the relationship between my mother and my father’s family antagonistic is to barely scratch the surface. The IRA gets along better with the British troops stationed in Derry. There was no act, no phone call, no communication of any sort, that didn’t turn into a major skirmish, followed by a screaming match, followed by some marvelously Medieval curses tossed in both directions. In all my years in the Bronx, I don’t remember ever having a seder with anyone other than my mother, father and sister. Yet every year, my father would suggest it, my mother would go postal and the mood would be set for the rest of the holiday.
It turned the mood in my mother’s kitchen very dark indeed. And the anger that hung heavily in the air seemed to work its way into the food — matzo balls with the weight and heft of plutonium, vegetables cooked into a mush even grayer than their usually charcoal hues, chicken turned stringy and dry. Bravely, we would struggle on, trying to conduct a modified seder between outbreaks of hostility between my parents. And for the week following, I’d explore the interesting ritual of spreading cold butter on matzo, which may define the meaning of the word “impossible.” Thank goodness for macaroons and jelly slices, or I might have starved to death before the bickering came to an end as the dishes were changed for another year.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco, and started conducting seders on my own, that I discovered what a joy they can be. (One of the most memorable was a seder I wound up conducting for 16 Jewish lesbians, that had me frantically turning references from “Him” to “Her” in the seder — and boy did those alternative lifestyle ladies make some terrific chicken soup!)
These days I love cooking the requisite brisket and chicken-in-the-pot, and thrill to the aroma of gefilte fish fresh from the bottle (which I swear tastes better than freshly made). I usually do my seders as a potluck, with all the participants assigned one segment of the meal or another. My family is represented by my sister and myself. My wife’s family shows up, which causes no torment at all. (Well, almost none; there’s an ongoing battle between the Pepsi partisans and those who prefer Coca-Cola.) And there’s lots of extended family, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Last year, I had an African American friend at my seder, who told me he had been moved to tears by the message of Passover. It feels nice. But it does make me sad. My family in the Bronx never knew what they were missing. Family can be tough. But the joys can be beyond all description.
Food critic Merrill Shindler can be heard Saturdays and Sundays on KLSX 97.1 FM from 5-7 p.m.