Monty Hall spent 27 years making outrageous deals with anxious contestants on his TV game show, “Let’s Make a Deal.” But the sweetest deal he ever made with his mishpachah was for a plate of pickled herring if they’d join him for Passover seder.
Such a deal! The odds are all in Hall’s favor.
Which of Monty and Marilyn Hall’s three children — actress Joanna Gleason, filmmaker Richard Hall, director-writer Sharon Hall Kessler, or even their spouses — wouldn’t want to gather around the large stone dining table to eat and retell the story of the Jewish people’s journey from slavery to freedom? Even the real dealmakers of the family — the Halls’ five grandchildren — get to put in their two cents.
As Hall greets visitors in his gracious home, where his O.C. medallion (Order of Canada, the highest award the government bestows), bumps up against three honorary doctorates, Israeli artist Reuven Rubin’s suite of lithographs titled, “The Prophets,” and a plethora of plaques honoring his charitable works, he points out the prize he’s probably the most proud of: his “Grandfather of the Year” award.
Switching thoughts, he focuses on an antique silver chalice, which has become Elijah’s dedicated wine goblet, translating the words engraved on the side — borei p’ree hagafen (blessed be the fruit of the vine).
His face strictly deadpan, reminiscent of Jewish comedians Jack Benny and George Burns, Hall explained, “Marilyn and I found it at a flea market in Jaffa, Israel. One Passover we opened the door to put it out for Elijah; the dog walked in.”
Which flavor of the sugary sweet wine is his favorite?
“After the third cup, who cares?” he said.
“Every year we host the seder; invite close friends, cousins; there’s usually 35 of us,” he said. “We take in lots of strangers, people who don’t have any place to go. It’s a mitzvah I can do this.”
“My family has always been close. All my kids are in the business. I didn’t get one dentist,” he quips.
To say nothing of his wife, Marilyn, an award-winning producer of “A Woman Named Golda” and “Do You Remember Love?” who also compiled “The Celebrity Kosher Cookbook: A Sentimental Journey with Food, Mothers and Memories,” with Rabbi Jerome Cutler. The recipes, anecdotes and jokes were from Jewish entertainers. Originally published in 1975, the book was a fundraiser for the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles and other Jewish charities.
As Hall wades through this embarrassment of riches, it’s obvious his grandchildren bring him the most joy. Hall kvells over his grandchildren.
Passover memories are precious to him, especially now that he’s the patriarch. But a very special Passover, when he was only 6, and his beloved grandfather, David, was the patriarch, never strays far away from his heart.
Hall was born in Winnipeg, Canada, in his grandparents house on Hallet Street. He grew up with four generations of family — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and two sets of great-grandparents.
“When you grow up in a house like that, you learn about respect,” Hall said. “One of the most beautiful sights I remember is sitting at the dining table, watching my aged great-grandfather feeding his wife, who had gone blind.”
His grandfather, David Rusen, arrived in Winnipeg in 1901 from the Pavelich shtetl in the Ukraine. He started out with a pushcart, selling fruit and vegetables on the street. Subsequently he bought a truck, then started a wholesale produce company. By 1906, he had earned enough to bring over his wife and children, his wife’s parents and two sets of grandparents.
Grandpa David subsequently sponsored not only the rest of their family, but 100 impoverished Jews from their shtetl who wanted a respite from their life in czarist Russia.
On one particular Pesach the family was right in the middle of the service when the phone rang. It was the stationmaster from the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
“I have this family — they gave me a piece of paper with your number. What do I do with them?” he urgently asked.
“Put them in a taxi,” Rusen said. “And tell the driver to make it quick.”
The “family,” were cousins who had set foot on the shores of Canada from the Ukraine on the first night of Passover.
“Grandma ordered us all to stop eating. ‘We have six more mouths to feed,'” Hall recalled her saying.
“Because the cousins spoke no English and we spoke no Ukrainian, we communicated in Yiddish,” Hall said. “There were four children — Aaron, Kieva, Miriam and Numa. As soon as they introduced Numa, my uncles and I started laughing hysterically and poor little Numa started to cry. How could Numa know that his name was the lion in our favorite comic strip, “Tarzan?”
“There were more tears, but they were for joy, as my grandmother began babbling in Ukrainian to these cousins she hadn’t seen in 21 years,” Hall added.
Fifty years later, Hall was speaking in Canada at a large Hadassah fundraiser. He was retelling the story of how a poor Russian family walked into his grandfather’s seder and changed the way he looked at the world.
“After I finished speaking, people began gathering around me,” Hall remembered. “One very pretty woman whispered, ‘That story sounds familiar. My name is Miriam Margulies. Could we be related?'”
“I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck,” Hall said.
“‘Miriam, didn’t you hear the story? There were four children. I still remember — Kieva, Aaron, Numa and Miriam. Your family crashed our Passover seder. We both cried,” Hall recalled.
That seder sticks in his mind as one of the defining moments of his life, where he learned about charity, philanthropy and the line from “Fiddler on the Roof”: “We all know who we are and what God expects of us.”
“That was my grandfather’s creed and mine,” Hall said. “My grandfather was like Tevye the Milkman. I guess in my own way, I am, too.”
Recipes for Monty Hall’s Passover
Monty Hall’s Sweet and Sour Herring
Hall learned how to make this recipe from a friend in Canada, who taught him to filet the fresh fish. As years went by, and time became scarce, Hall would make the recipe from Matjes herring he would buy in a tin, which were already filleted. This sweet-sour appetizer developed quite a following; it was the perfect hors d’oeuvres for Passover. One year when he and Alan Alda went to a second-night seder, “I brought two jars of the herring; we passed the first jar around and it disappeared,” Hall said. “So, apparently, had the second jar. We looked high and low for it; then I walked into the kitchen and there was Alan, devouring it, a guilty look on his face. I’ve never let him forget it.”
You can buy pickling spices in a package or combine your own. Matjes herring takes one hour to soak. Salt herrings might take longer, so ask the fish seller.
4 fresh Matjes or salt herrings, filleted
1 large white onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup white wine or apple cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
3 cloves (optional)
8 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
8 juniper berries
1 tablespoon mace leaves
A piece of cheesecloth
Soak herrings for one hour in cold water or milk; drain on a few layers of paper towels. Cut into bite-size pieces. Place spices in a piece of cheesecloth, making sure to secure the ends to make a sack. Place in pan with vinegar and sugar and boil for five minutes. Place in pan with vinegar, sugar and water to taste. Let it cool. In a wide-mouth glass jar, place a layer of herring, then a layer of onions; alternate until you have reached the top. Pour the cooled liquid over the herring. Refrigerate for two days before eating. It will stay fresh in the refrigerator for two weeks.
Serves six to eight.
Marilyn Hall’s Favorite Recipe for Baba Ghanouj
1 large eggplant
1 medium onion, grated on largest holes of a grater
1Â¼2 bunch parsley, finely chopped
1Â¼2 cup tahina (sesame seed paste)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 teaspoons water
1 teaspoon salt
Dash cayenne pepper
Place the whole unpeeled eggplant directly on gas burner with the flame set at medium, turning it as the skin chars and the inside becomes soft, or bake in a pan at 450 F. until it is charred and tender, about 30 minutes. When done, let cool slightly, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the eggplant pulp with a wooden spoon (the wooden spoon preserves the flavor). Chop fine in a ceramic or wooden bowl. Squeeze out juice from the onion; add the grated onion to the eggplant, along with the parsley.
Blend tahina thoroughly with lemon juice and garlic, stir in small amount of water until mixture is white in color. Stir into eggplant mixture; add salt and a dash of cayenne pepper. More lemon juice may be added for extra flavor. Garnish with parsley.
Makes 21Â¼2 to 3 cups.
From “The Flavor of Jerusalem” by Joan Nathan and Judy Stacey Goldman (Little, Brown and Company, 1975).