The picture that accompanies this column goes to the heart of what Passover means to me as the years fly by: a chance to reconnect with my youth, especially during the two seders.
Over the years, the seders have inevitably transformed me into a Proustian Jew, giving me the ability to smell my late bubbe’s gefilte fish and borscht.
For those unfamiliar with the French author Marcel Proust, my reference is to his seven-volume early 20th-century work, “In Search of Lost Time” or “Remembrance of Things Past,” two translations of “A la recherche du temps perdu.” (The first English title is a literal translation of the French.)
Full disclosure: I have never read Proust’s entire novel, but as a student of French, I read excerpts, and my reference is to one of the book’s most famous examples of what’s known as involuntary memory. It stems from Proust’s description of eating a French pastry, a madeleine, as an adult, which he said triggered a childhood memory.
Passover has always done that for me, as everything about the holiday, but especially surrounding the seders, tends to stimulate memories of my early family Passovers.
The photograph that accompanies this column is from one of those childhood seders. Dating from 1956, the photo was taken in my parents’ apartment in Dorchester, Massachusetts. My 3-year-old self is on the left and my sister Sharlene, at 7, is on the right. Standing from left are my maternal grandparents, David and Bertha Ross, and my aunt and uncle, Marcia and Harold Nash. On the table sit my mother Sylvia’s glass Passover dishes and a carafe of wine. At the bottom of the photo is Elijah’s cup.
The scene at the time was pretty ordinary: a family gathering for Passover. But 67 years later, what the photo represents seems extraordinary, even remarkable, given all that’s transpired in the last three years.
Three years ago, scenes like this would have been either inadvisable or illegal, depending on which state you were in and how seriously people were taking the then-new coronavirus outbreak, which we would soon call COVID-19, and which over the last three years has killed more than 1.1 million Americans and millions more worldwide.
The COVID lockdown took place right after Purim 2020, and the first Jewish holiday to suffer was Passover, with seders often being restricted to the immediate family since many people were afraid of catching the virus. Although the modern miracle of Zoom brought more people to the seder table, those virtual visits weren’t the same as having a large in-person gathering.
Things improved slightly in 2021, after vaccines had been approved and dispensed, and Passover last year was fairly normal.
This year’s seders will take on a deeper meaning, given the dramatic and frightening resurgence of antisemitism in the post-COVID world.
That irrational scourge – pushed by increasingly emboldened groups of white supremacists and neo-Nazis – has made my childhood memories of Passover especially precious.
The World War II generation took the holiday to heart, but not too seriously. By that I mean that children were encouraged to be at the seder table, even if they’d sometimes do foolish things.
One of the foolish things that I did when I was a little older than the preschooler shown in the photo was to drink the wine instead of whatever non-alcoholic beverage I was given in its place. My face turned red after a couple of sips. That probably explains why I was never able to hold my wine at future seders and why I’ve been drinking grape juice instead.
When I wasn’t trying to drink the wine, I’d spill it – a lot – and I never quite grew out of that. When my daughters were in Hebrew School and the adults were helping to put on realistic and educational model seders, I was routinely assigned cleanup duty because on more than one occasion, I’d knock over a glass of grape juice.
Another ritual that I recall fondly was hunting for the hametz on the night before the first seder. My father, Ike, and I would use a feather to brush the breadcrumbs off windowsills, but the highlight would take place the next morning. That was when my dad would take the bag of hametz and other leftover bread into the backyard and burn it. I’d join him on years when there was no school on the day of the first seder because it coincided with Good Friday or April vacation.
Nowadays, burning the hametz would give the haters out there another reason to call the authorities on you and to no doubt launch World War III on Twitter. But in the simpler era when I grew up, burning stale bread in April was a pleasant rite of spring and Passover.
There are some Passover rituals that I haven’t observed in years, such as using a separate set of dishes, but there are many others that I’ve made a point to observe, such as filling Elijah’s cup, hiding the Afikomen, spilling drops of juice or wine while reciting the plagues, and enthusiastically singing “Dayeinu.”
Those memories give me sustenance at a time when the very right of the Jewish people to exist is once again under attack, just as it was in ancient times and so often in the centuries to follow, especially in the 1930s, before the Nazis consolidated power and hatched the Final Solution to exterminate the Jews.
That’s why you should embrace your Passover memories – and make some new ones.
LARRY KESSLER (email@example.com) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at larrytheklineup.blogspot.com.