Thinking “Pesach” takes its toll on the psyche. Producing Pesach takes its toll on the limbs. They stiffen before spring cleaning starts, and this despite all the experience I have garnered for well over half a century. After so many productions, one ought to be able to whiz through that intensely weighty pre-Pesach month, yet I admit, as an old-time, experienced Pesach producer, a sense of spirit seems to be missing this year.
I remember my first Pesach in Israel. I was fairly clueless as to where to start, how to continue, or what to do. Aside from an invitation to spend the first Seder night at a rosh yeshiva, my husband and I were home the entire week, and we were instructed to keep what is known as “a day and a half” of Yom Tov. In other words, we were not to do melachot on the second day, but davened with all of Israel on their first day chol hamoed, and we were not required to have a second Seder. It was neither here nor there, and that’s exactly where we seemed to be – neither here nor there.
We must have been carefree and crazy to attempt to make Pesach on our own. We were both from close-knit observant families, all of whom were in America in 1961. Air travel was prohibitively expensive. No one ever dreamed of flying home for Yom Tov, as none would ever think of forwarding tickets for us to return. We were newlyweds, without parents or relatives nearby to fall back on, without a phone, and certainly without paper plates or aluminum pans or plastic cutlery (they hadn’t been invented yet). Years at my father’s Seder table, and at my grandfather’s, were, and still are, fond memories.
We had friends, also newlyweds, staying with us, and our house guests were keeping two full days of Yom Tov; thus, they made a second Seder in our apartment and we sat with them, cleared away the dishes, but did not make Kiddush or read the Haggadah. A third couple joined us, and we were like six orphaned children playing Pesach.
Since we had no idea whether we would spend a second Pesach in Israel, it seemed wasteful to invest in Pesach pots or tableware. One guest suggested that we buy four large old-fashioned soup plates. Thus we could have soup, and also chicken and vegetables, in the same dish.
My mother had shipped a pressure cooker that arrived in time for Pesach, a pot that enabled quick cooking, and we invested in two simple aluminum frying pans, and a tea kettle. Back then, Israeli cutlery was composed of very cheap, weightless, tinny metal. So we put together the simplest, cheapest collection of tinny-ware. Our men baked matzot, and in addition to wine we drank mainly water and mitz Paz (a fake orange drink). I may have dreamed of baking a cake, but I certainly did not have a hand mixer for Pesach, and I do not recall whisking egg whites by hand, although I remember my mother and grandmother hand beating egg whites every erev Pesach.
The following year, my widowed grandfather joined us, and he had packed into his lift all my grandmother’s Pesach pots, pans, and kitchenware. Pesach evolved into a learning experience with my Zaida as guide.
Zaida did not eat dairy products on Pesach – he ate matza, eggs, fish, chicken and potatoes. Fish with potatoes, chicken with potatoes, chicken soup, and hand-made egg noodles. No matza anywhere near soup or liquid, and no matzo meal anywhere in the kitchen. Zaida advised how best to prepare the fricassee that my grandmother always served with mashed potatoes mixed with fried onions on the second Seder night in America.
I was expecting our first child, and we had decided to remain in Israel. Thus, together with Zaida, we kept only one day Yom Tov. My cousin was with us for Pesach and he made a second Seder that we did not participate in, due to a halachic ruling of Rav Zevin, zt”l, a highly respected Jerusalem posek. Since second night Pesach fell on motzai Shabbat, my cousin had asked the Rav, “Do I make kiddush first, or does my grandfather make havdalah first?”
Rav Zevin was stunned. He did not consider it a question. It was a given, “Nobody should ever see or know that you made kiddush. That must be b’tzina, behind closed doors.” The Rav ruled that in Eretz Yisrael we celebrate only one day Yom Tov. If a foreigner keeps two days, it should be in complete seclusion, never in any public domain.
Each consecutive year our table grew longer and dressier – more guests, more food, a larger family to feed, and a heftier workload. As early as Tu B’Shvat, my internal Pesach alarm got underway.
And then came the year that we had a full house and I tried to prepare as much as possible in advance. My father-in-law had made aliyah and he lived in the apartment above us. He had a refrigerator, and that meant extra refrigerator space available for us. So, in addition to preparing my kitchen for Pesach, I also prepared my father-in-law’s kitchen, including his refrigerator. I had, and still have plastic refrigerator mats for Pesach that cover the shelves in my fridge, but for my father-in-law’s fridge I used shelving paper. I prepared my grandmother’s fricassee and stored it in his fridge expecting to serve it on Yom Tov, and even if I could no longer move a muscle, at least the knowledge that Yom Tov lunch was safely stored, added a deep sense of accomplishment. The old adage, “Man proposes and G-d disposes,” never entered my mind.
When I removed the fricassee from the fridge and carried it down to my kitchen, a sour stench rose from the large pot. The fricassee was completely spoiled. I had papered the refrigerator shelves without stabbing slits and holes in the shelving paper to allow cold air to circulate. As a result, the warm temperature caused the fricassee to spoil, and there wasn’t any main dish to serve. So, like my Zaida who was no longer with us, we ate matza and potatoes, and potatoes and matza, and as much lettuce and raw vegetables as I could find in the refrigerator. A collection of mistakes is better known as experience.
I don’t prepare sedarim anymore. I am blessed, as my Zaida and my mother were, to join children and grandchildren at their Seder table, and with all the experience garnered over the years, I admit, “goals are dreams with deadlines.”
So why does thinking about goals and deadlines – cleaning the house, koshering the kitchen, shopping and preparing food – push a stress button? And why are these goals lacking life force? Why is Pesach different now from all other Pesach holidays in the past?
I suppose it’s the loss of loved ones that is especially oppressive. Zaida, my father, mother, my father-in-law, aunts’ and uncles, and most of all my husband, of blessed memory. Their absence at the Seder table takes its toll on the spirit of the production. This year, the additional threat of coronavirus is overwhelmingly distressing. At the same time, as matriarch of my immediate family, I acknowledge the central focus, the purpose of the Seder, and my responsibility: v’higadata l’vincha, to pass on that which I’ve learned, to pass on traditions, so that my children and their children will remember their Pesach experiences, and will continue to pass it on to their progeny.
Recipe for Mamma and Baba’s Pesach Egg Noodles
Ingredients (for 10-12 portions):
½ tsp salt
1 cup potato flour
1 cup seltzer or water
3 tsp oil
Combine, and beat or shake together eggs, salt, sugar, add potato starch, liquid and oil.
Let mixture stand a few minutes before preparing sheets/crepes.
Heat small amount of oil in a skillet, when very hot, pour small amount of egg mixture and tilt pan to spread evenly into very thin sheets. Fry until set.
Turn out on kitchen towel bottom side up. Continue in this manner until all the batter is used.
Cool and stack.
Roll up 2-3 sheets together. Cut into thin strips for noodles.
Drop into plate of soup before serving.