Posts Tagged ‘Passover’

That Old House

March 31, 2015


The email came a year ago. The subject line was “Montclair House.” I didn’t recognize the sender. Angie said that she and her husband had bought my childhood home, and hoped to restore it to its original footprint. She had found a blog post I’d written about it. She wanted to talk to me.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk to her. But I wasn’t sure why.

The house is a rambling Victorian built in 1900. A landing in the stairs overlooks the living room. The main entrance isn’t at the front, but, quirkily, on the side. When our parents bought the house, in 1958, the shady hemlocks, dark cedar shingles and wrap-around porch reminded our mother of the Adirondacks. I had just turned one – the last of four children. Until our mother died, in 1999, the house was our family’s gravitational center.

It’s where I learned to read. And write. To ride a bike and drive a car. We carried the black-and-white TV into the backyard to watch Bobby Kennedy’s funeral, and onto the porch for the Watergate Hearings. All three sisters crossed the landing and descended the stairs to get married in the living room. Four generations gathered in the dining room for Passover seders. Each of my siblings moved back at some point, as adults. I never moved back, but the house stayed inside me.

For a long time after we sold the house, I found myself waking up at night longing to search through closets and drawers that had long since been emptied of our stuff and refilled with other families’ possessions. I couldn’t believe our childhood drawings weren’t still crammed into the built-in drawers in the master bedroom, that our broken kitchen chairs weren’t stored in the back attic, that my head comics were no longer hidden behind my bed.

The property has changed hands a few times since we sold it. Early on, the sellers held an open house. My brother went, and took pictures. I pored over the photos, trying to reconcile the freshly painted rooms and neatly landscaped yard with the well-worn, lived-in spaces I remembered. Passing through town, I would idle at the curb, trying to mentally replant the lost hemlocks and replace the new blue siding with the old cedar shingles. Eventually, I learned to let go of the physical building. I knew I would never lose the sense of home that endured in my mind.

But Angie’s email revived the old longing. I sent her a quick note, asking for more information. While I waited to hear back, I tried to imagine how anyone could restore our home to what it had been. Would they bring back the clutter? Re-peel the paint? Rewire the light switch outside the bathroom so it only worked when it was jiggled just so?

Four days later, Angie answered. She wanted to know my favorite memory of the house. But the rest of her questions were architectural. Had the “front” door always been at the side? Was the little room off the dining room ever a porch?

I forwarded her email to my siblings. We swapped memories about staging plays on the landing over the living room, and soaking in the claw-foot tub. We told each other how glad we were that the house was back in the hands of people who loved it. And we agreed that the idea of restoring the “original footprint” made no sense. The “front” door had always been on the side. And the little room off the dining room had always been the “sun room,” where our father paid the bills and we kept the Passover haggadahs.

The next time she wrote, Angie attached old photos from when the house was first built – pictures we had never seen.

IMG_20140409_0001 P9210-0001

There was the front door, at the front of the house. And there, in the corner where the sun room belonged, was an open porch.

As I studied the photos, trying to reconcile the house on my screen with the one I remembered, I realized what I had always known, but never absorbed. For 60 years before the house was ours, other families had already called it home. If the first owners could have seen how the house looked when we lived there, they would have had as much trouble recognizing the place as I do today.

In one of my emails to Angie, I mentioned those haggadahs in the sun room. She replied that at their seder that year, someone in her family had said, “Next year in Montclair.”

That “next year” is this year. I like imagining Angie’s family celebrating  in the Montclair dining room. It doesn’t matter so much if they open the door for Elijah at the side of the house or the front. I do hope, though, that when they pass the house on, they’ll hold memories of home as enduring and enriching as mine.


Some Poems for Passover

April 15, 2014

IMG_6311The power of the Passover seder lies in the fact that it’s always the same. And always different.


In our family, certain foods are non-negotiable – Big Grandma’s matzo ball soup, Little Grandma’s chremsels, Manischewitz. Other parts of the menu vary. Lately I’ve been substituting Yeminite charoset for the Ashkanazik standard. I’ve eliminated tzimmes and added matzo crunch.


Likewise, each year, our family uses the same Haggadah we’ve been using for years. The set was handed down to me in the 1990s, when my parents updated to a newer edition. We wouldn’t abandon these old books for the world. The pages are stained with the wine and charoset of Passovers past, and four separate volumes are marked up with the names of the loved ones, many long gone, assigned each year’s parts – first in my father’s hand and then in mine. You couldn’t ask for more tangible connection to tradition.

And we would never dream of changing or omitting the core texts, like the blessings, the four questions and Chad Gadya, to name just a few. But lots of the translations and footnotes feel dated, or just like missed opportunities to explore something more.

So while we stick with the old, I sometimes add something new. This year it was poetry. Early Monday afternoon, between cooking the chicken and setting the table, I scoured my bookshelves, and picked out four poems to augment the traditional seder text. I marked the pages, and scattered the books around the table, alongside the Haggadahs, and at the appropriate time, asked someone to read.


The first thing you eat at the seder is a green vegetable dipped in salt water. In our house, it’s parsley. Sometimes at this point we read the note in our Haggadah about springtime and renewal. Sometimes we read lines from the Song of Songs about winter being over. This year, we read this: 


The First Green of Spring

David Budbill


Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,

This sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting

To a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,


Harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching

on this message from the dawn which says we and the world

are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And


even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we

will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here

now, today, and, my oh my! don’t these greens taste good.



There are lots of ways to bring to life the ten plagues the Egyptians suffered before the Israelites fled. I read on Facebook that my rabbi was using ping pong balls to simulate the seventh plague, which is hail. I chose this:



Kay Ryan


Like a storm

of hornets, the

little white planets

layer and relayer

in their high orbits,

getting more and

more dense before

they crash against

our crust. A maelstrom

of ferocious little

fists and punches,

so hard to believe

once it’s past.



Pharaoh: Arch-Tyrant

After we recite the plagues, I like to read a section from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s New Haggadah, in which he expands on the concept of the Pharoah. Kaplan writes, “….Pesach means more than that first emancipation the Israelites won from Pharoah when they left Egypt…It means emancipation wrested from the yoke of conquerors, freedom from the bonds of slavery, and the right of peoples to self-determination.”


This year I augmented that reading with this poem:



Langston Hughes


Democracy will not come

Today, this year

Nor ever

Through compromise and fear.


I have as much right

As the other fellow has

To stand

On my two feet

And own the Land.


I tire so of hearing people say,

Let things take their course.

Tomorrow is another day.

I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.



Is a strong seed


In a great need.

I live here, too.

I want freedom

Just as you.




Shortly before the meal, we recite a series of Psalms praising God. I included my fourth and last poem here.


Welcome Morning

Anne Sexton


There is joy

in all:

in the hair I brush each morning,

in the Cannon towel, newly washed,

that I rub my body with each morning,

in the chapel of eggs I cook

each morning,

in the outcry from the kettle

that heats my coffee

each morning,

un the spoon and the chair

that cry “hello there, Anne”

each morning,

in the godhead of the table

that I set my silver, plate, cup upon

each morning.


All this is God,

right here in my pea-green house

each morning

and I mean,

though often I forget,

to give thanks,

to faint down by the kitchen table

in a prayer of rejoicing

as the holy birds at the kitchen window

peck into their marriage of seeds.


So while I think of it,

let me paint a thank-you on my palm

for this God, this laughter of the morning,

lest it go unspoken.


The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,

dies young.


I’m hanging onto these poems for next year. We’ll probably read at least some of them again, just like some of the recipes we’ve added over the years, and have become a part of our tradition.



Embarrassment of Riches

March 31, 2013


I’m at the supermarket, loading my groceries onto the tabloids-and-batteries end of the conveyor belt. At the other end, a 40-ish woman is ringing up her order. It’s a small order, which is why I chose this check-out line. I’m not really paying attention to her. I’m reading a headline about Camilla Bowles’ drinking problem (who knew?) and I’m carefully arranging my purchases—the wild-caught salmon beside the milk, the skin cream with the razor blades and antiseptic lotion, the fresh veggies together, the fancy whole bean coffee near the parchment paper—when I realize that something irregular is happening at the register.

The woman is asking to have her total repeated. I’m pretty sure I hear the cashier say, “Seven eighty.” And then I see the woman reaching into one of her bags and handing the cashier two cartons of eggs. Neither the shopper nor the cashier makes a big deal of it. The shopper doesn’t act especially upset, and the cashier doesn’t seem particularly surprised. He just sets the eggs aside and punches in some numbers.

Then he holds up a coupon and announces, “This is expired.”

This time, the woman visibly sighs. “Okay,” she says. “Better put this back, too.” And she hands the cashier a small tub of cream cheese.

By now, it begins to occur to me that I could do something for this woman. I could pay for her eggs and her cream cheese. And maybe I should. But how? Do I give her the money? Do I give it to the cashier? I don’t want to embarrass her, I tell myself. No one has so much as looked in my direction, so I would have to intrude on their transaction. Admit that I’ve been listening. What should I say? And how much does she need? My money is snapped inside my wallet, and my wallet is zipped inside my purse.

While I’m standing there, trying to figure out what to do, the woman takes her remaining groceries and leaves.

I step up to the cashier and he rings me up. My order comes to almost exactly ten times what the woman ahead of me spent. I swipe my credit card, hit “yes,” sign, and leave with my bags. As I drive up Warwick Avenue, I see the woman waiting at the bus stop.

Did I mention that all this takes place on the fifth night of Passover? Four nights earlier, I presided over my family’s seder. We raised the matzo and recited, “This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” When I was picking readings from various haggadahs, I’d made sure to include one that interpreted the Festival of Freedom as encompassing freedom from want, and another that reminded us that it’s our duty to help make others free.

As I drive home from the supermarket and put away my purchases, the irony weighs more and more heavily on my mind. I keep replaying the scene in the check-out aisle, trying to picture myself putting my money where my mouth is. But even in my imagination, I fall short. The problem, I tell myself, is that I don’t know the right words to say.

So I ask Facebook.

It turns out a lot of my friends have been in this situation – on both the giving and the receiving end. Some found it embarrassing, and some still feel bad about failing to act, like me. But lots of folks seem to find it pretty easy to help a needy stranger. The key, they all agree, is to keep it light. Talk about “paying it forward,” they advise. They suggest I claim that someone else once did the same thing for me—whether or not this is true. Or I could say nothing at all. Just give the woman a smile, and the cashier the money.

These are all great ideas. But will I use them? I don’t know.

I’m great at being charitable in the abstract. Write a check or fill in a form on a website, and I’m done. And if the woman at the supermarket had turned to me for help, I’m pretty sure I would have been glad to give her what she needed. But step forward, uninvited?

I told myself I was concerned about causing her embarrassment. And I was. But I’m pretty sure that I was also worried about the embarrassment to myself. The embarrassment of admitting to someone who doesn’t have enough that I have more than enough. And the more general embarrassment of crossing the invisible barrier that makes us strangers. Of not minding my own business.

If this situation arises again, at least I’ll have a script. I hope I’ll have the nerve to use it. And if I balk, I hope I’ll remember that as difficult as doing the right thing might seem to me at the time, it’s a lot harder to deal with the regret.

Next to Godliness

March 8, 2013


I cleaned my kitchen floor the other day. This may not seem noteworthy to you. But to me, sad to say, it is.

It’s not like we’ve been wallowing in filth. We don’t have kids or pets, and we take shoes off at the door, so we don’t track in a lot of dirt from outside. When we notice a major spill, we’re pretty quick to sweep it up. Sometimes I even take out the broom just for good measure, in case there’s something I’m not seeing.

Even so, the floor was starting to bother even me. But even if it hadn’t, I could tell by looking at the calendar that a cleaning was in the cards. Just not quite yet.

Passover is a little over two weeks away. I don’t prepare for the holiday by scouring my oven or covering my counters with foil, and we don’t have a special set of Passover kitchenware. But I do clear out all the foods we’ll be abstaining from during the holiday. And I give the kitchen its annual deep cleaning. The point of this cleaning isn’t pragmatic. It’s religious. I would clean before Passover whether the kitchen needed it or not. Not that the question has ever come up.

But now, two weeks too early for the ritual cleaning, the floor was starting to bug me. And then, while I was making breakfast, the juicer went crazy and sprayed orange pulp all over. And then, just in case I still hadn’t gotten the message, right when I was about to start my day’s work at my computer, the power went out.

The story I’m now working on is tentatively entitled “Beshert,” which is Yiddish for “destiny” or “intended.” I could have used my laptop until the battery ran down. And then I could have gone to a coffee shop or the library. Or written longhand, of all things. Instead, I decided the power outage was a sign that cleaning my floor now, ahead of my pre-Passover cleaning, was beshert.

I squirted the soap into a sink full of warm water, took the sponge-mop from its hook in the back hall, and began.

While I do my Passover cleaning, I have the holiday on my mind. I review the seder menu, and figure out my cooking schedule. I consider who will be at the table, and parcel out parts. Who will play the evil son? Who will ask the four questions? In a good year, I might get beyond logistics and pay attention to the spiritual intent of what I’m doing. I’m not just cleaning the floor, I’ll remind myself. I’m remembering bondage. I’m celebrating freedom. I’m welcoming spring.

Now I wasn’t cleaning for Passover. I was simply cleaning. But it wasn’t that simple.

I was feeling the slide of the sponge on the linoleum. I was watching the wet progress across the floor. I was hearing the quiet. The no-hum of the refrigerator. The no-rumble of the furnace. The no-option of turning on music. And I was letting my thoughts flow where they would.

I thought about my dear friend Chris, who died three years ago. Hanging above her kitchen sink was a Buddhist teaching about washing dishes. I’m pretty sure it was Thich Nat Hanh, “While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

I thought about my good friend Roma, a California artist whose work explores intersections between the sacred and the mundane. Her contemplative images of hands loading a dishwasher and cleaning a toilet hang opposite my desk.

I thought about the saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” and wondered if it is.

I don’t believe in God, per se, but I do believe in godliness. That distinction, pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Kaunfer, comes from theologian Arthur Green. The idea, as I understand it, is to approach religious practice (in this case Jewish practice) not as worship of an imagined divine being, but as striving to emulate the positive attributes traditionally associated with “God.” Those qualities include things like compassion, patience, kindness and forgiveness. Cleanliness? Not so much.

On the other hand, cleaning—or weeding or kneading, painting walls, splitting wood, or engaging in any number of mundane, necessary tasks—and doing it with the right mindset, can become a meditation. A way to resent one’s inner compass.

And even if the chore doesn’t produce any spiritual breakthroughs, when you’re done, you’ve got a clean floor.


Big Grandma’s Chicken Soup

April 3, 2012

Passover prep is well underway at my house. Last weekend I got the chicken soup and matzoh balls made. I used Big Grandma’s recipe, as recorded by my mother in Cooking Is My Bag, a fundraiser cookbook put out by the Montclair Education Association, I’m guessing in the late 1970s.

Big Grandma (may her memory be for a blessing) was (among many other things) my mother’s mother, an ace fundraiser for United Jewish Appeal, a fiercely competitive Scrabble player, a skilled knitter and needle-pointer, a Canadian Club drinker, an opera listener, a staunch supporter of and frequent flyer to Israel, and our family’s official soup maker.

She was famous for two soups: mushroom barley with beef, and chicken with matzoh balls. She brought them to our home frozen in quart-sized containers weeks before whatever holiday they were meant for. Serving the soup meant setting the container in a saucepan half filled with water and gently heating it until the soup was melted enough to slip out of the container, and then getting it nice and hot. Once I was living too far from New Jersey to come home for Passover, I found out that making chicken soup with matzoh balls is more difficult than just waiting for your grandmother to drive up the Garden State Parkway with her vats of frozen soup.

But it’s not that difficult. Mostly, it just takes some advance planning, because doing it right takes three days. Here’s how I did it this year.

Day one: Make soup!

Quarter your whole chicken. (B.G. didn’t keep kosher, but she did demand a kosher pullet for her soup. I don’t keep kosher, either, but I do try to eat only the meat of animals I believe have been raised humanely. This year’s soup chicken scored a 5 – the highest grade — on Whole Foods’ animal treating ratings.)

Throw the chicken parts into your soup pot, along with three large onions, four or five celery stalks, and two or three large carrots. (I also add a bunch of whole garlic cloves. And this year, a parsnip. Don’t tell B.G.)

Add four quarts of water and bring to a boil. (B.G. says to then skim any accumulated “fluff.” This makes the final broth beautifully clear. But it’s also a pain in the neck, especially when the chicken and vegetables are bobbing up over the top of the water. I used to spend a lot of time and effort trying to accomplish this step. Now I ignore it. No one has ever complained.)

Simmer, covered, for 90 minutes. (I think B.G. cracked the pot lid. I used to, but no longer bother.)

At this point, this year, I added a bouquet of parsley, as recommended by Big Grandma’s brother-in-law, Uncle Moley. I also seasoned with salt and pepper.

Simmer another 30 minutes.

Remove the carrots and chicken parts, and strain the rest.

Cut the carrots into coins and return them to the soup. (Uncle Moley also returns the chicken to the soup. B.G. and I reserve it for other uses, such as chicken salad and chicken tertrazini, one of my grandmother’s favorites.)

Cool the soup in the fridge overnight.

Day two: Skim, mix and chill

Skim the fat from the top of the soup. (This soup fat isn’t exactly the same as schmaltz you make by rendering chicken fat with onion. But it works just as well for matzoh balls, and it’s a lot more convenient.)

Make your matzah ball batter by creaming the soup fat and combining it with beaten eggs, matzah meal, and salt and pepper to taste. Amounts: 3 TBS fat to 3 eggs to 3/4 cup matzah meal.

Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight.

If you’re freezing the soup for later, you can do that now.

Day three: Make matzoh balls!

Get a big pot of salted water boiling while you set up your matzah-ball-making station. (The recipe in the Montclair Education Association cookbook doesn’t include this part. It’s the secret to success B.G. shared with me when she found out I was planning to actually use the recipe she had so casually dictated to my mother. I felt privileged that she’d given me this extra wisdom. Especially since years earlier, when I asked her to teach me to knit, she’d gotten disgusted with my ineptitude and given up almost immediately.)

To make your matzoh balls B.G.’s secret way, you’ll need the batter you’ve had sitting overnight, a bowl of warm water wide enough to wet your palms, a towel to dry your fingertips.

To form smooth, round matzoh balls, dig walnut-sized bits from the batter with your dry finger tips, and roll them between your wet palms. Keeping your finger tips to be dry prevents the batter from becoming soggy, and keeping your palms wet helps the balls slide around without sticking, so you can form a lovely sphere.

Drop the balls into the water and let them boil, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Remove them with a slotted spoon. Let them drain and cool. Then you can freeze them. (I used to freeze the balls in the soup, but they tended to fall apart as the soup thawed.)

That’s it. Do it right, and the result will be a broth that’s rich in taste, just slightly sweet, and not at all greasy, and matzoh balls that are flavorful, firm enough to stand up to a spoon, soft enough to melt in your mouth, and not at all heavy. Plan on offering seconds.

Happy Passover!

Little Grandma’s Chremslach

April 19, 2011

The traditional Passover greeting is to wish someone a “Zissen Pesach” – a sweet Passover. The phrase is probably meant as a reference to the sweetness of liberation, the holiday’s central theme. But it could just as well describe the flavors of the seder. Besides the spicy bite of the “bitter herb” and the blandness of the matzo, there’s an awful lot of sweet stuff on the menu, from fruity charoset and Manischewitz wine to honeyed tzimmes and all manner of desserts. In my house there’s also the chremsls.

Chremsls as I have always known them are golden matzo fritters fried in oil and soaked in hot honey. Dense and greasy and starchy, they ooze dark sweetness when you bite into them. My mother made them from a recipe she got from her mother-in-law, our Little Grandma, and served them as an entrée side dish, alongside the brisket and the asparagus. When I started hosting my own seders, she gave me the recipe. I’ve been serving them ever since.

For years it seemed that no one outside our family had ever even heard of them. Now I learn that the proper Yiddish plural isn’t chremsls, but chremslach. Most sources say they’re eaten for breakfast or dessert. But I found one that uses the word chremslach for mashed potatoes stuffed with meat and fried. A cottage cheese version is touted as an easier, Passover-appropriate variation on blintzes.

In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden offers an Alsatian version that includes brandy, salt, sugar and cinnamon as well as raisins and chopped almonds.

Joan Nathan says she has never had a seder without chremslach (or “grimslech,” as she says it can also be spelled). Her family recipe is included in her Jewish Cooking in America. The matzo meal fritter are stuffed with currants, almonds and apricots and served with prunes stewed in orange juice, or a wine sauce.

Little Grandma’s chremsls don’t include any fruit or nuts. They’re made with actual matzo that’s been soaked, drained and crushed, rather than matzo meal. David has never liked them but the kids love them as much as I do. One memorable year, when Sam was about six, his friend Alex was eating over, and I served leftover chremsls. Alex couldn’t get enough of them. It wasn’t until later, when he was telling Sam how much he’d enjoyed the meal, that we realized he thought he was eating chicken.

Here’s my recipe:

Beat and season with salt and pepper

1 egg for each person

Moisten with hot water and drain

1 matzo for each egg

Crush the matzos into the egg and mix

Add to the egg/matzo mixture

about 1 tsp matzo meal for each matzo, or enough to bind the batter.*

(*Less is better. Too much turns your finished chremsls in to hockey pucks.)

Heat in a wide pan

peanut oil, maybe 1/2 inch deep

Meanwhile, start heating in a deep pan

honey, maybe 2 cups

When oil begins to sizzle, form the batter into 2-inch diameter patties and fry them in the oil, turning once.

When chremsls are golden on both side, drop them into the hot honey turning them over a few times as they soak up the honey.

You’ll probably have to work in stages, adding more patties to the oil as room permits, and making room for newly fried chremls in the hot honey by removing them to your serving platter (or the baking sheet on which you will reheat them, if you need to make them in advance).

But now that I think about it, maybe my mother just kept adding more and fried chremsls to the hot honey and removed them all at once, so some ended up soaking much longer than any of mine do. Maybe that’s why my version of Little Grandma’s chremsls are never as dark and sweet as I remember my mother’s being. Or maybe that’s not the reason.

By the Book

April 15, 2011

Finding the Perfect Script for the Seder

The Passover Haggadah compiled and edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman, published by The Prayer Book Press, 1972

(This is the text of my column, Ad Lib., in the April 15, 2011 issue of  The Jewish Voice and Herald.)

On a shelf in their New Jersey sunroom, my parent kept a pile of Haggadas. Several were printed in Tel Aviv in the 1950s and ’60, illustrated with old etchings so poorly reproduced it was hard to tell the hail from the locusts. One of these was in French, bought when my family lived inParis. A later edition, in Russian, recalled my grandmother’s work with the UJA. We kept these stapled booklets for sentimental reasons, but rarely looked at them.

The books we actually used were more substantial. The lime-green Glatzer Haggadah meant business, with its extensive footnotes and essays by Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and other heavy-hitter theologians.

In time, the ponderous Glatzer Haggadas were supplemented with the more user-friendly Silverman. I’m not a huge fan of the Silverman. The red-and-purple color scheme is garish. The pictures of the four sons are goofy. And the commentary tries a little too hard to convince the reader that a traditional Seder is worth the trouble.

Soon after the Silvermans came on the scene, I got married and moved toLos Angeles, where we celebrated with an Orthodox friend. I don’t remember his Haggadah — probably because he spent more time discussing the text than actually reading it. Who knew Seders could be so unscripted? So educational?

FromLos Angeles, our growing family moved toVermont. Far from my parents and with no friend to host us, I would be leading my own Seders. For the first time, I could do them my way. But what was my way? The answer, I was sure, could be found in the right Haggadah.

A bookstore in L.A.’s Fairfaxdistrict offered options from every corner of Judaism. But no one corner was exactly mine. I ended up buying several Haggadah’s. The Yeshiva University Haggada provides the sort of erudite analysis our Orthodox friend taught us to appreciate. The Telling uses non-gendered God language. Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist New Haggadah resonates with my theology.

The New Haggadah for the Pesach Seder, edited by Mordecai M Kaplan, Euegene Kohn, and Ira Eisenstein for the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation. Published by Behrman House, NY, 1978.

I rounded out the collection with a handful of Maxwell House Haggadahs, offered free at the supermarket, between the matzohs and the macaroons. They bear a striking resemblance to the stapled booklets in my parents’ sunroom.

Coordinating a seder with multiple manuals takes some doing. I charted out the corresponding page numbers in the different books, and decided which version of each section to use. It was hard to do – but not nearly as hard as getting my guests to follow the plan, especially as the evening progressed. By the time we broke the matzohs, my orderly scheme would be shattered.

That seems about right. In his essay reprinted in the Glatzer Haggadah, Franz Rosenzweig suggests that the Seder’s typical slide into silliness reinforces the festival’s liberation message. At the start of the meal, the leader speaks and the household listens. But questions and songs and four cups of wine free up the atmosphere until, as Rosenzweig puts it, “the last shred of autocracy … dissolves into community.”

When my parents died, I inherited their Haggadahs. At first I tried adding the ancestral books to my mix. But I soon realized that all my editing and orchestrating was missing the point.

For years now, we’ve been happily using the Silvermans. Yes, the art is still ugly. Yes, the commentary can be condescending. The language is no less sexist, the theology no closer mine. But the pages are stained with my mother’s haroset, the margins filled with reminders of loved ones we miss. I mean that literally.

Several of the books bear my dad’s distinctive, mangled handwriting – layers of names scratched in and crossed out as, year after year, he pre-assigned various passages. Above the Four Questions you’ll find my older sister, me, my cousin and my niece, a record of children learning to read. My Zionist grandmother repeats God’s promise to Abraham. My argumentative uncle plays the part of the rebellious son. An old family friend invites all who are hungry to come and eat.

When we read the text now, with our grown children, we add our own comments, and rephrase sexist sentences on the fly – a challenge that becomes more difficult and entertaining as we approach the fourth cup.

This mix of remembering and revising seems right, too. After all, the point of Passover isn’t how the old story is reprinted. It’s how we remember it and make it our own.