I confess that most of my childhood Passover memories have nothing to do with the Passover story itself. How could they when seders were family dramas enacted against a backdrop of matzah and gefilte fish? Like most American Jewish kids, I started out observing the proceedings from a card table, fidgeting while the grown-ups read from the haggadah.
I remember my cultivated Grandma Lil, relishing dunking her finger into her cup and flicking wine out while reciting the 10 plagues. She always tried to avoid the eyes of my Grandpa Herman, her ex-husband. I think the tyrannical Herman, an esteemed ear-nose-and-throat doctor, had been one of her private plagues. But love Herman or not, Grandma tolerated him at seders. The didact in Grandpa Herman embraced the lecture component of seders. He had a little notebook full of Pesach cartoons and poems that he called a Children’s Haggadah. He dragged it out every year to show us the same poems and pictures. My grandmother just rolled her eyes. We kids humored him.
I also remember heated arguments about the Vietnam War, with my then-hawkish, young, dentist father vs. his UCLA sociology doctoral-student brother and Berkeley undergraduate sister. My father’s brother had a long, hippie beard that shook like a burning bush when he shouted, “We’re killing innocent children in ‘Nam!” My father’s sister’s breasts shook (she must have burned her bra during a protest at People’s Park) and cords stood out on her neck when she yelled at my father: “You’re sounding like one of the pigs.”
My father’s genial father stepped in with his Yiddish-accented English and said, “Quiet, we’re trying to have a seder here. What will the children think?”
He motioned at me, age 6, and my sister, age 4. The seder went on.
As I grew older and more responsible, I was allowed into the grown-up sanctum, the actual dining room. I felt almost adult as I carried steaming bowls of matzah ball soup, cleared the dishes and conversed with my elders. At age 15, as I cleared the dinner plates from the grandparent section of the table, I heard my sweet, widowed, little Grandma Bea sucking the marrow from a thick chicken bone. Suddenly, tyrannical Herman screamed at her from across the table, “That’s disgusting! You’re not living in the shtetl anymore. You’re nothing but a peasant.”
Grandma Bea ignored him and sucked louder.
“I’m done now, Sharon dear,” she said. “You can take my plate.”
I scooped up her plate and tried to dash for the kitchen. Grandpa Herman grabbed my forearm, fixed his blue eyes on mine and said, “I hope you won’t behave like her in polite society.”
I wanted to cry. But I followed my grandma’s example, ignored him, and walked out. Although Grandpa Herman’s rages were getting scarier with age, I learned to cope.
My Grandma Lil, tyrannical Grandpa Herman, genial Grandpa Fred and my father are all gone now, but these seder memories remain. I try to view even the painful memories as a blessing. Growing up, these experiences taught me that despite difficult relatives and challenging situations the seder must go on — the story must be told, the wine must be drunk and the songs must be sung. Doesn’t that somehow seem like a metaphor for the Jewish people’
My once wild-bearded sociologist uncle is now a retired college professor with very little hair remaining on his head. He conducts the seders much like my father did before him, and my grandfather before him. His past political outrages have been muted by time. But somehow the seder remains the same.
Now that I’ve graduated to near the head of the dining room table, I sense a lot more people around me then I did in the card table days. I feel the presence of all the dead relatives I remember from childhood on, and see a new crop of children sitting at the card table. From generation to generation, in my mind’s eye, everyone is around the table. That’s the power of seder I hope to pass on to my own children.
Sharon Rosen is a mother of three and is currently working on her first novel.