Life is a constant tension between the specific and general.
That’s pompous and over-reaching, isn’t it? But it’s also true.
We read the Haggadah twice every year, and as we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt we are told that it happened not only to our ancient ancestors but to us as well. We are told to imagine ourselves fleeing Pharaoh’s chariots, crossing the Red Sea, watching the water close over our tormentors and their horses, and then beginning our 40-year trek to the land God promised us.
That’s a tall order.
No matter how vivid our imaginations, it’s hard to place ourselves that far back and away.
But if the Haggadah is the story of us, then it also can be the story of us more specifically. Not only of the entire Jewish people, but of the individual families that are part of it.
Over the course of the last 20 or so years, the Glass family has intertwined its own history with the history of the Jewish people. The Glasses have not altered the text; this is not a watered-down version. Instead, they’ve added footnotes, photographs, and its own history to the Maggid section — they’re telling their own story of exodus, immigration, eventual comfort, and constant change.
“The story of our family resembles that of our ancestors in Egypt,” that section begins. “The Glazomitskys and Ninburgs also experienced oppression. That oppression moved our ancestors to leave their native countries to make a better life…”
When Lisa Harris Glass, the chief planning officer at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, married David, she joined that family.
The Glasses are a family with deep roots in New Jersey; when Luba Ninberg and Abe Glazomitsky — who later shortened their last name to Glass — came to this country, they went straight to Weequahic, the legendarily Jewish section of Newark, the neighborhood that made Philip Roth the writer he is, joining other relatives who had gone on ahead of them.
“Being from Weequahic is a real thing,” Ms. Glass said. “I’ve had people stop me and ask ‘You’re a Glass? One of the Newark Glasses?’”
Luba and Abe had three children, Harry, Isabel, and Fred, who all stayed in Weequahic and had their own children. The family bonds were intense. “That was very typical for Weequahic Jews,” Ms. Glass said. “All these first cousins grew up together. They did everything together.”
Ms. Glass’s husband’s father was among those first cousins.
Eventually, though, people started moving out of the city. Newark was changing, and eventually that change hit Weequahic. The riots in 1967 saw the last of the Jewish community leave. But few went very far — David Glass was born in Perth Amboy, and he and Lisa now live in Springfield; some cousins moved to Hillside, others to Somerset. The family remained close.
A cousin, Susan Kobren of Somerset, a Glass granddaughter, retired schoolteacher, and avid amateur genealogist, started researching the family. About two decades ago, she saw the name Constantine Glazomitsky in an advertisement from a pharmaceutical company. (When you are a serious reader, you read everything.) She’d never heard of him, but she thought that it was likely that they were related, so she got in touch with him — and “Constantine came over with a picture of Harry, Isabel, and Fred as little children, sitting on the stoop in Weequahic. Everyone was stunned.”
That lead Ms. Kobren to continue to research her family, and then to work with other family members to put that research in the Haggadah, which includes a family tree.
“When someone has a serious significant other, it shows that person in the family tree in parenthesis,” Ms. Glass said. “When they get married, they’re moved into the box with the other person.” Their children get a box; so too do children whose connection to the Glasses is not through blood but their parents’ remarriage. Everyone belongs.
There is an “in memoriam” page, on page 9, called “Paganini” to acknowledge one of the favorite jokes of one of the people memorialized there. A whole page at the back is devoted to family stories associated with the seder.
The Glass family seder is always the second seder; on the first night, different parts of the huge, ever-growing group go their own ways, perhaps with the other sides of the family. But on the second night, the Glasses gather; sometimes in a house, occasionally, when there is no dining room big enough to accommodate them, in a shul social hall, rented for the evening.
“This Haggadah shows that we are unique — and also we are all the same,” Ms. Glass said, her voice quavering as she talked about it. “It makes me cry every time,” she added.
“This is the gift of the family now to the family of the future. To the great-grandchildren we will never know.
“It really moves me. It is such a gift.”