When I was a kid, Pesach was my favorite holiday. Of course, I wasn’t the one who cleaned out the kitchen and rid our house of rising, puffing carb-tastic hametz. And I wasn’t the one who cooked the meal or set the table or led the Seder. My job was to show up, read passages from the Haggadah, sing some songs and eat. Even though the service seemed to go on for an eternity, my father refusing to skip a section or recite an abridged prayer, I remember a lot of laughter building up to that page in the Haggadah when we were finally instructed to eat the festive meal. My sister and I spent weeks discussing where we’d hide the Afikomen and anticipating the ransom reward.
I still read, sing and eat, but now I also set the table and lead the Seder with help from my sister and brother. Gabriella cooks. She’s cooking for 20 and is completely unfazed. Chicken soup, multiple main dishes including Alex Guaranschelli’s lamb and Gabriella’s own recipes for beef tenderloin and brisket, side dishes, flourless chocolate cake, hard boiled eggs pickled in beet juice, haroset with fig, dates and apricots - she’s whipping it all up without breaking a sweat. “How does she do it all and remain so calm?” ask friends. “Jew by Choice,” I respond and they understand exactly what I mean. Making a tuna fish sandwich is enough to unravel the high-strung Jew whose inbred genes predispose us to a constant state of tsuris.
As close as we get to dyeing eggs.
I’m not off the tsuris-hook just because I’m not cooking, mind you. There’s a lot of pressure to create a Seder for our children that encompasses the traditions and rituals that make it feel legit whilst tweaking it enough to make it thought provoking and fun. The boys are still young and impatient and I’m not really sure how much they are absorbing. I probably whined just as much as they do when I was that young, but I don’t remember the fidgeting or the kvetching as much as the fun.
This Pesach presents an added layer of pressure for me as the in-house Seder leader. This year, on the second night, we’ll have Gabriella’s family and my family in the same room, breaking matzah together. No one in her family has been to a Seder except for one of her brothers-in-law who is Druze and grew up in Israel. Not only will I be presenting the story of Jewish slavery and the Exodus to my Sicilian family, but the Druze brother-in-law will definitely make fun of my hacked Hebrew.
More than feeling the pressure, though, I am thrilled. The families haven’t all been in the same room like this...ever. We’ve not been all together for a wedding, a bris, a confirmation or otherwise. I may get a little weepy. Or, our kids will fidget and kvetch and add just the right amount of Seder realness to keep me from adding my own tears to the salt water on the table.
The last time I felt weepy at Pesach was in 2003. Gabriella was chopping celery in our friends’ kitchen preparing for a smaller Seder with the two of them and my brother Benjamin who was visiting us in England. We were discussing his trip to Stonehenge and other sights he planned to see when I excused myself to take a pregnancy test. Only Gabriella knew what I was doing, and when I returned to the kitchen with an enormous grin on my face, Gabriella ‘s eyes grew wide and she returned to her chopping immediately to contain her excitement and keep our little secret for the time being. Such a thrill on Pesach could not be matched until this one when our siblings and their families will all be here together for the first time in Gabriella’s and my 18 year history together.
You want me to seamlessly tie the stories of creating families and families coming together for the first time to the Passover story? As Gabriella’s people say, fuggedaboutit. Instead, I’ll seamlessly tie all that aforementioned family stuff to the joy of creating memories for our kids. Yes, they’ll learn about the story of Pesach. Yes, they’ll learn about slavery and injustices that remain around the world. Yes, we’ll talk about all the symbolism on the Seder plate and rituals that connect our people to each other. Most importantly for me, though, is that the boys have such a great time that they forget the fidgeting and kvetching and remember family and food and plenty of laughter.
The pressure is off to create a Seder that is an exact replica of my childhood Seders. Our version will be meaningful because of the people around the table. And if I’m really lucky, I’ll get to play my own grown-up version of Hide the Afikomen.