The sweetness of tradition


Passover has always been my favorite holiday, and an important one for my family. In these uncertain times, and with the reality of seders-in-isolation, I’ve been reminiscing a lot about happier times.


I grew up on Long Island, in a large house that was always busy. My grandparents frequently hosted visitors from around the globe, and my mother ran her own business from her artist’s studio on the second floor. We had Shabbos dinner together every week without fail, and often with a number of guests. A full house, ritual and convivial dinners were all part of the status quo – but nothing ever came close to the excitement of Pesach.

We always hosted two seders, with a total of about 20-30 people at our three tables. The tables were arranged in a “U” shape; each had its own seder plate and an assigned “captain” to make sure everyone had parsley, wine, whatever was called for at any particular point in the service. My grandfather, Burton Bronsther, ran the show each year. As the eldest grandchild, I always sat in a place of honor to his immediate right.

In addition to the people, the house was always full of flowers. Before the service began, there were drinks – Kosher wine and spirits, an annual gift from a Hungarian surgeon who was a dear friend of the family. Hors d’oeuvres included my grandmother Ellyn’s chopped liver and ptcha, an eggy, garlicky calves’ foot jelly. I remember how excited my aunt used to get about having this annual treat, even as I did my best to stay far away from it.

Eventually, we’d all gather in the dining room – no small task, given our guests’ spirited moods. That giddy tipsiness, enhanced by the four glasses of wine, would occasionally disrupt the seder, causing my grandfather to shout “Ruhig!” –  the German word for “quiet.” I never knew him to speak German otherwise, although he once told me that in medical school, he was required to learn “medical German.”

When I was little, my grandfather would start each seder at Genesis 1:1, which would make for a very long night – there were years when dinner wasn’t served until 11. I remember his exclamations of surprise when it came time for hand-washing, as my grandmother always made sure that the water was icy cold, and I remember our “mitzvah prizes.”

A toothpick was given to anyone who could answer one of my grandfather’s questions, add to the story, or offer a correction, to mark the “mitzvah” and as a way of counting points toward end-of-night prizes. I was a shark when it came to the mitzvah prizes, and I remember my juvenile pride at amassing toothpicks. When I got a bit older, it became my responsibility to distribute those toothpicks, and to keep my cousins from stealing them from me – and each other!

I remember my grandfather leafing through his illegibly-scrawled notecards, proudly displaying his copies of “Chronicles: News of the Past” (I also remember his excitement when we found the rare Volume 3 at a gift shop in Israel), and hiding the afikoman behind him, against his chair. My grandfather was 6’4” and 300 pounds … how was I ever supposed to steal that from him?!

As I got older, my grandfather acceded to the family’s demands to shorten the service, so sometimes we’d get to eat as early as 9. I also took on the responsibility of hiding the matzah, and I hid decoy afikoman, made of napkin-wrapped cardboard, all around the house. The kids would invariably turn the decoys back over to me, then I would hide them again to keep them busy. Eventually, I’d have to give hints about the location of the real one so that the seder could be properly finished.

As an aside, once, when I was young, I found the afikoman and cleverly re-hid it in our Atari console. Somehow, everyone forgot about it. I think that particular seder lasted until mid-May, when the afikoman was finally discovered.

In time, my grandparents moved to a much smaller house, which reduced seder attendance to roughly 15 people, or fewer. My grandfather’s health began to fail, and in 2002 he told me that when his time came, I would be responsible for leading the family’s seders. It was something I already knew, but didn’t want to hear. Beyond sacred responsibility, this was also the key part of continuing our family’s traditions. It was the passing of a torch, and a sign of his bottomless love for me.

My grandfather died the following year, on Erev Pesach. We took his death hard, not just because we had lost our patriarch, but because it was “that time of year,” when we had counted on him to lead us in prayer, to tell us stories, to shout “Ruhig!” We felt lost.

In the span of several very long days, I had to call our friends and family, write a eulogy, and prepare all-new notes for “my” seder (because my grandfather’s notes were, of course, written in illegible doctor-scrawl), all under the pressure of my aunt saying, “Keep it short!” She would repeat that refrain every year thereafter, even as I’d perfected my three-hour comprehensive service.

I kept many of my grandfather’s traditions, but also made the ceremony my own, to reflect the family that I’ve built. My son is named Caleb; it’s a name his mother liked, but I didn’t – until I learned of the biblical Caleb and his role in bringing the Israelites into Canaan. After that, I embraced the name as fully as I embrace my son whenever I see him.

My changes to the seder include adding Miriam’s Cup and discussions of modern-day slavery. My table is decorated with “plush plagues” (including a tiny green alien, just to see who’s paying attention).  I start my story with Jacob, and thanks to Google, my notes are accessible at all times. I’ve shared a cartoon from The New Yorker that enumerates “Ten Plagues for Today’s Seder,” including “underachieving children” and “unwanted body hair.” This year, I think I’ll keep that one to myself.

Passover is so much more than just a Haggadah and matzah, and as I write this, the holiday is only two weeks away. I don’t know what today’s seders will look like, or how they will work, but I do know this: Memories made today may last long after we’re gone, so we should make them good ones. Reach out to your loved ones and share your stories, and a zissen Pesach to all!

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE ( writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.