It was Seder night in the year 1952. We were crowded into our not-too-small dining room on Harcourt Avenue in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, then a strong Jewish neighborhood.
At the table were our own family - my parents and four young daughters (I, the oldest was seven-and-a-half at the time); various members of the extended family - aunts, uncles, cousins; and several other guests.
My father, Rabbi Simon Dolgin, was the rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in the area, and we always had several guests at the Seder tables; some were "regulars" who joined us year after year, and some only that year. Some were from the community; others were guests from out-of-town spending the week in LA. (I remember one of these, in particular, who stayed for the whole week, and after the chag complimented my mother, Shulamit, by saying very seriously: "You know, your matza was delicious!")
The evening progressed with plenty of activity, singing, explaining, and finally the delicious meal that my mother always managed, no matter how many were at the table. After Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), we progressed with the Seder, pouring the fourth cup of wine, and then it came time to read Sh'foch Chamatcha, we sang the customary Eliyahu Hanavi and I was sent to open the front door-symbolically to invite the Prophet Elijah to come in.
Well, I opened the door and there in the dark stood a man, to my frightened eyes dressed rather shabbily (i.e., not in holiday garb).
I remember being speechless - turning back into the dining room (not visible from the front door) and saying to all: "Someone is there...."
My mother approached the door, and the man asked, "Is this the rabbi's home?"
My precocious cousin Jerry, a bit older than I but also frightened, asked my dad, "Who is that man?" and he remembers my dad telling him that it doesn't matter who the man is, because all who need a place to be for the Seder and the holiday are invited.
It seems he was a stranger in town and looking for somewhere to be for the holiday and was thus directed to the rabbi's home.
Of course, he was invited in to share the Seder with us, and although I do not know the details of his story - which he surely shared with our parents, but to which we were not privy - he stayed on as a house-guest for the holiday and then for some weeks afterwards, as well. And from that night until this very day, I and my sisters wondered if it was indeed Eliyahu Hanavi.
The missing afikoman
In 1960, my father, Rabbi Simon Dolgin, was the rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. As the community was growing, my father felt that there were many members of the congregation who were not well-versed in how to conduct a traditional, halachically-appropriate Seder.
Thus, he decided that public Seders would be conducted in the synagogue hall, and this continued for several years. My father and the cantor joined by their families, conducted the Seder from the head table, and those attending sat with their families and/or friends at round tables around the hall.
My father would lead the Seder, explaining the rules and customs of each stage. With singing in unison led by the hazan, delicious catered meals and fine company, these were quite festive affairs (My mother, Shulamit, thought this was a great idea, not having to prepare the meal; we children were less pleased about having to sit at the head table).
One of the highlights for us young people, of course, was hiding the afikoman, which our father (and every family head) would then have to find in order to complete the seder, and of course if he couldn't find it, he would have to "pay us" to retrieve it.
Well, in a large synagogue such as Beth Jacob, there were plenty of hiding places!!
That year, I "stole" my father's afikoman and when it came time to eat it, my father asked - in front of all 200 or so attendees - what I wanted as payment.
Well, I was 15-and-a-half that year, and what I wanted was for him to sign permission for me to get a learners' driving permit (for which, in California, one was eligible at that age - and for a drivers' license at age 16).
The trouble was, my father refused! He felt - local law notwithstanding - that this was too young for me to begin driving lessons.
There was quite a bit of haggling, but my father would not budge - and nor would I. It was quite a scene, and in the end, my father turned to the cantor and said: "Okay, we'll finish the Seder with your afikoman."
And so it was.
Several months later, Rabbi Simcha Wasserman, a colleague of my father's, came to our home to speak to my father.
Since my father was not home, I sat and spoke a bit with the Rav. Shortly thereafter, my father came into the house with a smile on his face and his hand behind his back, holding something.
I was quite embarrased when he extended his arm and declared: "In the end, no crime goes undiscovered."
He was holding my afikoman wrapped in a cloth napkin from the Seder table. It seems that he was looking through some books in the Bet Midrash of the synagogue, and found the afikoman hidden between two books, where I had hidden them months before.
Incidentally, I was allowed to get my learner's permit a year later at the age of 16 and a half.