Sprezzatura

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Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols
Location
East Lansing, Michigan,
Birthday
December 31
Bio
I write, I read, I clean up after people and I worry about things. I have a chronic insufficiency of ironic detachment. My birthday isn't really December 31; it's March 22 but it won't let me change it.

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Salon.com
APRIL 6, 2012 9:16AM

Why Is This Night Different Than All Other Nights?

Rate: 28 Flag

 unchopped-apples

It was really just going to be too much trouble to do a Passover Seder last year. My mother is Jewish, and we grew up with an annual Seder at my grandmother's house in Ohio, but these days we are just all sort of Professionally Busy.  My brother (a doctor!) runs a hospital, I (a lawyer!) have a couple of jobs. Our spouses are willing participants in Jewish holidays, but unlikely organizers thereof. Then there are the kids, the dogs, the community obligations, the laundry, the cello lessons, the baseball conditioning...there is always a reason to opt out of anything that involves lots of cooking and dressing up, particularly in the middle of the week.

(I should also mention that members of my own household attend church on a regular basis, that I am actually employed by said church, and that the week in question was also Holy Week. Easter and Passover are certainly not mutually exclusive, since Easter would not exist without that last Seder, but a Jewish Hootenanny requiring the production of everything from matzoh balls to unleavened cake is daunting if there's a Christian Ham Fest coming at you at the end of the week). We decided, in a round of phone calls, that a Seder was just too much. My parents  would join us for brunch after Easter Sunday services, and my brother's family would be on their own, scot-free.

Then, while I was cooking dinner one night, I happened to listen to a podcast version of American Public Media's  "Speaking of Faith," in which a Talmudic scholar was talking about Passover, and the Exodus story. She spoke about the fact that a Seder, a ceremony that takes place not in a temple, but in a family home, is about "telling the story" of the Exodus from Egypt. The point is not that it be read and assimilated in some private, scholarly way, but that it be "told" again and again, year after year, with the children who are told in their childhood becoming the tellers as they grow to adulthood and bring their own children to the table.

For me, this telling has significance in terms of both religious faith and family connection. The story also has great resonance with the story of any people enslaved by an unjust government and finally escaping to freedom. It seemed, as I sliced onions, that I was maybe, possibly crying some complicated combination of tears involving both irritating gas and a sense that I was letting something slip away that was of great importance to my son, and to my brother's children.

So, in the spirit of any good Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie, I said (to no one in particular) "let's put on a Seder!!" I knew I was on my own - the Seder of my childhood with an army of women cooking briskets, roasting lamb shanks, and starching table cloths was simply not on. I also knew that the Seder couldn't be held on the actual first night of Passover because I was going to be out for oysters (traif) and beer (a yeast-containing product forbidden during Passover) with a friend on that night. I decided on Thursday night, which was the second night of Passover, and on which some more orthodox Jews actually hold a second Seder. It was nothing that would have made a Rabbi proud,  but I get points for scrappiness. Or something.

matzoh-ball-soup 

 I called my brother and told him that all I wanted was the kids, and that he and my sister in law were free to attend, not attend, go out to dinner, or disport themselves in the manner of their choosing. He said I could have the kids, and that he would make the matzoh ball soup (as he always does) whether or not he came for dinner. (He did; I knew he would). That meant I had the opening act taken care of, and an army of minions (not to be confused with minyans) to help me chop apples, snap asparagus, serve and clear. I called my mother and told her we were on for Passover, and that my conditions included the use of plates, glasses and silver that could be washed in the dishwasher, a tablecloth that could go in the washing machine, and freedom to tweak the menu in a respectful manner. The tectonic plates shifted, and I was given a free pass (over).

This was the menu:

Matzoh Ball Soup (Made by my brother)

Brisket (Made by me, using the Ancestral Recipe)

Asparagus (Nice and springy, and a welcome break in a heavy meal)

Gfelte Fish (Ick, ick, ick, but some of the family loves it)

Noodle Kugel (My mom says it should really only be served if the main dish is chicken, but I reminded her of the Great Passover Compact of 2009).

Fresh Fruit for Dessert (No one who has consumed matzoh balls, brisket and noodle kugel needs to eat cake, flourless or otherwise).

 In addition to the actual meal, we had the requisite bitter herb (horseradish), charoset (fabulous stuff made of apples, nuts and honey to symbolize mortar), a shank bone, roasted eggs, salt water, and free-flowing matzohs. There were also a couple of bottles of good wine (I needed it), and sparkling cider for the kids. I believe that part of freedom for the children of Israel is that they be spared from drinking Manischewitz.

The Afikomen, a piece of matzoh, was hidden from the children, and when it was located with great glee by the youngest, he was rewarded with a crisp twenty,  and the adult males at the table practically drew swords to see who could be first to give the other offspring a consolatory bill. My brother and I noted, with some interest, that neither of us had ever scored more than a five. 

The story was told, the family was together, and our motley band of Jew, Atheist, Buddhist, Christians and Agnostics lifted a glass to next year, in Jerusalem.

haggadah1 

 

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Comments

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My favorite is the lamb... and somehow I remember a delicious warm poppy seed bread with a golden crust and honey... maybe it was a different celebration... enjoy your liberation from the confines of that tight place with all the "jobs, community obligations, the laundry, the cello lessons, the baseball conditioning."
Sounds Wonderful. I will have my G fish for lunch. Miss having a seder. Miss my Jewish family. Thanks for sharing yours with me.
I'll be at a community Easter dinner on Sunday. No matzo balls on the menu.
That was a great photo of Matzo Balls! What a Motley Crew. Glad you were all together and brother got a break.
Ann,

This is lovely. It brought back so many happy memories of Passover Seders with my nieces and nephew.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
Sounds fabulous. I rather like brisket myself, but being one of those shiksas, I try to eat whatever is served at a seder and just stay quiet. I know the work that is involved. Hope it all goes well, despite your schedules.
Ours is tonight, I hope as joyful as yours. Terrific piece (and inspiration), Ann.
Oh gosh, I love matzoh-ball soup! What a wonderful celebration.
fascinating. This is a well written short and entertaining piece
This to me is the story of America. I used to host Seders but can't this year as I'm off to Good Friday Services. Meanwhile, my friend, an atheist, who never hosted or possibly attended a seder, is hosting one today because her son-in-law is Jewish. The flexibility you show to change the day, and some of the menu is part of American flexibility with tradition as well. The Last Supper of course was a seder, and when Jesus says the one who dips with me will betray me, he is referring to dipping the matzah in the bitter herbs. If all Americans celebrate St. Paddy's Day, why not Passover as well.
It sounds like a lovely family event. Spontaneous does seem to work out the best, doesn't it.
Doing a Seder at your place, Ann, has become an OS tradition I do not think I could do without. Come to think of it, it is the only Seder I have ever done and probly ever will do.
After a childhood of hunting painted eggs, whose only further purpose was to become egg salad, which I still don't like, I felt a great sense of being ripped off when I learned that Jewish kids got paid for finding a piece of flat, tasteless bread.
Never underestimate the power of a motley band.
Ann - excellent post. We are hosting tonight's seder. Much of the food has already been made (of course) and the charoset is staring at me as I open the fridge. I am showing tremendous willpower by not eating it all now, but, I guess that's a slight sacrifice compared to wandering in the desert for years.
A wonderful story of coming together.
What a beautiful blend of Religions keeping the customs & culinary memories alive! $20? That's a fortune! Don't tell my grandkids! R
So you're saying your minions didn't add up to a minyan then?

This is heartwarming and a fun story, nicely told, with extra points for Christian Ham Fest.
Sounds divine. Just to gather the family is a wonderful treat. Enjoy.
"Jewishish" is what I'm known to be---and proud of it. Loved this post!
It's lovely to see this piece again. xox
It traditiooooooon, TRA-DI-TION! I've never been to a Seder where the food was my idea of 'good', but the readings, the telling of the age old story, the passing of the plates, the hunting, and the kosher wine (which was much appreciated, if a little sticky) gave me the same feelings of love with friends and family that running around in the garden looking for eggs had. There is something about these moments of tradition, doing it again and again, that plays on our heartstrings in collective memory. I don't know why they are important, but indeed... they are. Enjoy the Spring holy-days, all of them!
Good to see you in the feed again!