Savoring the seder’s family traditions


Tradition. As Tevye sings in “Fiddler on the Roof,” tradition is the reason for many of the customs Jews practice. Passover, in particular, is a holiday that overflows with customs involving everything from the food to the guests at the table. In addition, over the years, families have added their own traditions to this special holiday.

“When I first got married, we hosted Passover in St. Louis for the entire family which meant people came in from Dallas, Philadelphia, Houston and Atlanta,” said Andy Wise of Creve Coeur. “After about eight years of us performing the hosting duties, other family members decided they wanted to take a turn so we started rotating cities. Then we started adding extended family members.


“Last year we had 45 people from six different cities at the seder table.” Wise said the family decided to write its own Hagaddah, which is passed from host to host.

Some families adhere to traditions that evoke memories of family members who are no longer at the seder table.

Stewart Zeid of Creve Coeur is part of a family tradition that has been passed down to him. “There’s a particular passage in the Haggadah that my dad, of blessed memory, always used to read in a humorous way with a funny voice. After he died, it was up to me to carry on this interpretation of this passage. And while I don’t do it exactly as he did, when we come to that passage I try to make it sound as funny as possible.”

Neil Friedman of Chesterfield said that his grandmother, who passed away in 1994, was good at many things but cooking was not one of them. In fact, she tended to overcook meals to the point where the food was either very dry or burnt. So the family used to say that her food was the Passover burnt offering. Luckily, Friedman did not inherit his grandmother’s lack of culinary skills and enjoys making homemade gefilte fish with his mother every year. He also makes light, fluffy matzah balls and every year at the seder table he says: “These are dedicated to grandma for the ones she would have liked to have made.”

On the subject of food, for generations Michael Simon’s family has eaten potatoes dipped in salt water instead of parsley. “I don’t know why,” says Simon, of Creve Coeur. “Perhaps we were out of parsley but we had enough potatoes to go around and didn’t have the time to go to the store to get parsley,” Simon guessed. “Or perhaps we’re Irish Jews instead of Russian.”

When he was only 16-years-old, Mike Temkin of Chesterfield started a family tradition of making a particular dessert. “I received a recipe for a dessert from someone who was doing a demonstration at a department store. I looked at the ingredients and the only thing that kept it from being kosher for Pesach was that the recipe called for cornstarch. I switched it to potato starch and have made it every Passover since (that would be about 31 of them). It’s three meringue shells covered with chocolate, whipped cream and fruit (a layer of each strawberries, kiwi and bananas) and tastes like a banana split.”

For Dan Raskas of Town and Country, talking about seder with his family brings up the sound of people sucking wine off their fingertips after the ceremony of removing 10 drops for each of the plagues. In addition, his family used this holiday as an opportunity to play practical jokes. “One year someone loosened the lids of the salt shakers,” said Raskas.

Each year Raskas’ family holds two seders at two different aunts’ homes. “We have always invited students to join us. What’s amazing is that for the students who graduate, find jobs and stay in St. Louis they continue to attend our seders.” So practical jokes aside, his family must be doing something right.

Gloria Schonbrun of University City explained that an outburst by her husband when he was only a little boy has become part of their annual seder. “When Scott was about four-years-old and was asked ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ he perked up and said ‘Cause it’s Easta!’ So every year when it’s time for the Four Questions, we all laugh and at the same time say ‘Cause it’s Easta!'”

The Passover seder offers many opportunities for families to insert their own traditions and it seems that the story of Elijah is ripe for customization. Temkin’s story about his dog Buffy fits right into this situation. “It was in the mid-1970s and Buffy, our cocker spaniel, was a notorious mooch and beggar. Not only did he eat things in our house that he shouldn’t but he would go door to door and beg at our neighbors’ homes (this was in the days before yards were fenced),” Temkin said. “One time Buffy went out and didn’t come back. We had signs up all over the place and had alerted everyone that he was missing. But nothing happened. It was now Pesach and Buffy had been missing for over six weeks. When it came time to open the door for Elijah, guess who came walking into the house? It was Buffy.” Temkin said this story is recalled every year at the seder table, especially if there is a new guest present.

So in much the same way families keep the story of Exodus alive for each generation by gathering each year at the seder table, they are also keeping their own particular traditions alive and, in some cases, are honoring those who came before them in the process.