Sitting on a ledge beneath my living room window, among other photographs, is a picture of our family seder, which was held at my grandmother’s – my father’s mother’s – house in Toronto, when I was seven years old. The family members – about thirty of us – are posed at the end of a long seder table. Some people are sitting, the others are standing behind them.
Little Earl is seated, his bifocaled punim (that’s “face”) peeking out from behind his mother’s shoulder; my older brother, Hart, is more fully presented (“siblings, siblings”) in front of her. Over the years, my picture, a Xeroxed copy of an actual photograph, has developed a greenish tinge, as if the photographer had used a camera wearing sunglasses. Not the photographer wearing the sunglasses, the camera.
I received the seder picture about ten years ago. It was given to me by my cousin, Dori, who lives in Los Angeles, as I do, but whom I hadn’t seen for thirty years. We got re-acquainted as a result of my daughter’s school. Dori was president of the school's Parents’ Association, and I was listed to appear in its fundraising “cabaret.” Dori recognized my name and called me up.
We arranged to get together at a restaurant, on Father’s Day. I arrived with my family, Dori was there with her husband and daughter and her Dad, my cousin Lewis, whom I’d known as a child, but whom I’d also not seen for thirty years. It was a warm and happy reunion.
That lunch was when Dori presented me with the seder picture. I recognized it immediately. It was famous in our family. My brother has a copy. I was excited to have a copy of my own. At that point, it had yet to turn green.
Dori and her Dad are both visible in the seder picture, Lewis pictured as an adult, and Dori, as an infant, cradled in her grandfather’s arms.
I studied the picture, trying to identify all the relatives. I did pretty well, missing a few of the more distant cousins. Cousin Lewis, who’s older than I am and more familiar with the "Family Tree", volunteered to help me out.
“That’s your cousin, Ruby – he was a dentist – and that’s his son, Ralph, who’s a lawyer.”
Cousin Lewis went on to identify everyone I didn’t know. Finally, he pointed to a man posed at the back of the picture and said,
“The only one I don’t recognize is him.”
I looked at the picture, and blinked, then turned to cousin Lewis and said,
Cousin Lewis seemed genuinely surprised.
My grandmother’s seders were famous for two things – their excruciating length, and the food. Which was good and inedible. It wasn’t that some dishes were good and others were inedible. The same dishes were both good and inedible at the same time.
How could that be?
My grandmother prepared all the food ahead of time, then froze everything until the seder. Unfortunately, she didn’t remove these dishes from the freezer early enough, meaning that, when it was time to eat, they weren’t entirely thawed out.
The matzah balls, round dumplings floating in the soup, were fluffy and soft. Until you got to the middle. There, you were confronted by a gritty, frozen rock. It caught you off guard, like eating a Tootsie Pop, at the center of which is an ice ball. Cousins would be complimenting the matzah balls,
then they’d bite down and crack a molar.
Fortunately, cousin Ruby was a dentist.
That was my last seder at my grandmother's house. After that, we started spending Passovers at a kosher hotel in Atlantic City. The change caused me to lose contact with my father’s family.
But it may have saved me from dentures.
Tomorrow: Passover on the Boardwalk, the Easter Parade, and Atlantic City in the Fifties.