Memories of Pesach, the season of rebirth, renewal, and reflection, leave me pondering so much more than four questions.
Was it the way my mother lovingly handed my father the finger bowl of water and soft dish towel used for the spiritual hand-washing performed throughout the seder? Was it the way my baba, Gussie Sudnovsky, a Russian immigrant from Korets with an eighth-grade education, tentatively dipped her pinkie in the small glass of wine, reciting the Ten Plagues by memory as though they’d personally befallen her? Was it the two-day ordeal of hauling what was essentially the contents of a second kitchen up the rickety basement stairs, then crouching like a pretzel to clear out the cabinets of the pots, pans, dishes, and chopping blocks inside, wondering if I was still small enough to climb in, scrub the shelves, and line them with fresh, clean contact paper? Was it whether my mother, Florence Miller, exhausted and distracted from the backbreaking work required to prepare sufficiently for Pesach, would somehow forget where she’d hidden the afikomen last year so as to give me an edge on beating my brother for the finder’s fee?
Was it the smell of my mother’s signature chicken soup and her perfectly proportioned, fluffy kneidlach, kneaded and rolled the way she’d watched my grandmother prepare them for years, wafting from her tiny Fair Lawn kitchen? Was it the memory of opening the cedar closet in the basement and removing a large Rubbermaid bin that held years of artfully created Passover crafts? (Some had real utility — shiny hand-stitched cloth matzah covers, fine-point-marker-drawn plastic seder plates, papier-mâché-covered dishes for salt water, and other holiday-themed art projects we made in Sunday school that my mother would insist on schlepping to the dining room to adorn our table with.)
Was it the banter interjected in Yiddish that melded with the conversation in English and undoubtedly took place when there was something the kinder shouldn’t hear? Or the experience of holding my breath in anticipation of saying the last Passover blessing so my dad, David Miller, a Navy veteran and historian — and also the fearless principal of our junior high school — could lead us in the singing of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, signifying it was finally time to eat the festive meal?
I ask myself these questions hoping to recreate the experiences of the particular Jewish traditions that warm me.
When I was 13, celebrating Passover tended to leave me with mixed feelings. While appreciating the meaningful rituals my family followed and the traditions passed down to us from across the world in Eastern Europe, I was regularly in a state of fight or flight. I was grateful for my many Fair Lawn Jewish friends, with whom I trekked over a mile to Thomas Jefferson Junior High School every day and sat alongside at the noisy, crowded cafeteria tables. The only thing worse than unwrapping the carefully packed sandwiches of tuna salad or egg salad on the already crumbling matzah was eyeing my father as he walked through the room. Without changing his stance or facial expression, he sternly surveyed the middle-school pranksters, warning them with his eyes about any planned shenanigans involving jello cubes or spitballs.
Undoubtedly, while feigning interest in the sugar-covered orange, lemon, lime, and cherry jellied fruit slices that my mother included in our lunchboxes as a special treat, my older brother, Jim, and I both always were within envy-producing distance of a handful of jellybeans, a sweet and spongy yellow Peep, or the broken-off head of a chocolate Easter bunny. Somehow, though, the secret abbreviations my Jewish friends used would offset the jealousy. While peering into a friend’s lunch bag, one of us might ask the other: “Is that K for P?”
Throughout my youth, the eight days of Passover often felt like Groundhog Day. The before-school morning ritual included warm and amazingly not-hard-as-rocks Passover rolls that my mother got up extra early to bake for us. They were coated with butter, and if you closed your eyes when you tasted them, they might come somewhat close to a freshly baked challah roll. Sometimes, if I awoke early enough, she and I would make the everything-in-one-box Streit’s Passover Crumb Cake. That’s the one that came with the baking tin that was small enough to fit in my friend Tina’s coveted Hasbro Easy-Bake Oven.
The highlight was coming home from school and seeing my baba making matzah meal latkes. She would hand-mix it to just the right consistency, dropping in spoonfuls of just the right proportions of matzah meal, egg, potato starch, salt, and pepper into a very hot frying pan with kosher-for-Passover oil sizzling in it. I can still taste those latkes — we covered them in sugar and raced to see who could eat the most. I can still see her, in her apron, her hands covered in batter, bent over, frying. If it were possible to toss a cup of love into every one of those delectable latkes, she did it.
Heading off to Penn State University in State College in 1978 had its own set of challenges for this Jewish girl from a strictly kosher home in Fair Lawn. The school was set in the center of Pennsylvania in what was fondly known as cow country, and the meal choices offered in its East Halls dining room were not really meant for someone trying to stay away from treif. During my first Passover holiday on campus, I recall looking at my brother, who was two years ahead of me, as we stood on line with our trays, eyeing the breaded fried chicken steak (that I wouldn’t have chosen even when it wasn’t Passover), meatballs so loaded with breadcrumbs that the inclusion of ground beef was questionable, crumb-crusted macaroni and cheese, and an array of cold-cut sandwiches.
I asked my brother what to do. “Get a plate of mixed vegetables,” he offered, hurrying off to sit with his upperclassmen friends. I ate those no-name brand mixed vegetables, undoubtedly poured from an industrial-sized drum, for a week. It was next to impossible to skip the ice cream, provided at lunch and dinner by the renowned Penn State Creamery and its on-site cows. I couldn’t do it. And while I’m not one for confessionals, I recall admitting to my parents, during our weekly scheduled Sunday night calls, that I’d given in by Day 8 and eaten the French toast. They forgave me.
As far as establishing community, if my memory serves me right, my brother, a collegiate fencer, was invited, along with the other Jewish fencers on the team, to the home of his coach for one of the seders. He brought me along. While I appreciated the invitation and the hospitality, I missed the warmth, familiarity, and customs of Pesach at home.
Getting married and having kids set a new tone for the Passover holiday. For one, my mother was happy to pass the torch, hang up her apron, and exit her kitchen, which grew smaller with each new grandson who’d made his way under her feet and into her heart. “Let me know what you’d like me to bring,” she’d ask blithely. “Everything!” I’d reply.
Between her, my mother-in-law, and me, we had the makings of a festive meal each year. My dad remained at the helm, just six miles up Rt. 208 to my dining room table in Wyckoff vs. theirs in Fair Lawn. The kids began to participate, each having his turn at the Four Questions, each contributing his hand-stitched cloth matzah cover, plastic seder plate, and papier-mâché saltwater dish.
It really did feel like we were passing along our traditions from generation to generation.
When my dad and then my mom died within eight short months of one another, it felt incomprehensible that I’d ever be able to host a Passover dinner, do them justice in leading a seder, or express myself with feeling when reciting the prayers or singing the songs I’d learned to say without a Haggadah in hand. I called Elyse Frishman, rabbi emerita at Barnert Temple, to ask her what to do. How could I bear to continue the traditions I’d been brought up with without my dad seated at the head of the table, his eyes filled with pride for the family we’d created? And without my mom, handing out song sheets, leading us in “Dayenu” with her sweet, melodic voice? “Make new memories,” she’d said. “Love the ones you’re with.”
It’s April 2023. My youngest is teaching English in Poland, my middle is working hard in San Francisco, and my oldest is living in Boston, planning to bring his girlfriend home to celebrate her first Jewish holiday. As I chop three pounds of ground beef in a wooden chopping bowl (known in Yiddish as a hock-messer) gifted to me by my dear Uncle Harry, I carefully follow the steps to make my mother’s Passover sweet-and-sour meatballs. Holding open the pages of her careworn Fair Lawn Hadassah cookbook, I scroll through my Spotify playlist. Memories of sharing the piano bench with my talented mother as we sang and harmonized to the Irving Berlin Holiday Songbook seep into my pores.
Who should I choose to serenade me as I cook with purpose, hoping to bring me closer to my beautiful and beloved late mother, my strong and steady late father, and my precious, steeped-in-tradition, cherished baba — the Barry Sisters, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, or Peggy Lee?
If my dad was open to honoring the French in his annual rendition of their national anthem, I’m meant to sing along with Judy.
“In your Easter bonnet/with all the frills upon it/you’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.”