Passover holiday sparks memories of years gone by


Nothing can bring out the worst in families more than the holidays — “to grandmother’s house we go,” but which grandmother? To avoid conflict, some families eat two turkey dinners. Or there is the “this year, we’ll go to your parents’ house and next year we’ll drive to Sheboygan to visit my parents.”

But when it comes to celebrating Passover, American Jewish sages got together and decreed that there shall be two seders. Of course, there is the residual question: Which night is more important — the first or the second?

My mother ruled our roost and declared that our family should celebrate the first night of Passover at 911 Park Ave., in Manhattan, a 45-minute drive from our house in suburban Harrison, N.Y. My maternal grandparents’ apartment occupied half of the ninth floor of a pre-World War II “gray lady” with high ceilings, bronze wall sconces and expansive rooms, one of which was my mother’s childhood bedroom. A week before Passover, I remember my grandmother, Sylvia, perched on a stepladder, feather duster in hand, brushing the crystal chandelier over the 12-foot-long dining room table while her German maid, Mrs. Klein, cleaned the kitchen of every bread crumb and unpacked the Passover dishes. For the first day of the week-long preparations, my grandmother worked right alongside Mrs. Klein, in the manner of the Pharaoh hauling the bricks for the pyramid to make sure that the Jews kept up a healthy pace. My grandfather, Isidor, stayed out of her way, attending to his patients — the likes of Beatrice Wood, Georgia O’Keeffe and Mrs. Wallace Simpson.

On the second night of Passover, we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to 1924 Ocean Ave., in Flatbush, where my paternal grandparents lived on the upper floor of a two-story brownstone, the street level apartment being occupied by my Uncle Barney and Aunt Birdie; he of few words and she of the drawn-on eyebrows and blond wig. My mother referred to my Grandfather David, Uncle Barney and their brother, Louie, as the Three Stooges and often wondered aloud how such a family could have produced a son the likes of my elegant and brilliant father.

First, the Park Avenue seder. With my father, Seymour, at the wheel of our maroon Chrysler station wagon, my mother rehearses me in the Four Questions — Hebrew and then English. My sister, Lois, listens intently knowing that next year it will be her turn. Lois and I are wearing matching scoop-neck blouses, circular skirts poofed out by stiff, scratchy crinoline petticoats and white angora sweaters. We look like little Jewish angels sitting in baked meringue. The drive down the Hutchinson River Parkway doesn’t seem long enough, and before I can say “Ma nishtana” I am staring at the back of the elevator operator who announced “Rubin residence.”

And we have arrived.

The doors to the dining room open, and my Grandfather Isidor takes his place at the head of the table, leaning back on the pillow, my grandmother to his left, close enough to grab his hand if he dares reach for a green tomato or pickles — bad for his heart. My grandfather looks regal in his made-to-order pinstripe suit. He begins the service reading from the Haggadah written by my great uncle, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. I do my part without stumbling or mumbling, and the recitation in English and Hebrew passes from one relative to the next. Fortunately a lot of the service is skipped over, and before I keel over from hunger, grandmother Sylvia steps on the buzzer underneath the table summoning Mrs. Klein to serve dinner. The seder ends with my opera singer mother leading us in God Bless America.

Back in the car, my father lights a cigarette and my mother mumbles, “Dayenu”, enough is enough. She is not an enthusiastic Jew. My sister and I fall asleep only to be awakened by the sound of gravel underneath the station wagon tires.

And before you can say “Why is this night different from all other nights?”, we are off to Brooklyn and the second seder. My Grandfather David pinches my cheek and my Grandmother Millie is in the kitchen, an apron wrapped around her large girth, making sure that the pot roast and potatoes are done just right.

Seated at the head of the table, my grandfather is wearing a white shirt and suspenders. He opens the Haggadah. There is no editing here — my grandfather insists on reciting every prayer in Hebrew, and before too long there is lots of side chatter. Grandfather is oblivious; he has gone into some sort of Ashkenazi trance. Eventually, dinner is served and my grandfather promises to take my sister and me to Coney Island to ride the Ferris wheel. My father’s sister shares the news that she and her husband are moving to Harrison, not 5 miles from our house. My mother gives my father a hot glance that could melt his glasses, and I can sense trouble ahead.

My mother has had enough. She buttons up her mink coat and ushers us down the stairs. We all pile into the station wagon and head back across the Brooklyn Bridge. The lights of the city sparkle and somewhere in that urban constellation is 911 Park Ave.

My father rolls down the station wagon window and lights a cigarette. Where there is smoke there is fire, and my mother is fit to be tied. My sister and I hold our breath waiting for the perfect storm. What was it that I was saying about the wisdom of two seders? At least Passover only comes once a year.

Loren Stephensk, a writer, editor and Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker, is the founder of Write Wisdom, Inc., a company that guides and assists people in writing memoirs and capturing legacy in written form. She may be reached at This column was originally printed in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, April, 2007.