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The Sparkling Lights of Passover

A Memoir

Daddy dropped the three of us in front of my grandparents’ apartment building on Bronx Park East, then spun around to find parking. Mom waited at the lobby entrance, and Susie and I skipped around, jumping over cracks and playing tag. The trees in the sidewalk gardens were showing their first green. Soon they would bud in pinks, whites and purples, and their fragrances would float over the streets and sidewalks.

Daddy walked back from the parking spot, and the four of us slipped into the lobby. The building smelled like Passover. Everyone seemed to be having their Seders tonight. I imagined the aromas of chicken soup, matzoh balls, gefilte fish, chopped liver, beef brisket, asparagus, apples and honey cake. The elevator arrived, and I raced in and pushed the button for the eighth floor. Susie pressed it, too, just to make sure. Mom double-checked to make sure our dresses were sitting properly and our hair was in place. “Behave yourselves, girls,” she warned.

When the elevator door slid open, we broke out, squealing with delight and pressing the chime on my grandparents’ door. I saw a momentary shot of light as someone looked through the peephole. The door opened and my grandfather, dressed in a crisp white shirt and a snappy bow-tie, welcomed us. The living room sparkled. Two long tables crossed the room, each covered with a hand-sewn tablecloth. Candle sticks in the middle awaited prayer. Twelve place settings -- a Haggadah prayer book centered in each one -- gleamed alongside crystal glasses, holiday silver and Elijah's cup. Matzoh hid beneath shiny handkerchiefs, and the Seder plate held its special ingredients — lamb bone, parsley, haroset, roasted egg, bitter greens and horseradish.

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I gave my grandfather a bear hug, then raced into the kitchen to see my grandmother. It was a small apartment, and I needed only ten steps to reach the kitchen. Buddie -- we called my grandmother "Buddie" instead of "Bubbe," as other Jewish children called their grandmothers — greeted me with a smile, her wavy white hair slightly damp from the kitchen heat and her apron finger-marked. She gave me a big squeeze, then sent me back into the living room.

My mouth watered as I waited for the platters. Buddie molded gefilte fish patties from fresh pike from the fishmonger, laying ric-rac carrot slices on each one. She hand-mixed and rolled out matzoh balls so delicious that I never found an equivalent. She chopped and diced to concoct her delicious blend of hard-boiled egg, white onion and diced chicken liver. Once or twice, she sauteed small dishes of sweetbreads for my mother, my aunt and me. Buddie cooked with love, and it showed.

In the living room, I slipped onto the couch and sat next to my sister and my cousins. My grandfather, Zadie, sat at the head of the table and waited impatiently for the talking and laughter to quiet down. Buddie emerged from the kitchen. Placing a lace shawl over her head, she stood midtable and said her prayers over the candles, waving her hands in incantation and burying her face in her palms. When she lifted her face, it was coated with tears.

It was Zadie's turn now, and he nodded to the person at his right — usually my cousin Rich — to initiate the round-robin reading of the Haggadah. We each read a passage, often tripping on the unusual names. We asked the four questions. We recited the plagues (my father adding “Volvos” every year as his personal plague). The readings got around the table once, maybe twice before the children started to pop with excitement. At my grandmother’s urging, my grandfather advanced to Dayenu. We sang, clapped, laughed and wished one another gut yuntif. Then the Seder meal started. Platters of gefilte fish, bowls of matzoh ball soup, piles of chicken liver and egg. Course after course of flavors and dishes we got no other time of the year. Buddie, too exhausted to eat, sat on a hard-backed chair at the end of the table and beamed as she watched the family enjoy the Seder plates.

After dinner, as my mother and aunt washed dishes in the kitchen, Zadie dispatched the grandchildren to find the afikomen, the half piece of matzoh covered in cloth he hid somewhere in the house. We disappeared into bedrooms, closets, bathrooms, living room, foyers looking for the afikomen. Zadie followed and pronounced “cold” or “warm” as we tore through the apartment. After thirty minutes, no one found it. We surrounded Zadie, laughing and begging him to give us more clues. He laughed as he said “warmer" and "warmer" and then “hot.” I yelled, “There it is!” I lifted the tablecloth directly in front of Zadie and found the afikomen hidden beneath the tablecloth beneath his plate. Sneaky. He gave me a five dollar bill and handed the same to the other kids.

Happy and full, we yawned, and the Seder dinner came to a close. My sister and I bundled into our jackets. Mom and Dad said their goodbyes and collected packages of leftovers from Buddie so we could enjoy Passover dishes again. Buddie and Zadie hugged us, smiley and tearful at once. We climbed into the car and headed back to Connecticut, falling asleep to Mom and Dad's quiet conversations as we settled in the car.

After my grandparents died, we celebrated Passover Seder at my aunt's home and then at my cousin's home. Relatives died, however, others moved away, some lost interest, and for a few years we had no Seder, an absence I felt acutely. But the family cycle picked up again. Relatives married, children arrived, the family morphed, and Passover Seder returned in a different form, at a different house, with new and extended family members. The lights, love and belonging of Passover Seder returned and the tradition continued.