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Howard Barbanel Headshot

The Ghosts of Seders Past

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My first Passover seder memories are at my maternal grandparents' table up in Riverdale (which my relatives at the time insisted really wasn't The Bronx) where my late grandfather held forth for all of 15 or 20 minutes of an abridged seder by virtue of his nearly sole possession in the family of a modicum of Hebrew literacy and devotion to attending Friday night services regularly at a Reform synagogue he helped found. Most of my mother's side of the family were not what you would call religious by any stretch of the imagination and pretty soon after a stanza or two of the zippy song "Dayenu," heaping quantities of my grandmother's food would be brought to the table with all deliberate haste. Having a second half of the seder was beyond anyone's imagination and the books used were generally Maxwell House or Manischewitz Haggadahs.

On he other hand, my father's family was comprised of a large number of Orthodox European immigrants and their offspring for whom "a Seder was a Seder," which meant 20-plus adults and swarms of kids jamming cheek to jowl into a small Lower East Side apartment. The noise level was a constant high buzz of chatter (much like many an Orthodox synagogue to this day) as the family elders droned on in heavily Yiddish-accented Hebrew that barely anyone understood. To say these two Seders were cultural opposites was an understatement.

Back in the '50s and '60s, Reform girls still did marry boys from Orthodox homes and the Conservatives went all over the place. My parents were far from the only people I knew whose parents had grown up differently from a religious perspective. This phenomenon is extremely rare today with many people from Reform or unaffiliated backgrounds considering anyone Orthodox (even "Modern Orthodox") to be the equivalent of Hasidic or "Amish" and many Orthodox barely deigning to recognize someone non-Orthodox as even being Jewish. The gulf is made wider by the prevalence of intermarriage on the one hand and on the other hand, near universal full time yeshiva education on the Orthodox side which sometimes creates yawning gaps in culture, observance and outlook between Jews.

Once my maternal grandfather passed along with many of my father's family elders, my childhood seder schedule generally ricocheted between my parents' house and that of my late Aunt Mona, my mother's sister. (This was when we, along with most American Jews, still drove on Passover.) Most of the crowd came from my mother's side and at my aunt's, the venerable and venerated Steinfeld-Schwartz family tradition of seders the Briefer the Better continued unmolested as my Uncle Edwin assumed the seder leadership with a veneer of abridged solemnity followed by no end of food. As a sophisticated Manhattan mover and shaker, my uncle upped the ante on finding the afikomen (the part of the Seder where children go on a scavenger hunt for hidden matzah) from mere quarters to the stratospheric $5 level -- and this was in the late '60s. My Dad, for whom a quarter in his mind always seemed like real money (and still does) went along, but not happily.

Over at our seders, by virtue of the fact that our home was much more traditional than those on my Mom's side and that we went to Jewish schools, my father endeavored to make his seder a bit more real and meaningful, finally making inroads with the extended family by introducing what were then highly innovative full-color haggadahs with loads of English. It took about five years of trying but eventually he even got my mother's family to sit through the second half of the seder -- a breakthrough of monumental proportions that unfortunately did nothing to stop the intermarriage of nearly everyone on that side of the family.

There are foods I only eat this coming week -- matzah brei, scrambled loose with salt (don't try and sell me the pancake variety), charoset through the week as an hors d'oeuvre (wine and refrigeration are wonderful preservatives), chocolate-covered matzah, macaroons (I'm a honey-almond guy) and so help me, for a few days a year, I love nothing better than a breakfast of boiled potatoes and boiled eggs mashed in some water with an ample dosage of salt on top.

Generations come and generations go and now the seders are held at my brother's house and at mine. We're a short distance from one another, so we all walk to and fro. We start the seders on time, meaning at the right time (after dark) and so they run past midnight owing to doing the whole thing, singing a lot of Hebrew songs, animated discussions on the meaning of the holiday and a running commentary on this section or that. The haggadahs may be different (although full color has become ubiquitous and no longer a novelty) but so many of the holiday foods and favorites are the same and when we partake of the time-honored dishes and traditions it conjures up memories of all the many seders past.

When leading a seder, it's almost surreal to imagine having once been one of the gaggle of under 10 year-old cousins making mischief and tenaciously hunting for the afikomen. The cycle of life progresses and Passover endures, the good Lord having given the edict that this holiday take place at this time of year for all time. So we gather and tell the story of the beginnings of the Jewish people along with the stories of our families so that generations to come will know where they came from and hopefully, if inspired by this, will have a clear idea where they're going and how best to get there.

Passover is still the most widely observed holiday on the Jewish calendar with 92 percent of Jews participating -- this exceeds the numbers even for Yom Kippur or Hanukkah. It's like salmon swimming upstream to return to their spawning grounds and so come Friday evening Jews from all walks of life will nibble on matzah, tuck into some brisket and revel in our survival for lo, these 3,500-plus years. Best wishes for a sweet and happy Passover!