Seder by the Forward

Silver seders that turned black (Passover memoir)

Read this story in Yiddish

Who doesn’t sometimes feel like telling about the seders of his childhood, the seders of his home. And I too have a story to share and I will try to do it here.

Both my mother and father were poets – at least in small measure. And whose mother and father aren’t? But you seldom see it when you’re young. You recognize it only when you’re getting on in years yourself, when they – the secret poets – have already passed away, and are in the World to Come, which is, after all, a world of poetry. But that’s not our subject. Our subject is the silver seders that my parents had every Passover — and which one fine year turned black, never to return to silver again. This is my story:

My father’s father was a maskil, a man educated in worldly matters. He was well-versed in Jewish learning and studied, for the most part, on his own, chanting passages with a beautiful, rhythmic melody. When he studied a page of Talmud — and this he would do at dawn when everyone and everything around him was sound asleep — it seemed as if he were reciting poems, so rhythmically did he do it. And he studied with such sweetness that it wouldn’t wake the members of the household in the nearby rooms, but was more like a lullaby to their honeyed dawn-like dreams… But this isn’t our subject either. What I mean to say is that my father came by his singing ability and sense of rhythm honestly. He  also inherited  from his father the entire seder ceremony, which was, in truth, a symphony.

All year round, our house was an ordinary earthly household – with all the usual worries and day-to-day concerns. Although ours was a well-to-do household, there was plenty of the mundane about it. But upstairs, in our spacious third-floor attic, we also had a sort of heavenly house, packed into about a dozen boxes and baskets. Every year, a few days before Passover, this heavenly house would descend from the third floor and reign over us for eight days, and then, after Passover, over the course of several days, it would ascend again to the heavenly realm to wait out the the whole year of 357 days of chametz.

Our father never interfered in  kitchen matters. He believed that that was unbecoming for both him and my mother – something he learned from his own father, who was a maskil, too. And his father learned it from classical German literature, which he would study with the same melody and with just as much zeal and understanding, as a page of Talmud. But before the holiday, my father took over the command of the Passover heavenly house and, with the help of all the members of the household, as well as his trusted business associates and the laborers on his property, transported it downstairs.

And when we started to unpack these baskets and boxes, like the baskets and boxes of a caravan of camels and mules, coming from the marvelous Land of Ophir, laden with all kinds of goods for the Temple in Jerusalem, all the corners of our rooms grew fragrant and gleaming and full of color. Those rooms were now three times cleaner and neater than they had been all year round, in order to receive the guest whose name was Peysekh but who was, in fact, invisible… Even so his retinue took over every object in the house.

And out of the baskets came forth sets of dishes with vases and giant plates and deep bowls and plates flat and small and smaller still, some regular-shaped and others shaped like half-moons. And dishes decorated with all sorts of flowers. And others gleaming and white as polished silver. And dishes adorned with all sorts of miniature figurines from many centuries and many European countries. And out of the baskets came forth all sorts of pots made of porcelain and glazed clay and steel and glazed tin. And chopping knives and food mills and giant three-tined forks with curious handles.

And from a separate bundle there emerged old haggadahs that breathed in the fresh air, relieved to be taken out of the spices in which they had been packed all year to keep out the moths. And out came a snow white kitl, the white linen robe worn by religious Jews on some holidays, with bands of silver trim and a silver belt, as well as a golden yarmulke – my father’s royal garments for the seders. For Yom Kippur he had another kitl – without any decoration at all, like a shroud. And although the kitl at the seder was, after all, supposed to be a reminder of that “eternal” kitl — the shroud in which Jews are buried — Father had his own views on the matter. 

At the very end of this caravan of baskets that had come down from the heavenly household to spread the Passover spirit over the earthly household down below, yes, at the very end, out came the symphony of goblets. At the time we were just a family of four, so why did we have so many goblets? The answer is that the goblets were my father’s unwritten poems rendered in glass. Some were blue as the sky and others – blue as the dark sea, as well as pink ones like roses, and others – red like the sunrise. And speckled ones with transparent circles and others with stripes. Some smooth and polished and completely without color, but nonetheless shimmering like a finely honed diamond crowned by sixteen facets.

And goblets with feet and some without feet and some with three feet and tiny goblets which could barely hold a dewdrop and others that could hold enough to make a Lot or a Noah drunk — if one managed to empty all four, as prescribed by Jewish law. And from the cotton padding there emerged at the very end the cup of Elijah the Prophet. In our house there was also a great silver goblet that we called Elijah the Prophet’s cup that was kept in the silver cabinet, open and accessible all year long — so there was a special polished cup for Elijah the Prophet just for Passover, made of glass, a fusion of red and blue, the rising sun and the blueness of the early morning sky.

And now it’s a day closer to Passover – and the dishes have all been unpacked and arranged where they belong. The time has come to search for the chametz. And now it’s Passover Eve, the chametz has already been burned, and Father is standing with us at the synagogue and choosing two guests. Every shabbes Father would bring at least one poor guest to our table. He would tell the shames, the caretaker of the synagogue: “Give me whichever guest you’d like” – but for the seders he would be selective.

Aesthetics triumphed over ethics… Father would derive great pleasure from his seders, which fulfilled his longing for beauty and so he only settled for respectable, tidy-looking guests who were also musically inclined. Some guests would even plan their journeys across the land so that they could arrive in our town for Passover because our father’s seders were renowned among both his family and the beggars of the region.

And now for the seder table itself. It takes up almost the whole living room. A bed is moved into the middle of the room and is transformed into the hesev-bet, on which the leader of the seder would recline on pillows. And although we all know this bed very well, we don’t recognize it. It’s become a wide throne with plush covers and pillows underneath and — most importantly — the royal garments.

Six silver candlesticks sparkle and shimmer. Two of them with branches that can hold four candles. Today they are arranged differently, covering the entire length of the table. The stearin candles are quite tall, since they need to last as long as the seder. Reclining on pillows, next to my Father, sits the youngest: me. It’s not customary for the king to sit with the queen at the seder because the queen in this instance needs to guard over her empire, which comes into its own during the pause in the reading of the haggadah — her empire being the kneydlekh, the matzah balls. And not only does she need to stand guard over the matzah balls – at a seder some little thing is always lacking and needed right away, so my mother has to be ready in the wink of an eye. Whether it’s salt or the shank bone – at some point during the seder, something will not be quite right and things won’t run like a Swiss watch… And although my father is always gentle in these matters, as gentle as one could possibly be, at a seder it’s different – any little detail could spoil the rhythm, the rhyme – and the seders were his poems.

I finish asking the Four Questions. And although usually my brother and I speak Polish with our parents, I have to ask the Four Questions the traditional way, in Hebrew with a garnish of Yiddish. I feel a little panicked, because although I understand Yiddish, I’m not used to speaking it. But that’s the way it has to be. Tradition.

And my father lifts up his eternally warm voice, which, although a little hoarse from endless smoking, is always full of love for everything, and it soon rises on the wings of some sort of rhythm which isn’t quite song, and yet is song:

Avodim hoyinu, we were slaves –“

And in an instant the whole house becomes a choir. Every part has its own melody, although all the melodies together comprise one great symphony. If someone makes a mistake — whether it be my mother, the maids, the guests, or us, the two boys — Father catches it right away, like an experienced choirmaster and pauses an instant — so that the rhythm might join together again. He calls no attention to it — so as not to shame anyone, but the seder too is an entity unto itself and must not be shamed. Perhaps it is even the divine presence. 

And since I had drunk the first little cup and the flower of poetry had already begun to unfold in the depths of my own soul, everything — the candlesticks and the candles, the tablecloth, the porcelain dishes, the melodies and the moonlit night outside with the great moon that would always peer in at the seder through the window — would merge within me into one silver current.

These seders would go on for a long time. By the time we got to the food, all our uncles had already finished their own seders and their children would come over to our place for the second part of the seder to sing Hallel, the Psalms sung on the holidays with my father, as well as Ki lo noe, Ekhod mi yodeya and Khad gadyo — and only then, after everything was over, go for a night stroll around the town with him. The roofs and the trees of the town were bathed in silver and silence. Only from a distance, from a corner of a poor street, could drunken voices be heard yelling “Ku-ku-ri-ku!” like roosters. There was an old man in our town with that nickname and the kids on the street had a custom of meeting under his windows after each seder and crowing at him, causing the poor man much suffering. And my father, in turn, made it his custom after every seder to chase the kids away. And they obeyed him and once again a silvery silence would descend upon the town and we would walk to the river on one side of town and to the meadow on the other and breath in the nocturnal fragrances of the approaching spring. 

And so it went, year in year out, until the year 1906. That year Father was orphaned, he had lost his beloved mother. And although he was forty years old at the time, his grief knew no bounds. But that’s a story unto itself and I mention it now only because it has a bearing on the silver seders. 

Of course we all knew that Father was very sad. But a seder is a seder so everything was prepared as in previous years. Everything was sparkling and silvery. And now the first part of the seder is over. And with every page of the haggadah, we  breathe more easily and hope that everything will go smoothly. Now we’ve finished eating and we’re reciting the blessings after the meal. And Father says: “May the Compassionate One bless my father my teacher and … and before the words, “and my mother, my teacher” which he he was not supposed to say because he no longer had a mother — he erupts in a deep and heartrending wail and the whole seder is transformed into a river of tears — everyone is crying, my mother, the maids, the guests, the children — for many minutes.   

But it wasn’t just this particular seder that turned dark, but the whole tradition at our house, which had gone on for fourteen years. From then on all the other seders grew dark as well. Every year brought a new misfortune or calamity. And they all came to the surface around the seder table. Although in 1907 a new child was born – our brother Herts – by the year 1910 there was one brother fewer at the seder: my older brother had gone off to Israel with the second aliyah, and become a guard — and who knew where he was wandering about while we were sitting here at such a lovely seder. That thought didn’t let us put the food to our lips or let a melody begin. 

  A year later I became a vegetarian and didn’t eat the holiday meal with everybody else. My mother prepared a separate little tablecloth for me with my dairy food at the end of the table… and this too brought my father to tears. “His own son was sitting at his table in a corner, like an uninvited guest…” he said. And in general, everything about these seders roused tears of sorrow and remembrance in him – the poem of joy and beauty became a poem of sorrow and beauty. Everything was veiled in darkness— and the melodies too became melodies of sadness. From the year 1906 on, even the moon was edged in black. And yet, the beauty remained. 

And then came the year 1914, and with it, World War I. Foreign hands plundered our entire heavenly household and also the earthly one. The house was left, at least partially, in shambles. We still had seders wherever we could, but they felt so mundane, mere bits and scraps of times gone by. Most years, Father was now alone with Mother for the seder and there was only one guest randomly allocated to their table by the shames so as not to shame the remembrance of times gone by.

And so it was until the year 1939 — when everything swam away, out of reality and into eternity, where it shines once again with a silver light so radiant it can never again grow dark.

    Translated by Sheva Zucker, with thanks to Merle Bachman for her poetic ear. 

Silver seders that turned black (Passover memoir)

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Silver seders that turned black (Passover memoir)

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