On Pesach, she would host 30 guests. Her siblings, children, friends without family nearby. The dining room table was extended to its maximum length, extra card tables snaking into the hallway and stopping at the edge of the living room where the floral sofa sat enshrined in plastic. Sunday before the first seder, her husband’s day off, they’d change over her kitchen. Two sets of her everyday and good china dishes, pots and pans, silverware, and drinking glasses would be boxed up, carried carefully to the attic, and down came the Pesach kitchenware. The oven scraped clean of grease and residues; her rugs shaken out for crumbs. Cooking commenced only after the sinks and counters and stovetop and oven were properly kashered. There were pounds and pounds of carp to chop — her sister Fanny, eleven years older and the first to America, advised her to buy the largest fish she could find and have the fishmonger scale, de-fin, remove the eyes and lips. Use an enamel pot. A little girl of seven when her mother and oldest brother died, her father a prisoner of war in Siberia, her older sisters kept the family together, taught her how to cook. Now, as she prepares the chopped liver, she feels Czarna’s fingers guiding her, she sees Toba’s hands rolling stuffed cabbage and Gitel shaping the k’neidelach. She makes four batches of chicken soup, a brisket, and tzimmes.
On Pesach, she mixes little bowls of salt water to place on the seder table for dipping hard-boiled eggs and potatoes. If she thinks of her lost sisters and brother too much, her eyes will spill over and mix with these tears of the ancient Israelites under bondage. The kinder shouldn’t see her weep, but the joy of holiday preparations will forever be tempered by her loss. Four siblings, their spouses and babies, among millions. And yet, she knows she is blessed to have her remaining three siblings here in Bridgeport, and her orphaned nephew, and her three boys married now and producing grandchildren. B’kol dor v’dor. In every generation, a person is obligated to regard herself as though she left Egypt, to feel the journey from slavery to freedom.
On Pesach, she wonders if they are slaves to the business, their seders commencing at 11 p.m. when her husband returns home from his liquor store. But she’d arrived in America in November 1929, two weeks after the stock market crashed, and the Depression had taught them that adjustments would have to be made to their Orthodox upbringing; food on the table taking precedence over starting the holiday on time. And now, years later, whatever the hour, though her back may ache and her fingers are raw from chopping, on Pesach, she looks upon her beautiful family and feeds them with a full heart.
On Pesach, she would host 30 guests. As a newlywed of 23, she’d hosted her parents and in-laws, her husband’s siblings and aunts and uncles, learning only when her mother-in-law walked in that it was her first seder as a guest. Later, her table would expand to include her children, nephews and nieces, spare cousins and single friends, families with nowhere else to go, the girls’ 3rd grade teacher and her husband – a former nun married to a former priest – and, as her daughters got older, a boyfriend or two. Kol dichfin yeitei v’yeichol. Let all who are hungry come and eat. As the holiday drew near, she’d sort through her recipe box and make shopping lists. Place an order with the butcher. Change over the house with her husband’s help. If the holiday fell before April 15, as it often did, she was never sure how all the cooking and cleaning would get done, with both of them working until the wee hours at his CPA practice.
On Pesach, she always managed. People counted on her. She kept menus and guest lists for each year, later puzzling over the names (“We had cookies from Nora or Nina. Anyone have a clue who that was?”). When her parents were alive, she’d sit her mother down at the table with a task: cut the pickles, run the liver through the grinder. Her daughters could help, setting the table, making place cards, serving the food. An appetizer choice of store-bought gefilte fish or half a grapefruit, chicken soup and k’neidelach, brisket, two kinds of chicken, side dishes of applesauce matzah kugels and tzimmes. Jello mold and her mother-in-law’s wine and nut cake for dessert. The children would have preferred the chocolate lollipops and cashew patties from the Hebrew school fundraiser, but these are dairy. Down at the kids’ end of the table, an argument between her daughter and her nephew about why it’s relevant to remain kosher in this day and age.
On Pesach, she missed her mother and mother-in-law, gone in the same year, and later her father and father-in-law, her daughters who’d moved away. Her seders might be more modern than those of her mother-in-law – each person taking turns reciting passages as opposed to the old days when everyone’d mumble the words to themselves, readings spliced in about Soviet Jewry and other issues of the day – but much is the same, from the wine and nut cakes to the Maxwell House Haggadahs. Like her mother-in-law before her, she is an infrequent guest at someone else’s seder, though every few years when Pesach falls after tax season, they can travel to her daughter in Israel. Nine times in 55 years of marriage.
What makes a holiday?
On Pesach, she’d thought it was having the family around the same table, but the pandemic has taught her that adjustments are necessary; keeping herself and her husband safe takes precedence over having anyone in person. On Pesach, she has her memories and lists of seders past, and her heart is full.
On Pesach, she would host 30 guests. After making aliyah and marrying, she’d host friends, occasional family members who could make the trip, her husband’s students, children of friends on gap-year programs or lone soldiers. She doesn’t plan as far ahead as her mother and grandmother before her, and her menu doesn’t vary extensively year to year. On Pesach, she is happy for her husband to take the lead on cleaning and kashering, changing over the kitchen a day or two ahead of time; she focuses on the menus and cooking. Their Pesach boxes, six in all, contain pots and pans and dishes and knives and coffee mugs, finger puppets and masks for the plagues.
On Pesach, she does not serve gefilte fish. She makes her mother’s k’neidelach and chicken soup, a mushroom soup and vegetable kugel for the vegetarians, chicken stuffed with apricots and prunes, meat knishes, matzah stuffing, praline matzah and meringues for dessert, and divvies out salads and sides to guests. The first time she attempted a brisket, her mother-in-law said: you can’t overcook a brisket, which turned out to be false. When her parents visit, she sits her father down at the table to chop the apples for the charoset.
On Pesach, she looks forward to her husband’s preparations: thoughtful topics for discussion and games for the children. Questions placed under guests’ plates. One seder, when both sets of parents were visiting, they announced her latest pregnancy this way. Some years, there’s a theme: art, Star Wars. Her children enjoy rearranging the furniture, moving couches into the dining nook and the table into the larger living room where additional tables can be added. There are nuts, sliced pickles, roasted potatoes on the tables for the Maggid portion, an attempt to keep guests from wondering how much longer before the meal. After 20 years of hosting big seders, she too, cuts back, their count now around 12-15 people, though if she hears of a family with no plans, even days before the seder, she’ll invite them.
On Pesach, she does not feel enslaved by this holiday and its preparations. This year is extra sweet, as she glances around her seder table, filled with gratitude that they can once again welcome guests. Her Israeli children are growing up to be smart and funny and loud and independent, and for the most part, not observant, though she knows they hold a deep love and respect for this holiday. Though her sons and daughters are years away from starting their own families, she trusts they will continue the traditions, telling the story of their redemption from Egypt, this narrative that is at the heart of their people, b’kol dor va’dor.
Julie Zuckerman’s debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, was published in May 2019 by Press 53. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in CRAFT, Atlas & Alice, Crab Orchard Review, Tikkun, The Coil, Salt Hill, The SFWP Quarterly, and Sixfold, among others. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children. She is the founder of the Literary Modiin monthly author series, connecting readers and writers of Jewish books.