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The Roundtable

Listener Essay - A Passover Story

  Tina Lincer is a writer living in Loudonville, NY. 

A Passover story

I knew Passover was coming when the chametz began disappearing from our apartment.

Starting weeks in advance, my mother would banish every crumb of the forbidden leavened food as she scrupulously cleaned and cleared the kitchen cabinets and the fridge. Farewell for eight days to delicious sliced pumpernickel from Adrian’s Bakery and to my beloved Mallomars and black-and-white cookies. Make room for matzoh and Manischewitz cake mixes. Marble was the best. I loved pulling a knife through the chocolate powder across the golden batter to create dark and light swirls.

But I dreaded the seder at Grandma Frieda’s.

Q: Why was this night different than all other nights?

A: Because it was interminable.

Uncle Miltie presided imperiously over our small table. He and frosty-haired Aunt Gertrude had no kids. My older sister was no fun. I was squirming, starving and feeling sorry for myself before we’d passed over the first blessing.

“When do we eat?” I wondered, again and again.

“Soon,” my mother whispered.

We both shrunk a little under my uncle’s stern gaze.

I’d pretend to follow while everyone took turns reading the hagaddah. This book tells the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. But it gave no hint how a little Queens girl like me could survive the first night of Passover.

I stared at the symbols on the seder plate: salt water for the slaves’ tears, horseradish for bitterness, parsley suggesting spring. The roasted egg was life itself. And the charoses mixture of walnuts, wine and apples represented the mortar for the bricks the Jewish slaves made and carried.

We ate matzoh, the unleavened “bread of affliction,” to remind us of the Jews’ rush to flee Egypt and secure their freedom. No waiting for dough to rise.

I perked up when we turned the page to the 10 plagues that were visited upon Pharoah and our Egyptian captors. Years later, I’d dress up as one of those plagues, a fly with lacy wings, and do a soft shoe number in my high school play, “Moses Makes the Grade.” But here, seated at my grandmother’s table, I dipped a pinkie into my grape juice-filled wine glass as, in unison, we spilled a drop of wine for each plague onto our dinner plates.

Frogs! Boils! Hail! Locusts! And the really scary final one, the slaying of the Egyptians’ first-born.

Seder means order, and my uncle followed the haggadah religiously. We read every passage. Finally, just when I thought I might actually faint, came the holiday meal: gefilte fish with beet-red horseradish, steaming chicken soup with moist and fluffy matzoh balls, tender brisket and oven-roasted potatoes, all washed down with sweet black cherry soda. Even the fake cakes tasted good.

Sometimes, we had Passover at my aunt and uncle’s Manhattan apartment with their friends. Soon the real drama began. When someone praised Gert’s matzoh balls, my mother muttered, “rocks,” “door stops” or “pucks.” I didn’t dare laugh. And I was on my best eating behavior. God forbid one flick of purple plague juice went flying onto the expensive beige upholstered chairs.

Toward the end of the seder, the door was opened for the prophet Elijah. I imagined him slipping past the doormen in their brass-buttoned uniforms and riding up in the elevator to grace us with his presence. He never did.

Two decades later, I cleaned and cooked for my own family. My children swirled the marble cake batter, and it became my turn to endure “When do we eat?”

One year, from the land of Nickelodeon came the Rugrats Passover. This was not my grandparents’ story. The Hebrews wore Huggies, Tommy played the infant Moses in the bullrushes, and Pharaoh was bratty Angelica. “Let my babies go!” became a refrain in our house.

There was the time our Russian babysitter and her family joined us. Recent émigrés to Albany, they’d never had a seder in the Soviet Union. Memorable, too, was the women’s seder I hosted after my divorce, with my hand-crafted haggadahs. Among the five of us, I was the lone Jew, but it was an evening of connection and sharing my culture.

A few years ago, my significant other and I celebrated Passover in Buenos Aires. We were strangers in a strange land when a young Jewish family from Hillel Argentina welcomed us into their home along with 50 relatives and friends, most of whom didn’t speak English. This lively South American seder, recited in Hebrew and Spanish, was a world away from Grandma’s Frieda’s, yet we shared the same story and feast, beginning with las bolas de matzá.

My 6-year-old self would have loved it.

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