Passover’s traditional family gatherings may provide opportunities for learning besides those that take place at the Seder table itself. Although I wasn’t physically present, I’ve heard about one such outstanding example from my own extended family’s Pesach celebration.
My son’s sister-in-law, her husband and two sons traveled from their Utah home for a holiday reunion in Pittsburgh. During one of the days before the holiday began, older boy Asher — a recent bar mitzvah — approached my last living uncle — the youngest of my long-gone mother’s 12 siblings — as the two met for the first time.
“Would it be OK for me to interview you?” Asher asked Srol. (That’s what we’ve always called my uncle, because his Hebrew name is Yisroel.) “I’m supposed to write a paper for school about the Great Depression. Will you tell me what it was like?” Srol, now an unusually hale and hearty 93, was not just willing, but delighted.
“Of course,” he said. “And — would you also like to know about bootlegging?”
Bootlegging — illegal home-brewing — was a money-making boon for many large, poor families during America’s Prohibition, which held sway in the decade preceding the devastating stock market crash of 1929. Srol was born in 1922. How could Asher not be interested?
My own grandfathers were bootleg business partners during those years! Dave the Plumber — my mother’s father (for whom my daughter is named) — already had the know-how and tools on hand to build the stills necessary for producing what was then fondly known as “bathtub gin.” Harry the Huckster — my father’s father (for whom, by the way, I am named!) — was the distributor, transporting filled bottles underneath the fruits and vegetables crammed onto his horse-drawn cart for daily peddling. The police were expected to make raids — usually half-hearted ones — on stills, and brief stays in prison were routine for bootleggers.
My own parents actually met during one of the latter. Although they were both attending the same high school, the two knew each other only by sight. But each already knew the other’s father because of the men’s “business connections.” Mom and Dad were introduced when both happened to be making paternal jail visits at the same time!
Ah, but enough of this reminiscing! At some point, Uncle Srol realized that Asher was listening attentively but wasn’t writing anything down.
So he asked the boy, “Don’t you want to take some notes?” To which Asher replied, “I don’t have to! I have a very good memory, and I could never forget any of this!” Thus does essential family history pass from generation to generation, with the help of the holiday that best brings generations together!
My son is now the grandfather of two boys, one of whom — just approaching four — was able to say the Mah Nishtanah this year (with some prompting from “elders” like his big cousin Asher). My uncle wore a World War II veteran’s cap — from a collection of several; he never leaves home without one — at the Seder table rather than a kippah.
Recently, as I finally faced the long-delayed but essential task of writing my own will, I asked my children to tell me what bits and pieces of family history they wanted to be sure would pass down to them. Among my son’s requests was his great-grandfather’s welding torch — the one that took part in the still-building of those long-gone days.
I’ve had that torch high on a bookshelf in my home office for many years; it’s a constant reminder of my own roots in a time when money was so short that many poor but otherwise honest fathers would break the law in order to better feed their large families.
A most potent lesson, indeed, to be taught to a new generation before it takes its seat at a bountiful Pesach table, where the father at its head will stand and invite all who are hungry to come and eat!