My mother Miriam Goldberg, of blessed memory, loved being the host all year round. It was never a question of Mom hosting this time, so an aunt or friend would host next time. Mom loved hosting all the time.
Which means that other than one year when my Dad was ill and both Mom and Dad were at the Mayor Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, every year the seders were at our house.
Of course, many of my parents’ siblings made their own seders, but many came to our house. All of the adults took turns reading from the Haggadah.
I remember my late Uncle Dave Goodman’s stentorian voice. As a kid I knew him as a truck driver. As a teen I knew him as a salesman for a uniform dry-cleaning company. This blue collar worker had the most deep, resonant, dramatic voice I’ve ever heard, plus perfect diction. I used to urge him to go to Hollywood to become the voice-over for epic movies. He never did. But he did bring the drama of the Exodus from Egypt to our seder.
I remember my late Uncle Dave Steinberg. He recited every word of the Haggadah to himself while others were taking turns reading out loud.
Sometime before or after the seder he told me something I only much later understood. He was a strong man, a cattleman, but he would wince. He would shake his head as he told me how bitter it was to grind the root, the horseradish, how much he cried. Remember, this was before food processors.
Uncle Dave had only a simple grater. At that age in my life, I had never ground the root myself. I thought it hard enough to eat the maror. I didn’t know that for Uncle Dave that may have been the easier part. Years later, when I ground my own root, also without a food processor, I thought of Uncle Dave and his tears. I knew what he meant.
I remember my late Uncle Louie Barnett. As pious as Uncle Dave Goodman was, Uncle Louie was the opposite. This would not be particularly noteworthy were it not for the fact that these two men and their wives and their children spent their entire married lives under the same roof.
Neither then nor since have I heard of such incredible closeness among siblings and siblings-in-law. The address was 1700 Niagara Street (and before that on the West Side). It was “Uncle Dave and Uncle Louie’s house” or “Aunt Libby and Aunt Rose’s house.” Their lives were interwoven from beginning to end. Religiously, they lived very different lives, but their love for each other was palpable.
I remember my father deftly conducting the seder, totally focused, making certain that everyone had a chance to participate (himself included). I remember his own voice, which he put to fine use on his one-on-one TV interview shows, which, however, were never mentioned on holy occasions such as the seder.
I remember my grandmother, that is, my father’s mother, who spent decades in another very close family arrangement, almost unheard of today.
She lived with her daughter Florence and son-in-law Dave Goodman (he of the stentorian voice). I grew up without the word “nursing home” or “assisted living” or “senior housing” in my vocabulary. No doubt, this was also because when my mother’s mother Minnie Harris could no longer live on her own, she moved in with my father and mother for many years (just as Grandma Minnie took in her own mother Amelia for 19 years).
Anyway, both of my grandmothers were present at the seders, but only Grandma Minnie read from the Haggadah because only she knew English. I never did figure out how my father’s mother passed her citizenship test because her English was extremely limited. That did not stop this native of Brisk, Lithuania, from conveying what she wanted about the importance of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the rest of the holidays. Somehow, with her, words in English were not necessary; her Yiddish, with only a very occasional English phrase, was enough.
Incidentally, I’m not really sure how, but my grandmother’s great-granddaughter Heather, now living in Israel, secured a picture of my grandmother as a young widow. I knew my grandmother only as a very old woman. The family lore has it that she had to be hidden as she traveled from Lithuania to Denver in 1895 for her intended, my late grandfather Yechiel; it was feared that since she was so beautiful someone else would preempt the shidduch. Seeing that picture, I understand.
My grandfathers were never at the seder. My Mom’s father, Harry Harris, died on the first day of Rosh Hashanah a few months before I was born. I am named after him. My father’s father died at age 42 in the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918, leaving his widow and nine children, the oldest 18.
You might think, from all these memories, that I was an attentive, perfectly behaved little kid at the seder. Well, I was, when I got older.
But as a child I was also playing around under the table or in the basement with my cousin Carol, just a couple of months younger than I (who, when we entered grade school, always seemed to get better grades than I, a constant source of irritation).
We all seemed to be present at the table for the singing of “Dayenu.”
We were also there for the 10 plagues and the the diminution of the wine cup one drop at a time for each plague. Speaking of wine, the only kosher wine available in those days was heavy, heavy Manischewitz. I loved it. I think my tolerance for heavy wine was much greater then than now; or perhaps it seems that way because my parents did not let me have too much. All the adults seemed to drink it down just fine, however.
When it came time for the meal, it all seemed so effortless. My Mom must have worked very hard to make a meal for all of us around the table, probably with some help from one or more of my aunts (whomever was at that particular seder). We always had a couple of soldiers from Lowry Air Force Base. My Mom loved hosting them. Then there were my siblings, the aunts and uncles and some of their kids (only some, because the older ones were away at college).
Having watched my wife make a seder, I have a lot better idea of what it takes. I help a lot with the Passover cleaning but am helpless with the cooking, save for the charoset, which Grandma Minnie taught me how to make.
Bottom line: Passover was a big deal back then.
The same as now.
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