The Persian seder begins the same way every year: A plate of matzah, veiled with an ornamented white cloth, gets passed around the table until everybody has sung the schedule of the seder. While whoever holds the tray sings, the remaining audience claps or slaps the table in unison to the Hebrew syllables. Inevitably, the vocally ungifted or self-conscious refuse their turn, which then elicits immediate protest. But eventually, however unenthusiastically, even the reluctant ones cave.
From that point forward, chaos ensues. Children shout and climb chairs, adults crack jokes out of turn, others protest for quiet, and some say it’s too hot or it’s too cold. At my table, my mother and grandmother trade passive-aggressive lines, my cousins whine to their parents, and my stomach groans in hunger, dissatisfied from munching on cilantro dipped in vinegar.
“It’s too hot!” somebody claims.
I turn on the fan so a breeze can settle in to the living room. The 15 of us are crammed around a table that’s meant to fit 10.
Then there’s wine.
“Wind!” shrieks my aunt, who’s always cold. “Wind! We’re going to get sick!”
“Where’s it coming from?”
“I turned on the fan, because people said it’s hot. We can all relax.”
“Wind!” others repeat in fear, as if this wind is on the prowl to harm.
My uncle reads through the haggadah at one end of the table, while the rest of the table engages in an unrelated conversation.
“I want to take a selfie!” a little cousin yells.
“You’re an idiot!” his older brother responds.
I just sit there, doing my best to suppress my frustrations, knowing that in about one hour — dinner time — it will all be worth it. I don’t say it around my mom, but my grandma probably makes the best Persian food in Los Angeles. And on Passover, she takes it to the next level.
“Jeremy, you’re ugly!” my youngest cousin yells. They all laugh.
“Easy now,” I say.
My uncle suddenly grabs ahold of my leg.
“How the girls, man?”
“Pretty good, Amu,” Farsi for paternal uncle.
“Do any of them have a sister?” He’s married with children, but makes this same joke almost every time I see him. He laughs every time he says it, too, as if to say that even after years of recycling it, it hasn’t lost any originality or brilliance.
One more blessing, one more cup of wine.
My other uncle has a thick black mustache and fluffy, receding hair. He’s the seder leader. But he treats it more seriously than ceremoniously, quickly reading through the haggadah in mumbled, unmelodic Hebrew and Aramaic. If you let him, he’ll read through the entire seder on his own. Each year, for example, he gets caught reading the Four Questions, not stopping to wait for the kids to answer. “Hey,” my grandma interjects. “The kids are supposed to read this part.”
He keeps reading. The protests get louder. He stops, tosses the Ralphs haggadah onto the table, which produces a thump, then stares at the corner of the room where nothing is happening. I have a total of five younger cousins, and together, after the first five or six words of the Four Questions, they get stuck. They keep repeating those words that everybody knows, the chorus, but can’t pull through the nuanced verses. All this time, I’ve been silent. Although it’s tradition, if not the rule, for the young’uns to have the spotlight at this part, I know I’m the only grandchild who can pull through.
“Jeremy, you read!”
“No, no. It’s their turn.”
“They need you! Come on.”
“Some other time.”
They go on without me.
“OK, OK. I’ll read it!”
We eat some matzah, which I detest, and have one more cup of wine, which I don’t detest. My serious uncle has regained the throne and rips through the Hebrew verses, pausing for nothing. We’re at the four sons section.
I once tried to teach the table the essence of the four sons, because I found it interesting. So I stood up and pontificated about the inclusion and meaning of the four sons text. Unfortunately I was booed off stage before I could finish, so I’ve given that up — but anyway, I read the English translation and get intrigued every year. The four sons section, I think, teaches you “how to win friends and influence people” in four Hebrew paragraphs written thousands of years ago.
The seder’s been going on for an hour now, and people are hungry. There’s still a ways to go, and it’s past 10 p.m. — “10:30,” my mom says to my dad with a condescending smirk. “Does she plan on having us eat tonight? We are starved.” My grandma doesn’t speak English, so my mom takes advantage of this and complains as outwardly as she likes.
“We’re getting hungry, Ma,” my dad tells her timidly, in Farsi.
“OK, OK. Have some tea, have some fruit,” she responds. My grandma has the tendency to keep dinner until the end, I think, that way she can have the seder drag on as long as possible so as to extend playing host.
Then we get to Dayenu, which probably sums up the entire experience. Basically, you grab your weapon — long, green onions, however many you can get your hands on — and whack the heck out of whoever you feel like in an effort to recapture the Hebrews being assaulted by their Egyptian masters.
One seder, I made the mistake of showing up with a freshly dry-cleaned white shirt. I was skeptical but thought I’d try: “Hey, everyone. Just got this shirt cleaned. Would you guys mind not screwing with it?”
An awkward, ominous silence lingered in the air.
“Jeremy, the showoff.”
My uncle cussed me brutally in Farsi under his breath.
“Everyone, hit his shirt. Hit him harder than you would anyway,” my aunt demanded.
“What’d I ever do to you?” I asked.
Before getting an answer, my 10-year-old cousin sneaked around my seat, giggled uncontrollably and slashed me across the chest. Someone started singing “Dayenu,” and within seconds, three or four cousins were smacking me with onions, too. When they’d finished, my white shirt was green.
The madness happens every year: abundant energy, misdirected anger, taken up physically in the form of whipping each other with onions. The kids duck and jump, yell and scream, whack each other. When the onion’s upper parts break off, some resort to throwing the remaining butts at their targets across the house like snipers. I hold up the paper haggadah and use it as a shield. “Cease fire!” I yell.
“Enough!” my grandma shouts. “Start cleaning up!” Unfortunately, this only launches the play fighting into real fighting. Now, the little guys are bear hugging, kicking. I watch for a little bit — I went through this, too — but eventually pull them apart. Some of them are red in the face.
If people keep fighting, my uncle sports a more effective means: he undoes his belt, brings it out of the loops. He wraps the belt into itself and holds it in the air. “All right! Who wants it? Who still wants to fight?” The kids start running. He slashes the thin leather together, producing several slick, sharp slaps. He advances, starts hitting inanimate objects, like the table, the chairs, to show he means business. “Who wants it? Who wants it?” That’s when it ends.
Probably one more glass of wine. Some charoset, which shocks me every year. Never has something looked so awful but tasted so great. I’ll never forget offering to share my charoset with a college friend, ChiChi, who was a 6-foot-6 Nigerian. We were in my dorm room playing video games, he munching on his third or fourth piece of matzah. “Have some of this with it, man, you’ll love it” I said, indicating the charoset. His eyes were wide open. “Nah, I’m good,” he said.
I usually treat myself to another glass of wine, this time without a blessing, just for fun. We clean up the table, trade in all the Passover food for real food: rice, stews, chicken and salad. I stuff a plate with two or three chicken legs, a lot of rice, red khoresht with chunks of red meat and some salad. This is only the first round: Every Passover, and basically any time I see her, my grandma accuses me of looking thin, at which point she almost doubles my already huge serving. I fall into a food coma from being force-fed to a point of seemingly no return.
I’m eager to get back home and read, or look at pretty girls on Facebook — get back to where things make sense. No more green onions slapping my face. It’s permissible for me to leave; the night’s basically over, but a feeling of nostalgia settles in when I realize I’ve been coming to this specific house consistently for 24 years. I try to take a moment to appreciate it. There’s a gratefulness to be had in being able to celebrate the holiday in Los Angeles without any disturbance — other than, of course, your uncle threatening to lash you with his leather belt.
Moreover, it’s hard to stay close with people, and when you take a step back to realize that Passover — so often torn apart because of our collective disdain for matzah — unites not only your immediate family but also your grandma, cousins, aunts and uncles, and has probably done so for hundreds of years, it’s a beautiful thing. For two years, there’s been a little table stand in the dining room with a close-up portrait of my late grandfather, a little round white candle flickering before it. The seder would probably be more structured if he were still the one leading the table through the haggadah, but for the most part, I imagine he’d be proud.
Jeremy Ely is a 25-year-old short-story writer in Los Angeles. You can read some of his ramblings on Twitter @jelypoppa.