Many years ago, well after Moses began his journey with his backpack full of matzo, was my childhood, full of Passover nights. While my grandmother and one of her sisters (that she actually talked to) lived in the Bronx, my father and I would make the pilgrimage there for both nights.
We would leave Jackson Heights, Queens, at about 4 p.m. when sunset was not even close, and drive about ten miles to my Oma’s apartment. Some years we would pick up my uncle and cousin and we would all sit in traffic for several hours. I was sure I saw a direct descent of Moses, and his brother Aaron, driving in a van on the same road. I also thought I saw a small child in the window mouthing the words “Let my people go” as they would try and get into our lane. It might have been my imagination as we were trapped on the Major Deegan Highway or Bruckner Expressway.
My sister and mother were exempt from the official dinner because my mother believed that my sister could not sit still during the Seder. Since my mother and paternal grandmother were not best buddies, this was a very good excuse to not have to endure what seemed to be an endless night.
My grandmother was an excellent cook with a military method of preparation and precision. Her matzo balls were all the same size and there was quality and quantity control. She would put them in glass jars and on top of the jars she would indicate how many matzo balls were inside. She kept a cabinet of jars for the occasion and she was probably one of the first recyclers that I knew. She also kept wax paper, “silver foil”, string and brown paper because everything had two sides, didn’t it?
The Seder would commence with the traditional washing of the hands and prayers and more prayers, followed by lots of wine and grape juice. My great-aunt, Selma and her husband, Uncle Moishe, would sing along to every song. Selma had a soprano-like voice and Moishe didn’t really carry much of a tune. If there were 20 stanzas, my grandmother would “encourage” her sister, brother-in-law, and my father to not miss a beat or note or passage. Even as she was preparing the plates for distribution, she had a keen ear and if there was a passage missed, she would step outside the kitchen and remind my father to go back and try again. I was often recruited to carry plates of steaming soup and sometimes the roasted chicken or brisket. I was happy to help if it meant getting up from the table to stretch my legs and arms. Sitting for hours was a challenge. My role, besides waitress, was to say the Four Questions, as I was always the youngest at the table until seders were held at our house years later. My hebrew school skills (or lack thereof) came into play as I recited the questions both in English and in Hebrew. Once the meal was served, and clean up was done, we would go back to the table and finish the seder,every word. The next night we did it again. It was like the movie Groundhog Day, but far more boring. My grandmother had a laser like glance when I was moving in my seat. The sun had long set and night had fallen. The sounds of the traffic in the Bronx, often competed with the chanting of Deyanu which had excessive stanzas as far as I was concerned. The evening passed into the morning as my father led me to the car for the ride home. I would lean against the cool glass window and fall asleep. The roads were quiet at midnight and we would get home and park the car. My father would smile at me as we took the elevator up to the fifth floor. He would say he was glad I had been with him and looked forward to the second night.
I didn’t really enjoy it or understand the purpose of ritual when I was a child. It seemed like a long night with the retelling of the same story, year after year. Now I understand it and enjoy it. I recognize that it was more than the story of the Exodus, but was the opportunity to sit with family and re-tell history through songs and symbolism. I raise a glass of grape juice to my father and my Oma who brought me out of the land of childhood into the history of our family.