04/18/2014 12:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Passover Memories: Of Aliens, Foil and Shmaltz


Monday evening, we celebrated the Passover Seder. This year, the Seder was especially hard for me and my siblings. It is our first Passover without our dear mother. Passover was one of the last holidays my mother celebrated with us before she passed away. It was also her favorite holiday.

Passover was always very special and intense. The month before Passover, we would clean the house thoroughly to insure that there are no traces of leavened foods that are forbidden on Passover. Any cabinet or area we didn't clean would be closed off until after Passover. My mother of blessed memory took the cleaning very seriously. By the time Passover came around, our kitchen counter and cabinet were completely covered by tin foil, and the fridge with handy wipes.

We had a separate Passover stove, a full set of utensils, and even dish towels. From Shmaltz substituting for oil, to gefilte fish made out of ground pike and whitefish, everything in the house was homemade. The only processed foods we ate were wine and Matzah.

One year, my mom tried to clean suspected Chometz that had fallen into the fridge vents. She used toothpicks, cotton stick, everything, but without success. She simply could not reach the crumbs. Undeterred, to my father's horror, and likely at the advice of another newly religious passionate, mom poured Lysol into the fridge vents. She got the Chometz, but when it came time to serve dinner on the first night of Passover, everything tasted like Lysol.

My mother loved the Seder experience. It wasn't just about reading a three thousand year old history book. Every year she would share new parts of her journey, what she considered her own personal exodus from Egypt. From her life growing up among the Hollywood elite, to three years in Africa during the Peace Corps, from living in in Berkeley during the height of the Black Panther and hippie movements, an eleven month trip backpacking from India to China through the Himalayas, to finally settling in Crown Heights as a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. My father also had an exciting life, but the Seder was Mom's night.

In order to enhance the Seder experience, besides the regular Chabad Haggadah, we would read from a new Haggadah every year. One year it was the Caralbach, the next year the Breslev, the Chassidic masters Haggadah, etc. Although at times intensely spiritual, the Seder was always filled with joy and laughs.

I remember the year we were waiting for a guest from Park Slope. The table was full of guests. It was in the days when voice-mail was a simple recording device, and you were able to hear simultaneously when the caller left a message. The phone rang and the Park Slope guest leaves a hysterical message canceling his attendance. He said something about a pet rat, a girlfriend, a tragic death and the need to mourn and comfort. Since the message wasn't clear and, due to the holiday, we couldn't call him or replay his message, we spent part of the night debating whether he canceled to comfort the pet rat over the death of his girlfriend, or whether the rat died and he was comforting the girlfriend over the pet rat.

Another Pesach there was a wild dog in the alley behind our house. Afraid to take out the garbage, a neighbor called the police. Two rookie cops showed up at our front door and asked to go through our house to get to the dog. They entered the kitchen and were bewildered to find the room covered in foil. After a month of cleaning, cooking and stress, my father was in no mood to give the NYPD a course in the laws of Pesach. Instead, he took the easier route and told the officers that the tin foil was there to protect against the aliens, and that thank god we have had no recent invasions. The officers afraid, I suspect not from the dog, ran right out of the house. When they found foil in my neighbor's house as well, and were completely freaked out, someone was kind enough explain to them a little bit about Pesach and to what extent some families go to insure that even something that touched leavened foods doesn't come into contact with Passover food.

But my favorite story is one from the mid-eighties a few weeks before Pesach.

We kids were misbehaving. Stressed from the cleaning, like any good Jewish mother, Mom gave us the traditional Jewish Mama's creaming. All of sudden, she hears someone calling her from the alley.

"Sarah, Sarah," with a heavy Israeli accent.

She recognizes the voice of Rabbi Binyomin Klein, the Lubavitcher Rebbe's legendary personal secretary. My mother had tremendous respect for Rabbi Klein. He was instrumental in her journey to Judaism. She looks out the window and Rabbi Klein is standing next to the Rebbe's house, which was directly behind our house.

He smiles and motions towards the Rebbe's house.

"Sarah! Shhh!"

My mother was horrified. The Rebbe was home with his wife and they may have heard her shouting. I guess I owe him one. That was the last yelling I got for a good while.

Twenty five years later: I yearn to hear that yell once more.