The details would kill a mere mortal. Making gefilte fish from scratch, shaping matzo balls with your bare hands, chopping liver, stuffing cabbage, purging your kitchen of every crumb of bread, all to commemorate some ancient fast food eaten at Mount Sinai by the 10 tribes of Israel and carried forward into the modern world by my mother.
As she has since the beginning of my recorded history, my mother sets her kitchen spinning at least two weeks before Passover, mining her store of Yiddish recipes, cooking huge vats of chicken broth, grinding great chunks of whitefish, trout, and red snapper into the texture of ground meat, and exhausting herself and three other family members in the process. "So who else should make the Seder, if I don't?" she asks rhetorically in the speak of Jewish mothers everywhere.
By 6 p.m. last Friday, the usual suspects arrive: my family of four, my sister's family of five, assorted friends and distant relatives--a hardcore group of 30 or so Jews and a few token Gentiles who each year come together under my parents' roof to tell the epic story of the Jewish exodus from Egyptian bondage and get high off cheap ceremonial wine. Ours is a commingling of the Jews of the Diaspora, three generations of Americans in varying stages of assimilation: Holocaust survivors, transplanted New Yorkers, native Texans, and lawyers. Counted among our number are my Polish cousin (and his Czechoslovakian wife) who was granted asylum here during the days of Solidarity; my sister, the politico from Plano; my sister's old friends, a Catholic funeral director (the angel of death, we affectionately call him) and his wife, whose love of my mother's cooking has, at times, caused them to give serious thought to converting.
Although food or the absence of it (see Yom Kippur) lies at the heart of many of the world's religious festivals, over the years there has developed a tension in my parents' house between those who view Passover as a religious ritual and those who view it as a gorgefest. If our telling of the Ten Commandments starts taking on the length of Cecil B. DeMille's movie, the latter group (myself included) begins to munch quietly on small bits of matzo in protest. But this year the protests may be growing louder. My niece, the assistant district attorney, has brought her fiance, Brian, home for the holidays. He is a rabbi--well, a rabbinic student anyway, which is the worst kind because in his zeal for legitimacy, he is apt to confuse our physical hunger for his spiritual hunger. Panic is spreading across the assembled that dinner may not be served before midnight.
I greet my Polish cousin Vladik who, since moving to this country, has officially changed his name to Dave, and he voices his concern in an accent as thick as lentil soup: "I hear rumor, service is to be exceptionally long." He smiles slightly. "Maybe we stage revolution." I try to assure him this isn't Mother Russia, just my mother's house--and no one will go hungry for long.
My father quickly ushers his guests into his sunken living room, where seating is provided along tables draped in white linen. At the head table, a barrier has been broken: My niece sits beside her fiance--the first woman to achieve this status since my mother started making matzo into balls. My sister is quick to comment on how far women have come in our family. Seated beside me is my brother-in-law, the lawyer, who for the past five years has been serving as de facto leader of the Seder but whose power has now been usurped by a higher moral authority, the future rabbi. Nevertheless, my brother-in-law is in good humor: He has just reached a favorable settlement in a high-profile civil case, although the rules of confidentiality prevent him from going into details. Lawyers.
The rabbi-to-be takes center stage, his boyish charm and studious demeanor winning the crowd over easily. He explains that Passover is the most important story in Jewish life, comprising four of the five books of Moses. What will transpire will be a re-enactment of the Exodus from Egypt, interactive theater of sorts where we can experience the yoke of slavery--tasting it, smelling it, touching it--without ever setting foot in the desert. The service will proceed in 14 parts, he announces, as several among us glance at our watches.
My brother-in-law turns to me, his Texas twang evident as he whispers out of the side of his mouth: "I give 'em an hour before they'll be begging me to come back."
Candles are lit, wineglasses are raised, a sliver of celery--anything green actually, symbolizing the coming of spring--is eaten. The rabbi-to-be instructs my mother to open the front door, an ancient custom offering Passover hospitality to all those who are hungry--whether they be Gentile or Jew. No one enters, although someone comments that this is how the funeral director and his wife got here in the first place.
It's 7 o'clock now, and it's my son the teenager's time to perform. He asks the traditional four questions: Among them, why is this night different from all other nights? The rabbi-to-be doesn't want to limit him or anyone else to only four questions, because the "right to question," he says, is a symbol of being free. Mumbling to myself, I think of a fifth question: When do we eat?
We begin to contemplate the 10 plagues--blood, frogs, locusts, boils, darkness, etc.--listing them in both Hebrew and English while dipping a finger into our wineglasses and spilling one drop per plague onto our plates. For the first time I learn the reason: Removing wine (joy) from the glass takes the gladness out of suffering (the 10 plagues). Freedom has its price, and no one should rejoice at another's misery. We sing; we read responsively, exploring the symbolism behind other foods on the Seder plate: apples, nuts, horseradish, matzo--mixing joy with sorrow as we eat the bitter with the sweet, a decidedly Jewish view of life. Curiously, I look at the rabbi-to-be. He is giving meaning to what has always been for me empty ritual. My brother-in-law is losing ground fast; this guy is good.
About an hour and 45 minutes into the Seder, we do something we have never done before: wash our hands. It doesn't sound like much (unless you're my son), but when done ceremoniously, pouring water over each hand three times, there is a connection to antiquity that seems undeniable. All must remain silent for the next several minutes, which is no easy task for a roomful of Jewish lawyers.
Enter the meal, finally, deliciously, although there will be more praying following the feast. First comes the gefilte fish, which must be bathed in enough harsh-tasting red horseradish to open up the sinuses, water the eyes, and get a traditional holiday yelp out of my brother-in-law. Next comes the matzo-ball soup, a sweet but plump dumpling surrounded by a chicken broth that's to this day touted in some parts of Latvia as a cure for the common cold. No matter that the matzo balls might have enough bounce to get endorsed by Andre Agassi. No matter that the fish might taste too hard or too pasty or, dare I say it, too fishy; heaping high praise on both are as obligatory on Passover as drinking cheap Manischewitz wine.
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As the soup plates are cleared away, enormous amounts of food are placed simmering behind us. My mother directs everyone to stand in the buffet line, which, at times, can get downright vicious. Three kinds of chicken, two kinds of beef, stuffed cabbage, sweet-potato pudding, noodle pudding, buttered asparagus, grilled mushrooms, zucchini casserole, squash casserole, tossed salad, and two kinds of Jell-O molds dot the liturgical landscape. The Seder meal has something for everyone: It's high in fat, high in protein, high in carbohydrates, and high in cholesterol.
By 9:30 p.m., an air of informality seizes the room: Ties are loosened, jackets removed, belts unbuckled. Talk turns to newborn babies and wedding plans, recent illnesses and sudden deaths, Bill Clinton's high approval rating and freedom. With my parents and their European friends being Holocaust survivors, the line between Egyptian slavery and German genocide is easily drawn. And living in America, the land of the free, and Dallas, Texas, the land of free enterprise...well, you get the picture.
No matter the leader, the end of our Seder is always the same: singing "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem, followed by "God Bless America." The two songs reflect the strange duality of the American Jewish experience, at least at my parents' house. My brother-in-law makes the grand gesture, offering his future son-in-law a permanent gig at our Seder table. His suggestion is backed up with a round of applause from all those still capable of consciousness and dessert.
As I help myself to several of the seven cakes (made special for Passover) that now adorn the buffet line, it makes sense to me, what the rabbi-to-be has been telling us. Why hurry the ritual to get to the food when it's the food itself that's the ritual? A link between the past and the present, the desert and the dining room, the material world and the spiritual. Amazingly, as I take the last bite of my mother's coconut-cream sponge cake, my thoughts turn to the afterlife. I'm so stuffed, I'm ready to roll over and die.