I have made Passover in many places. There was the vegetarian Seder in Ohio with the Hog Farm commune (the group that fed the multitudes at Woodstock) and the completely Hebrew one in Israel, the fastest I ever attended.
But there are no Passovers like those at my grandparents' home in the Bronx.
Passover, or Pesach ("pay-sockh"), as I prefer to call it, has always been my favorite holiday. It is not only a festival of freedom, it is a festival of spring and rebirth, when everything seems possible. Over the years, Pesach has become a marking point, a time for me to assess where I am in my life and try to relate it to who I was as a child. Pesach was always celebrated at my paternal grandparents' apartments off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. My grandmother, her four sisters and their husbands, and assorted members of my father's generation would all attend.
The focal point of Pesach is the seder , a religious service -- with children as equal partners -- surrounding a feast. The very purpose of the seder is to tell the children, so that they can tell their children, the story of bondage in Egypt and the exodus to freedom 3,500 years ago.
The seder starts with a washing of hands and thanks to God for wine.Then the youngest person present asks the oldest the traditional four questions about the festival and the ritual foods on the table. The answers tell the story of the exodus and provide the basis for the ceremony. After the meal, the children have to find a piece os matzoh that the leader has hidden after its blessing. The leader than has to "buy" it back before dessert can be served and the ceremony completed.(I negotiated for my first pair of roller skates that way.)
I am the oldest by four years in my generation of the family, so I was the honored interrogator for a long time. I remember the family's rapt attention as I asked Grandpa the four questions. Other memories that flash back:
Sitting on my own chair with two!! phone books to bring me almost level with the grown-ups. The blue bottle of seltzer water spritzed into my wine cup as my father mixed the small taste of wine I received before each blessing.
The man reading through the service, their bobbing heads covered with yarmulkes. My grandfather's was white and he would let me wear it. There was often a great deal of laughter during the seder. The tale being told is solemn, but freedom -- manifested in laughter -- is what is being celebrated.
The laughter tended to escalate as we came closer to the moment of the meal. Once serving began, it came in what seemed like never-ending waves of savory delight, from the gefilte fish, chopped liver and matzoh ball soup to the main course of roast, stuffed veal, turkey and a potato pudding called kugel .
But my favorite food ws not part of the meal. It was the little pancakes made of matzoh meal called chremslach , prepared by Grandma to tide us over until the meal was served.
When we arrived at their apartment, Grandpa was waiting for us downstairs. Then we would go up together. You could follow your nose to the place; the long dark corridor was redolent with the aroma of my grandmother's cooking. She would be standing in the doorway waiting for her kiss, her face red from chopping, grating and hoisting the huge roasts and fowl. Behind her, the oil in the skillet was already crackling.
She would stand over the chremslach, turning them at precisely the right moment and removing the little ovalshaped cakes when they were golden. After patting them dry, she put them on a plate and we would dip them in cinnamon and sugar. I have never eaten any fried food so light and airy.And without the chremslach in my stomach I might never have made it through the first part of the seder.
Some 15 years have passed since I sat in the Bronx on two phone books, surrounded by laughing grown-ups and drinking adulterated wine.
My grandmother is in her 80s now, a widow, and other than a case of Parkinson's disease and a strolling memory, none the worse for wear. She and my aunts left the Bronx for Florida a decade ago. For a number of years I didn't visit her there. Maybe I felt my past had been betrayed when they left the apartment in the Bronx: a reminder that I would no longer have that child's haven again.
But two years ago, I flew to Florida a week after Pesach. I arrived at her apartment an hour late. She was waiting in the doorway, shaking a spatula at me. Behind her, I could hear oil sizzling in a pan and the smell of veal wafted down the hall. She kissed me on the cheek and began to make chremslach.
The cinnamon was already on the table, the batter ready for the pan. Grandma trembles a bit fromthe Parkinson's, and I asked her to sit while the chremslach fried. But she doesn't concede much to age and she stood over the stove watching them until the exact moment of brownness. She fetched one up on the spatula and turned to put it on my plate. Her hand began to tremble and the chremslach fell to the floor.
She quickly scooped it up and put it on my plate. "You see Michael," she said, "I still make them so light they fly off the spatula."
We looked at each other and laughed.