I come from a family that gets together every year in minimal numbers and conducts the most somber Passover since the Last Supper. We aren’t very religious…Outside of that one year I went to temple every weekend before my bar mitzvah, we went for high holidays and even that was a struggle. Our seders, however, were a remnant of an earlier time, never adapting from their poorly funded, Orthodox, Eastern-European roots (as many of you may relate to). Every word was read, Hebrew and English, and this monotonous ceremony was drilled into the kids’ heads. As we’ve grown older and taken my grandparents to other people’s seders, things have relaxed and my family has staged a mutiny against the traditional leader of the seder and tossed him to the sharks of secularism. For better, or for worse, here is what a very loosely religious, American Passover looks like. Don’t bother putting an imaginary New York Jewish accent on any of the characters…This is California Judaism. (Somewhere Judah the Maccabee is turning in his grave. If you don’t get that, ask a Jewish friend, if you have one)
- Grandpa (85 y/o, sharp mind but very stubborn, partially deaf)
- Grandma (mid 70s, dark and dry humor, witty, loud to account for her husband’s increasing deafness),
- Dad (Bald, Outspoken, Self-Declared Comedian, Really Buff),
- Mom and Aunt (Picture Sorority girls about to turn 50)
- Me (I’m alright.)
I found out it was Passover Sunday night in a text message from my Grandma saying, “Want to come for our seder tmrw at our home?” – Yes, she actually said tmrw. I can’t tell you how big of a step this is from pocket dialing me multiple times a day.
I obliged them by driving down to Orange County from Hollywood. A long drive (about an hour – if you go at 10PM on a Sunday, when traffic is ok) for a dinner where I enjoy only about half the food. Please direct me to someone who actively enjoys every part of the meal, I’d love to eat your mother’s cooking. (As long as I can still opt out of gefilte fish, boiled eggs, and parsley and sub them for additional matzah balls)
Monday for lunch I figured I’d get in the spirit of Passover and eat some matzah creations. I made a turkey and provolone sandwich with olive tapenade. You may ask “Why don’t you keep Kosher but force yourself to eat matzah? Turns out somebody actually enjoys matzah, surprise. I don’t follow the rules; no kashrut, no bread lent. (I was the asshole kid eating Oreos in front of the kids trying to fast before 13 at temple on Yom Kippur. true story.) Anyways, on to the night.
I walk into my Grandparents house to meet the rest of the attendees, say my hellos, and start “schmoozing” (I never use this word). Shocked to find out my cousin and brother got out of this by saying they had to study or they’d go to Hillel. They are just as far away as I am.
Well, as the seder begins, we go through quicker than normal. Typically you read in a circle and let everyone have a shot at reading. Listening to people who can’t read well is arduous. Perhaps, in a shot in the dark attempt to avoid the embarrassment of stuttering, Jews pursue higher education (Then become lawyers and doctors, for those of you looking for some stereotypes – Yes, I have three doctors in my family).
Five minutes into the seder my Grandma proclaims, “I’m ready to drink” followed by quick “L’Chaim” out of everyone but my serious grandpa. He claims he doesn’t go hard, but assures us that he could. (He’s drinking Manischewitz while we all drink normal wine. His dad used to work at the factory after he immigrated; maybe that’s why he still drinks the foulest wine known to man. Tevya is stoked on this tradition.) Everyone pours themselves a glass and throws it back in preparation for the seder which has time and time again dragged us through the ceremonial mud.
We crack the ancient haggadahs, the instruction manual for you goys, again a word I don’t use, that seem to be old and abused at ever family’s seder I have ever been to. My family members try to read the Hebrew but to no avail which then results in them looking at me, like I’m some expert, to read the hard bits. I did go to a Jewish day school for 13 years but I haven’t used Hebrew in 7 years and I’ve gathered quite a bit of rust. Not to mention I only really remember the songs, not the prayers. (I still could probably kick your ass at Echad Me Yodeah) My grandma starts singing Dayenu, that’s her favorite. The singing comes to a quick halt, however, when she gets harangued by my grandfather for jumping the gun. We help get there officially by speed reading, mostly because, according to our bellies, it is time for the festive meal, every Jews’ favorite part.
The appetizer comes out…Gefilte Fish (I had to look up the spelling). What sick creature came up with this stuff. It’s basically a cold fish burger that has been pickled. This may be some tradition left over from broke, Eastern Europeans indulging in what they thought was delicious but I wish this part could just updated a bit, maybe to salmon? Anyways, the saying in my house goes, “the worse the gefilte fish, the more horseradish you get to slather on”. Every year this turns into a pissing match for who can eat the most horseradish on the smallest piece of matzah and who gets the best nose rush. For the first time in my twenty three years of life the male-female ratio is even and the girls step up to the plate hard. For a good ten minutes the room echoes with yelps of ambitious spice competitors with tears falling down their face. The only relief available is the wine, which has already far exceeded the 2 cups partaken in thus far. After all, the haggadah does say “A full cup is the symbol of complete joy”. My aunt read this line aloud which to my grandma replied, “That’s what I say every night” with a sly smirk across her face.
We eat the brisket and all of the other good dishes while singing dayenu. At first everyone sings coherently and boisterously but after verse one and chorus one the singing dies out. Nobody knows the words. A quick remedy to this is repeating the first verse and chorus over and over again, which doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
As the meal gets consumed, conversation goes off in its wacky ways covering topics like Conan (O’ Brien, not the Barbarian), Tabasco, In-N-Out’s 3x divorced and only high school graduated CEO, tire warranty scams, and my Grandpa’s potential billion dollar idea, along with many other stories we have heard before. Soon enough we get to as far off topics as my Aunt’s junior prom, which I think was in 1981. Apparently, her date had gotten touchy because “At that age, boys see and they want to touch”. With another stroke of matriarchal insight my Grandma expressed that, “There is finesse and there’s a crotch grab”. Apparently, this guy had gone for the latter only to be ridiculed 33 years later by people he probably doesn’t even remember existed.
To switch vibes, dessert was served which made everybody ecstatic. Chocolate “Bark” and See’s Candy, heaven. Long discussions were held over which pieces were which in the See’s box and resulted in the cutting and sampling of most while the Bark got ravaged in seconds.
Then, in an unprecedented move, we wrapped up dinner and went home. Not even finishing the seder or looking for the afikomen. Maybe it was a lapse in memory or just a lack of dedication but we headed home. In our defense there were no kids to look for the afikomen and we had the door open for Elijah the whole night so there wasn’t much left to be done. What can I say? Jews’ favorite part of holidays is the food. Hell, even on Shabbat the Bar Mitzvah Brunch is the highlight of the morning.
There is supposed to be another seder tonight, but it won’t happen. I think Passover is an 8 day holiday but I’ve never made it past one day. I’m sure this story didn’t resonate very well with a few of you religious folk, but for those of you who cut corners and sneak some chametz when your parents aren’t looking, good on ya’. Chag Semeach to the tribe and Happy Easter to the rest of you. Have fun eating peeps, if that’s even possible.