This past year I have paid close attention to the yearnings of my heart as I try to connect to my ancestors. I focus on my dreams upon awakening, and even journal fragments before they dissolve into my mind’s daily categorizing and listing of the seemingly mundane. If a memory of a Seder table, or even a summer day, comes to mind, I purposefully linger in it, just in case a new piece of information should rise to the forefront. As I “actively” tend to my beloved ancestors at this time in my life, I wonder, what can I do that will keep their memories alive and vibrant? What would please them? With Passover upon us, I am going to try to use the alchemy of my Seder table to infuse my grandchildren with warm and tender feelings from the generations who told me the Passover story in the hopes that their great-great-grandchildren would one day hear it at the Seder table they modeled for us, l’dor v’dor.
The white tablecloths and table extensions are a given, so I won’t waste your time on that. The centerpieces? When I grew up, families sent flowers to one another and the card read, “Happy Passover.” Put the extra one on the sideboard next to the Snow Mountain Icing Passover cake and dessert plates. Leave room for the Passover brownies. Yes, there will be those coveted frozen peaches that only Zella Sobel could find, and they will be thawed in time, but let us get back to the magic of the Seder table for now.
The china is Cobalt Eminence by Rosenthal, circa 1962, now discontinued. It gleams. You lay each setting down with care and vow to wash it by hand this year, rather than using the “china” setting on your dishwasher. The bread and butter dishes have been transformed into tiny Seder plates for each guest, awaiting the egg, parsley, slice of horseradish and a dollop of haroset.
What will you use for salt water? Don’t even think about plastic. Little glass bowls will do. You put your salt in the bowls and will bring warm water just before your family and friends arrive.
The silver. I could really visit with you about that. Silver had such an important place at a ritual table when I was young. Not so today; many brides don’t even register for it. Because I have my mom’s, down it goes with love and care, although I should have done a better job polishing it.
I was born in 1963, and way before me, the place cards gave the hostess a feeling of calm. No squabbles or awkward moments as the guests found their way into the dining room. Nana actually made them pretty and picked them up and reused them, time and time again. What I would do to have my place card in her own hand today! But I do have recipes. I should let go of this constant grasping, but that’s for another article.
Take a deep breath. Nothing brings the spirit of the Seder back like the generations-old Haggadah. So many people talk about the Maxwell House, but I have 10 copies of the Union Haggadah (Revised) by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, copyright 1923. They are gray and hardback, of course, and each one is covered in white paper. We used to cover our books so they would not be damaged. I was never allowed to “dogear” a page; it would harm a book. We used bookmarks. These beloved Haggadot have stains and decades-old matzo crumbs. They are treasures. They are not gender-neutral, and they do not include prayers that petition the Almighty to free us from bondage in all its forms of marginalization that we name today, and therefore we lovingly evolve and bring additional prayers, and even an orange, to the Seder plate in 5782. But these stained books are still the cornerstone for me. They saw much laughter and were held in the hands of the family members I wish I could sit next to at a Seder, just one more time. They go to the left of the napkins.
I bet many of my readers are thinking about candlesticks. I wish I had one of those candlestick stories about the pair I inherited that traveled from Russia by boat, but I don’t. My grandparents’ home was contemporary, and Elsie Pearle had crystal candlesticks that flickered the light in the most marvelous ways. Be sure you don’t put a cardboard box of matches on the table without a crystal coaster underneath, I can feel her eyes guiding me: “Elevate all the ritual items as if royalty were joining you, for they are.”
The Seder plate. It is hidden away all year long until just this very moment. Mine is by Lenox, and the Hebrew is in gold. I always asked someone to read it for me until three years ago. An adult Hebrew reader now, I put the karpas right where it goes. I think my ancestors would be proud of me.
The matzo needs to be covered and placed on a dish, and you are almost done with the requirements. Here is where I stray a bit from my grandmother’s table. I set a few plastic Seder plates at the seats of the smaller people, with finger puppets. Frogs are placed randomly and encourage a lot of “ribbit” being repeated among the toddler set. We have a tradition of our kids’ places being set with the “bag of plagues.” This year, I found big stuffed frog companions that will be on the chairs of the people who will enjoy them the most.
I want to share two more memorable Passover objects with you, with a request. Please stop me in Tom Thumb when you see me and let me know if any of our experiences have overlapped. It’s time to find the afikomen, and it only ever had one hiding place on Desco Drive: the maildrop in the entry hall. I have no idea why. Every year. It was a race to the entry hall. But not to worry; everyone got a Duncan yo-yo and a box of Lollycones. Pure bliss. We opened the door for Elijah, in he came and my grandfather immediately spotted the missing wine from Elijah’s cup, proof that he was, indeed, visiting us. A grown-up helped you tie a knot in the string of your yo-yo soon after, and we were delighted to leave the Seder and play until our hearts were content.
It was hard to keep your eyes open with a belly full of matzo balls and haroset (Hillel) sandwiches. This sweet sleep would keep inviting you as you tilted over on the couch or lay down on the freshly-raked shag carpet with a blanket. How could any kid feel more nurtured than with a table set to tell the story of who they were, with laughter bellowing from around it, and smells from the kitchen still circulating through the entire house? My grandparents’ Seder table wasn’t just a ritual table, it was an altar, and placed on it was everything we needed to know about our people, from Sinai until now. What will our grandchildren learn from our Passover tables this year? I hope everything.
Debbi K. Levy is an emerging Priestess on her way to smicha (ordination) with the Kohenet Institute.