Finding freedom. It’s Passover, a time when Jewish people celebrate their freedom as a people and a nation from Pharaoh’s slavery in Egypt somewhere around 1300 BCE. I can’t help thinking about my mom and my grandmother. I wonder if they are free somewhere out in heaven? Free from all of life’s burdens and the sadness and pain that overwhelmed their lives. Are they finally free from their own personal slavery? What about me? Am I free?
Although I lost my mother 28 Passover’s ago and my grandmother 17 Passover’s ago, I still remember some of the traditions I was taught during my youth and how much they meant to me. As a child, my grandma used to turn her entire house upside down as she prepared for the eight-day holiday. She would switch the pots and pans, the silverware and all the dishes to other sets hidden away in the garage during the other 51 weeks of the year. She would even turn the oven on for what seemed like days at a time just to burn away any possibility of a piece of bread. She would sing as she cleaned. There was a certain liberty to her voice. I did not understand what the big deal was with all the cleaning for Pesach, I just knew I had to help. She would say that we must clean the house from all the “Chometz,” or anything leavened. But why, I would push her for a deeper answer? What was this really all about? Why did she have to clean so much? She would tell me because we are free and not slaves like we were back in Egypt. It still didn’t really sink in. If I was not a slave, why was I forced into dusting and vacuuming and lifting all the cushions to the sofa? I didn’t feel very free.
As a kid, my life was pretty mixed up and the chaos in my own home usually created great anxiety for me. But when Passover came around, I knew I’d be in my grandma’s kitchen with my my mom and my aunt Bobbie. No matter what was going on in the outside world, when we went into my grandma’s house, everything just seemed to fit, even if it were just for a few hours.
Perhaps it was the idea of tradition that I liked. It was always the same. The same food, the same people and the same rituals. It was the only time of year that the entire family showed up for something other than a funeral. Even the cousins whose family survived the camps were there along with long lost friends and their children’s children. My stepsister even got an invitation. It was as though Passover was the only time my grandmother had complete control of her environment and for some reason, the control of ritual and seemed to free her from all the craziness just outside her window.
The table would be set with real silver and the prettiest, finest china. The napkins were starched perfectly, just waiting for a stain of Manichewitz grape wine. The scent of chicken soup and matzo balls enveloped the entire house. Mixed in would be the smell of brisket cooling on the counter as we ate our salt-water eggs and dipped our pinkie fingers in the wine ten times as my grandfather led the family Seder. The gefilte fish was homemade and the overwhelmingly “burn through the nose” horseradish came along with my great aunt’s secret chocolate marble cake.
I remember reading the “Maxwell House” family Haggadah with my grandfather at the head of the table. I hated that I was never the youngest so that I could read the four questions. I also could not wait for the story of Moses and the evil Pharaoh and the exodus of the Jews from Israel to be over just so I could sing “Di-Di-Anu” at the top of my lungs. Just before we sang, my grandma would say, “next year in Israel.” As a matter of fact, all the relatives and friends said the same thing. “Next year in Israel.” Sadly, none of them made it there.
Dinner seemed to go on for ages at the adult table. I did not like being separated from the adults. After all, I was the oldest of the children by two and half years. I would always dream that one day when I grew up, at my Passover table, there would be no separation of old and young. The food and conversation were endless but I didn’t care because I didn’t have to go to school the next day, even if it was a school day or not. The meal would end with delicious cakes, cookies, whipped cream and strawberries. Final songs were sung and all extended relatives and friends slowly disappeared into the night.
It would be just me, and my grandma, my mom and my aunt. All four of us in this amazing kitchen that just fed thirty-one people; working in unison like a fine-tuned machine, each with her own duties. I would start to clear the table. Mom washed the dishes and aunt Bobbie dried. Grandma organized the food into proper containers and cleaned the counters and table. My task was to put away the dishes and the silverware.
This was the time when my grandmother became obsessed with her silver. I don’t know why I was designated as the one, but I somehow ended up with the relentless chore of counting every single bit of silverware to make sure there were no missing pieces. One year, we actually did lose a silver butter knife and I had to go through all the bags of trash in search of it. It was horrible. I combed through old bones and left over noodle kugle, empty soda pop cans and wine bottles. Nothing but panic filled the air. After two hours of searching, my aunt found the knife hiding in the butter dish in the refrigerator. Thank goodness, I finally sighed after counting the knives three times. “I am free!”
Because my grandma was really short, or petit as she preferred to say, I mean just barely five feet tall, I was called to put the platters away that belonged on the shelves way above the counter. “Where is my “lang loksch, my ferd” she would call out in her broken Yiddish. Yes, that was I, the extremely skinny horse who just so happened to be the only female tall enough to put the special plates high up in their place. That was our tradition.
I smile when I remember Passover. I’ve been making Seder for twenty-five years, a quarter of a century. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. Not true. Passover, although my favorite holiday, is still hard for me. It’s lonely sometimes too. It comes along with really missing my mom and grandma and all the wacky silver counting. There is no one to defer to when I have a question about a recipe or talk to when I’m setting the table. My mom never got to taste my chicken soup or my special stuffing. I always pray that my matzoh balls are as good as my grandmas. I try to make the turkey the way I remember it too. I don’t recall hers, but I have finally perfected my own recipe for gefilte fish thanks to my mother-in-law. I have had to remember old and learn new traditions to pass on to my children.
I can’t wait for the house to fill up. Like when I was a kid, my own home does feel chaotic now, but it’s all right because soon it will be Passover. When my daughters arrive from school to celebrate, they will see the immaculate drawers and shelves, all free from any left over Chometz. They can search the freezer and the cookie jar to see if I missed anything, just like my grandma did. I will make sure to scrub all the breadcrumbs from the tiniest of cracks. I will move the refrigerator and clean behind that too. I will vacuum like a crazy lady; even the garage will be swept free from any possibility of left over crumbs. I will wash and vacuum my car as well, freeing it from any puffed up products that may have snuck in between the seats. My children will live my tradition.
The guests will arrive just in time to see the table set with my grandma’s china and my best silverware. There will be chicken soup and salt-water eggs. The smell of hot brisket and turkey will fill the air. The house will sing with relatives and friends and lots of kids. Instead of grandma at the helm serving the soup for me to carry to the table, it will be my daughters carrying the bowels to our guests. Instead of my grandpa leading the Seder, it will be my husband, carrying on the tradition of his father as he pretends to lather up at the table when the ritual washing takes place. I will have the beautiful centerpiece my mother-in-law shares with me. And we will read from the Haggadah. There will be one table for all of us, no matter how young or tight the squeeze, all of us will sit together. That’s my tradition.
And then I’m going to add a little sugar to the mix.
I am going to ask everyone what freedom means to him or her? That’s really what Passover is all about. Freedom from bondage. When I cleaned the house, the cupboards, the freezer and the refrigerator, I freed everything from breadcrumbs. When we read from our Haggadahs, we will be free to tell the story of Pharaoh and the Jews in Egypt and their freedom from slavery.
I believe everyone has a personal “Pharaoh” to deal with. Something holding us back from being the best we can be. Perhaps it is smoking or overeating, shopping or fear to take on new challenges, rage or passivity, or anything else that enslaves you to a self-destructive habit. When I think about my own personal freedom and what enslaves me, I realize that I am my own worst enemy. Letting go of anger and hurt is freeing. Allowing myself the opportunity to learn and take chances gives me the freedom to look deep within and find my purpose and then do what I need to do to be the person I know I should be. I am learning that if Passover is to be a transformative experience, I need to make it personal. I need to find a way to liberate myself from things that enslave me.
My Passover table will be busy with conversation. My son will ask the four questions and we will drink and eat until we can’t fit another bite in our mouths. And I will be pleased.
As I write, my mind drifts and I begin to think about the future. Yes, I know one day I am going to have to pass the buck onto my daughters. I just hope I have given them the tradition and joy to carry it on. Maybe this year we will all think about what holds us back and what frees us. What are we a slave to? “Just a bisel,” or “a little bit” of knowledge goes a long way, my grandma would say.
Chag Semach… La Chaim to finding your personal freedom! Happy Passover everyone.