We usually divide up the holidays: Yom Kippur breakfast at our daughter Samantha’s; Rosh Hashanah dinner at our apartment, and Seder at our daughter Lisa’s. Making out my grocery list this year — I’m responsible for the matzo ball soup and gefilte fish — I suddenly thought about Libby and felt a rush of emotion. Libby’s been gone for over 20 years, but each year, at Passover, not only do I participate in retelling the story of our ancestors, I also think about my dear friend whose wisdom was responsible for our first family Seder.
No one in Libby’s family was Jewish, but her house, which was next door to ours, was alive with Christmas ornaments from November to January. She was the one who quietly convinced me to honor the traditions that had merely been glanced at in my family of origin and had been all but forgotten in my nuclear family.
“What are you cooking for Passover?” she’d asked.
I didn’t know how to respond. Back then, making a Seder had never occurred to me.
“Larry mentioned Passover the other day,” she added, referring to my husband, who had been raised in a Modern Orthodox family.
Libby’s question — maybe because there was no hinting, no judgment implied, no attempt to elicit guilt — made me wonder if we’d deprived ourselves of something significant by ignoring our customs. Passover, it seemed, might be a good place for secular Jews to initiate our first family tradition. After all, it was a liberation holiday, and we could certainly get behind that. I understood why Libby had been attracted to it as well, even though it hadn’t been part of her tradition.
Libby had had an ongoing relationship with loss and sorrow. But she’d found answers to questions I hadn’t even known how to ask. At that time, embracing her late 50s, her “yes” was strong enough and clear enough to counter her husband’s often sour “no.” Her power lay in acceptance and delight, in imagination and insight. Eventually, older white neighbors who had fought a black family’s move onto our block had been swayed by Libby’s warmth, which was both innate and learned — her survival tool.
Libby hadn’t sprinkled stardust on our family, but she was magic nevertheless. She welcomed our children and us into her home, teaching us how to observe, how to be generous.
So, there we were — at the first Seder in our house on Wesley Street in Evanston, Illinois. Libby and her family. Our Jewish friends, who, like us, had no family in town. The soup was almost okay; the rest of the meal serviceable; the macaroons straight out of a can, gag-inducingly sweet, but no one seemed to care. We barely touched the matzo. Larry conducted the service. No one else could understand the Hebrew. The adults took turns reading the English translation of the Haggadah. Only Libby seemed moved by the four questions and their answers. Among the things that were different from all other nights was that the kids sat still. Probably because Libby was there.
Eventually, we became more adept at both the Seder and the service. Larry searched for interpretations that might appeal to the kids, but each year, the attention of the adults seemed to wander more and more.
When we moved to California and prepared for our first West Coast Seder, I felt more confident. By then I had pretty much perfected the chicken soup. My matzo balls were fluffy. That first year in Santa Monica, I remember taking a break from the kitchen and walking past Samantha’s room. I noticed her standing still, with her hand out and her eyes closed. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m feeling Libby,” she said, without opening her eyes. “She told me when I missed her to close my eyes and put my hand out, and I’d feel her here with me.”
I put my arm around Samantha, closed my eyes, and reached out to Libby.
When my granddaughter Stella was about 10, she took up cooking. We made the chicken soup and matzo balls together. And each year would be an adventure we could share, experimenting with flourless chocolate cakes until we came up with a killer recipe. But our moment of Zen was discovering how to make a swoonworthy gefilte fish pâté.
At our Seders, we explored relevant topics, talking about being personally enslaved to cell phones or work schedules. But over time, given the state of the world, we incorporated the politics of the day, comparing it to biblical times. Now the adults present were even more engaged than the grandchildren. Ken, my son-in-law, brought an orange to last year’s Seder and asked if he could place it on the Seder plate to symbolize the otherness of the LGBT community’s desire to be included. We don’t reinvent the wheel, but we do refresh the Seder, so it’s both traditional and new.
As I complete my grocery list this year, I understand that though Libby may have had no agenda, she taught me how to be more compassionate and open. So when we recount the Passover story, I not only connect with the history of my people — our people — I also feet saddened, not just for the Israelites but also for the Egyptians, because of their horrific losses.
I remember looking over at Libby at that first Seder and understanding what Anais Nin had meant when she wrote, “Each friend represents a world in us possibly not born until they arrive, and it’s only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
And this year, as in every year since Libby’s been gone, when I open the door for Elijah to enter, I’ll also invite the spirit of my dear friend Libby to join us.
Marilyn Levy is the author of the novel “Chicago: August 28th, 1968. She is also a therapist, practicing in Santa Monica, California.