Tomorrow is the first night of Passover and the Seder Service. For my non-Jewish friends please google what this is all about. My mother, with whom I am sure you are now becoming well acquainted, would read us the story Seder with Zeder every year just before Passover started. I have no idea where it came from, whether she wrote it herself, or lifted it from somewhere, but we would sit around the table and she would regale us with this story. And in her own inimitable way she would add bits to it make us all roar with laughter.
So, I am going to retell the story exactly as my mother did for us. I think it must have been set somewhere in the turn of the century – maybe Poland or Russia – it is long, but then what else have you all got to do?
Passover preparations began early in our home. My mother, who was of a rather impatient disposition, used to begin the spring cleaning during the Chanukah weekend ( The Jewish equivalent to Christmas) and for the ensuing four months, the house was in absolute turmoil. Nothing was ever in its proper place and on one occasion, father himself was mislaid for an entire weekend, which he alleged that he had spent as an unwilling prisoner in the linen cupboard. The climax of the preparations came with the search for bread (no bread is allowed during the week of Passover). He started his search in the very early hours and several hours later we would begin to search for father. He was usually found in the maid’s room, looking in the most unlikely places!
At sunset the following day, the Droshky would be waiting outside in the snow. The journey to Grandfather’s always took a long time. The matzot, (this is bread substitute we eat during Passover) on which the horses were fed, invariably had the effect of retarding their speed and often gave them the staggers, so that not infrequently we had to pull them to Grandfathers and not vice versa. I think probably Mother was right in blaming this on the matzot that the Rav of Khchmtzki used to send us each year. They had a strange gritty consistency and Father always maintained that they were only fit for the horses.
At Grandfathers, bustle, not to say confusion, reigned supreme. The presence of his thirty-seven grandchildren (ironically one of my great great grandfathers in Poland had 3 wives and 37 children – so maybe this really was about our family!!!) did not have the elating effect on Grandmother that might have been anticipated. In fact, as the little ones renewed the fights left uncompleted from the previous year, she often showed every sign of becoming hysterical.
Grandfather loved a huge company on Seder night. As if the assembled family was not enough, he usually contrived to bring some more person’s home from the synagogue. Aunt Maria was allowed down for Seder night. Poor Maria was a little confused and regularly managed in the course of the evening, to cram a prodigious quantity of horseradish (symbolic to remind us of the hard times we had as slaves in Egypt) into her mouth, with the result that the proceedings would be interrupted while she rolled on the floor in agony. To avoid serious consequences, Grandfather would kosher a stomach pump and never a year passed without recourse to its services. Finally, Grandfather tired of this behaviour, which impaired the dignity of the occasion without affording Maria any benefit and henceforth made her appearance at the Seder attired in a rather fetching straitjacket, specially designed for her by a famous Parisian couturiere.
Finally, we would all be assembled; to mark the distinction of the evening, Grandfather would address Grandmother as Elisveta Katerina and she would ceremoniously address him as Boris Petrovitch. To keep us all interested in the details of the service, Grandfather insisted that each of the 37 grandchildren should recite the Ma Nishtanah (this is a prayer that the youngest in the family recites) This tended to make the first half of the Seder somewhat protracted especially as some of the grandchildren were a little exhibitionist and only too ready to give encores. Grandfather took the service with great skill and knew things that you could never find in any book. For instance, I could never discover any written authority for his practice of flinging glasses of salt water at Grandmother in illustration of the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea.
He invariably used a copy of the Haggadah (the book from which the service is taken) that had been in the family for generations. So much wine had been spilled on it that much of it was unreadable. Consequently, grandfather was always assuming it was time to have another glass of wine and to hide the Afikomen (this was a piece of matza that would be hidden during the service so that the children could hunt for it and win a prize.) Thus, the room became littered with broken halves of matzo and everybody drank far more than the prescribed four cups of wine.
The meal as you can imagine was of magnificent proportions. Grandfather had inherited the custom of beginning it with hard boiled eggs in salt water. His practice of eating ten hard boiled eggs in commemoration of the plagues appears to have derived from gluttony rather than tradition.
But gradually the atmosphere of the Seder changed. As the cousins grew up, the simple recital of the Ma Nishtana failed to satisfy them, one would recite existentialist blank verse, another would insist on expounding the theory of surplus value and Aunt Maria ceased to appear.
Interest in religious matters dwindled, only Uncle Alexis carried on the family tradition and even then, in a modified form. Inevitably the family split up and the cousins would run unexpectantly into each other all over the world. One year I came across one of them in Bournemouth at a Seder in a hotel. Naturally we chatted about old times. “People pay a fortune a day for this,” he said to me, “what would they have said to the Seders we used to know.” There were tears in his eyes when I told him.
“Let’s be careful out there“