Memories of Pesachs past

This coming weekend, we should all be sitting around festive seder tables, welcoming springtime and the Prophet Elijah as we once more open our real and figurative doors to a new season. 

But this year’s Pesach will be different. Most of us will be separated from the loved ones with whom we always before shared the joy of this holiday. Our seders, like the seats around our tables, will most likely be diminished. But we shouldn’t try to think of them that way; Passover is, after all, Passover — no matter where and how it’s observed…

Our history hands us Seder “extremes” to consider. At one end: the forced inmates of Nazi concentration camps (whom I find myself remembering endlessly these days as antisemitism seems to be raising its ugly head so forcefully once more) making whatever small motions they could, taking whatever tiny steps they could take, to relive the Exodus under their own impossibly exiled conditions. And at the other end: the meant-for-humor depictions of our own much honored Jewish writers, who in their stories paint visual pictures of bored children playing with toy cars under the legs of the seder table, among the annoyed ankles of their still-seated elders.

All of these are parts of our own Passover experiences as Jews, whether real or creations from the pens of Herman Wouk or Philip Roth. And so I wonder: Does their fictionalization make them any less believable? Or,
perhaps even more so?

We never had a seder in my own childhood home. It was best around Boubby and Zeidy’s commodious dining room table, in the house bought by my five uncles after their happy returns from fighting on many fronts during World War II, all celebrating the joy of finally making such a large dining room a reality for such a large family. There was always chicken soup — with “chicken eggs” in it to be fished out as childhood prizes; how many of you can remember them? There was always turkey — never brought to the table to be carved; how could a good Jewish cook ever be sure all of it was thoroughly clean unless it was cut up in advance? And there was always sponge cake to end the meal, forever a culinary paradox: How could such a bland, tasteless dessert possibly be as delicious as this was? Nothing in my future — not even seders in my own home, where I tried my level best to replicate the past — ever came near to the childhood truths that I’ve long suspected in adulthood were a matter of memory, not reality…

However: does any of this really matter? Pesach is Pesach, no matter where or how we celebrate it. Whether we adults hide the matzo for the kids to search for, find and claim a reward for something even they knew was a set-up, or whether the kids themselves steal it in order to claim that same reward: the result is a memory to last a lifetime, to be passed on and on for many future generations to adopt as practices for their own, adapting them as they choose. 

I knew a family where, when the door was opened for Elijah, “the prophet” was there with gifts for all the children. In my own family, we once opened that door to find my son — returned from college, waiting outside, chilled and hungry, until that “magic” moment.  Our own traditions, our own memories, carry us through every Pesach — even this so-different pandemic one. May this year be your good memory of its own so-different kind. May it be a truly guten Pesach!

Harriet Gross can be reached at

Leave a Reply