My father used to start the Seder with a joke.
One I remember was: Abe goes to see his boss and says: “We’re doing some heavy house-cleaning at home tomorrow for Passover. My wife says she needs me to move all the heavy furniture, clean the stove and even clean out the garage.”
“We’re short-handed, Abe,” the boss replies. “I just can’t give you the day off.”
“Thanks boss,” says Abe. “I knew I could count on you!” Passover was both an exciting and an embarrassing time for me. Both my parents were born in Australia in the late 19th century, when Jews were quite a rarity there.
The influx of Jews from Europe to Melbourne only began after World War II, when those lucky enough to survive the Holocaust reached our shores. Back then, I was the only Jewish child in my school – St. Kilda Park State – where there were 250 pupils, so I had no Jewish friends, and apart from some family members, neither did my parents. Of necessity, we were quite assimilated, as there were few facilities available for Jews in those far-off days.
Still, we adhered to some traditions, and one was the Seder. For a seven-year-old child, it was exciting for lots of reasons, but embarrassing, as I had no one to share it with except my two brothers and two sisters, all much older than I was. Our family of seven sat around the table with our Great-Aunt Frances and Uncle Dave, and some of our gentile neighbors who looked forward to being invited to join us in this odd ceremony every year. One of them was Penelope, who compèred a daily radio show, and the next day she would relate to her listeners all the details that she understood and that seemed to fascinate her.
The table was set with a snowy-white tablecloth and all the traditional Seder trappings, including a big decanter of raisin wine my mother had made. I was wearing my “best” dress, which I loved – like most people during those Depression years, we had very little money, so most of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my sisters. But this one had been bought especially for me: pink velvet, with puff sleeves and a lace collar. It broke my heart when I outgrew it.
My father, of course, sat at the head of the table, a big pillow on his chair for reclining. Dad was a man of enormous contrasts. Something of a genius, he knew Hebrew, Latin and Greek, and thought no one could be educated without an acquaintance with these classical languages.
But he was also very modest, rarely let it be known that he was a scholar, and had a fund of off-color stories that always made me blush and resulted in my being prudish well into adulthood.
He would conduct the service from the Haggada in Hebrew, giving explanations in English all the way through. He said that the Wise Son who asked questions at the Seder was so intelligent that no one had the faintest idea what he was talking about. The Wicked Son had to be excluded from the table, so he went back to work and got paid double-time for working on Passover. When the simple son asks, “What is this?” my father said, you just tell him it’s dinner; and as for the one who does not know how to ask, you go and wake him up and say: “Next year, remember to come to the table.”
Then there were the Four Questions, which he had transliterated for me in big English letters. The guests all thought I was very clever to be reciting something in Hebrew when I was only seven. I did nothing to disillusion them. I loved the singing, and so did our guests, who, after some coaching from Dad, sang along with us heartily, mostly with mispronounced words. I remember we always sang one song in English: “Only one kid, which my father bought for two zuzim....”
A good meal followed, although my mother – a great cook of Australian dishes – didn’t do too well with Passover recipes, as her own mother had died when my mother was my age. But she tried valiantly. The chicken soup was good, apart from the matza balls, which were as tough as bullets; and her gefilte fish I won’t attempt to describe. Our guests probably thought we were meant to suffer, and this was just another punishment, like having to eat matzot for a week.
Just as I couldn’t share my friends’ Christmas and Easter festivities, I didn’t even tell them about our Seder. But now I realize how special it was. I can close my eyes, and with me again is my family. Maybe that was the last time, as my two brothers soon went overseas with the Royal Australian Air Force. The younger one, shot down over Rommel’s lines in Tobruk, never returned. Over the intervening seven-plus decades, the losses multiplied, until now there is only one beloved sister left, and she is in Australia.
I would love my parents to be able to see my family at a Seder in Israel. We are 35 people now, including all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I am sure we observe it more authentically today. But there is something special I have lost that can never be replicated – the complete family I once had, who gave a little girl love, safety and security.
I can see them all in my mind’s eye. When I remember our Seder table, it won’t just be the matzot, the shank bone, the roasted egg, the bitter herbs and the haroset.
I will see the family I have loved and lost, and hear the jokes, and the songs and the laughter. I have come a long way since then, both spiritually and physically, but the seeds were planted back then, at the Seder table with my family, who will never be forgotten.
• The writer is the author of 13 books, (one of which, The Pomegranate Pendant,was made into a movie, The Golden Pomegranate, is a syndicated journalist and a teacher of creative writing for 35 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: www.dvorawaysman.com.