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April 8, 2009 at 7:28 AM

Why is this night different than all other nights: a Passover story revisited

When the story below was first published in the Seattle Times in 2003 Nate was still a toddler. And each year since I wrote it, I’ve sworn I’d hold my own seder at home — though I’ve yet to make good on that promise. So it was no surprise yesterday when my mother called to complain (so nu? what’s new?). Not about the fact that I wasn’t having (nor attending) the ritualistic Passover dinner held each year of my childhood, but because she’d just read a Passover brisket recipe in her South Carolina newspaper that — pishmeshame! — featured a “stuffing” made with leavened bread. (What does she expect after moving from New Jersey to one of those golf-cart retirement communities in the South?)

Worse, she said, the recipe came courtesy of a Seattle food writer, who, mom suggested, “Must be a gentile” — only she used the Yiddish slang for gentile, which I won’t repeat lest I offend anyone. “Do you know her?” she asked, spelling the woman’s lengthy last name. “Nope, never heard of her,” I replied. I’m sure my mother’s plan was to have me invite the writer over for some tea and honey cake and give her a potch on the tuchis. Instead, I said, “Mom, call the paper and complain. That’s what people do whenever we make those kind of mistakes.”

Then, my new iPhone (the one with the crappy AT&T connection) cut her off — for the third time in less than 10 minutes. And I was certain she was going to cancel her own seder plans, get on a plane and come show me and her only grandson “how it’s done” on Passover. But not before potching me on my tuchis for cutting her off. Here’s the story:

Hold the gefilte fish, but please pass the beet-colored horseradish

Visions of Seders Past

When you’re a lox-and-bagel Jew, married to a fish-on-Friday Catholic, living in a devoutly Christian town like Edmonds — 3,000 miles from the rest of your family — Jewish holidays tend to lose something in the translation.

The loss is somewhat greater when you’ve got a young son who, in another place and in another life, would be sitting at his Bubbie’s side at her Seder table asking the age-old question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Because on this night, while your grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins are eating chicken soup with matzo balls, leaving the door open for the prophet Elijah and sipping Mogen David Concord Grape, you’ll likely be eating pizza with your parents while your mother drinks Chianti — so help her God.

Holiday meals are memories held dear. And religious holiday meals offer memories that, in many ways, are held even dearer — even to folks like me, who have an uneasy tendency to ignore them.

Passover — the eight-day observance commemorating the exodus of the Jews from bondage in Egypt — begins at sunset tonight. That’s when Jews around the world remember the occasion with the ritual-filled ceremonial meal called the Seder. This prayer-filled repast uses symbolic foods and wine to underscore readings from a Passover prayer book called the Haggadah.

Among those foods are matzo, the unleavened “bread of affliction.” Horseradish or other “bitter herbs” symbolize the bitterness of bondage. Haroseth, a mixture of fruit, nuts and wine, represents the mortar used to build Egyptian cities. Salt water acknowledges tears shed in slavery. Fresh greens represent spring and rebirth. A lamb shank recalls the paschal sacrifice, and a hard-boiled egg remembers the festival sacrifice made in biblical times. The egg has also been interpreted as a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

Children take a primary role in the Seder, the youngest asking the “Four Questions” whose answers are unveiled as the family take turns reading aloud — a means of passing down through generations the story of their ancient ancestors. The meal, which can go on for hours, may seem interminable to those youngsters. Though I remember our family Seders fondly, I recall times spent rolling my eyes as my grandfather or great-uncle led the Seder, droning on and on while we kids sat fidgeting in our chairs, dreaming of the brisket and honey cake to come.

But most of all, when I reminisce about Passover, it’s the “back stories” I recall. The time I got tipsy on the grown-ups’ wine (snitched while no one was looking). The time my mother, five days into the holiday, gave up eating only unleavened bread and took me out for a much-longed-for cheese steak sandwich. But above all, I remember The Great Gefilte Fish Trauma of ’72 — a fish tale of such high drama and intrigue that it holds a revered place in my family’s tale-telling history.

Gefilte fish, the first course served at Seders held by Ashkenazic Jews (count me in), traditionally consists of ground carp, pike or whitefish bound with eggs and matzo meal, shaped by hand, poached and chilled. Local Jews may pride themselves on delightful Northwest versions of the stuff, lovingly made with wild Alaska salmon. But for this gal, who was raised in a city where supermarkets offer miles of Passover must-haves, gefilte fish means one thing: squat jars of stinky gelatinous fish balls bearing the Manischewitz label.

These grotesqueries, pickled in je ne sais quoi, were garnished with beet-flavored horseradish. No doubt to kill the flavor. Inevitably, the smell got to me before I could ever get to the fish. On the other hand, my sister Jill always had seconds. Which is why, post-Seder, circa 1972, when our stepfather found a smudge of leftover gefilte fish — telltale horseradish and all — on a plate in my parents’ off-limits bedroom, fingers were pointed.

My mother, a potential culprit, denied guilt, and Jill — the family mischief-maker — followed suit. Since no one else spoke up (as if!), all four kids were sent to our rooms till someone confessed. No one did, and there we stayed until the next morning. Every Seder thereafter, when the gefilte fish was passed, smirks abounded and much kicking went on under the table as Jill dug in with gusto.

Some 20 years later and far too long ago, I attended the last Seder shared with my family. As the gefilte fish was served, I regaled my mother’s guests with the gefilte fish story. Jill nearly went ballistic. “Enough already!” she shouted. “I’m 30 years old! Don’t you think if I’d really eaten the gefilte fish I’d have admitted it by now!”

And that’s when my brother Jake, the youngest of our lot and by then a former Marine, piped up. “It wasn’t Jill,” he said softly, his clean-shaven jaw quivering slightly, his eyes downcast. “It was Chuckie Rosenwald.”

For a brief moment, there was absolute silence. Then shrieks of laughter drowned out the quiet, and Jake confessed the details of his crime. It was bad enough, he said, that he’d been in our parents’ bedroom watching cartoons on their TV. Worse, he’d been accompanied by his best buddy: our gefilte-fish-loving neighbor, 9-year-old Chuckie. Convinced he’d never live to see his bar mitzvah, he kept his mouth shut.

Tonight, when my son opens his sweet little mouth asking, “What’s for dinner?” I’ll eye the matzo we keep in our cupboard year-round and the matzo meal I use to make matzo balls for chicken soup. And I’ll quietly say to myself, with visions of Seders dancing in my head: “Next year, in Edmonds.”

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