My father used to like to start the Seder with a joke: “Why do we have a Haggadah on Passover? So we can Seder right words.” Or “How does Moses make beer? Hebrews it.”
It was both an embarrassing and exciting time for me. Both my parents were born in Australia in the 1890s, when Jews were quite a rarity. The influx of Jews from Europe only began after World War II, when the fortunate survivors of 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 a few 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. As a child of seven, 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. Our family of seven would sit around the table with my great-aunt Frances and great-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 compered a daily radio show, and she would relate to her listeners the next day all the details she had understood, and that seemed to fascinate her.
The table would be set with a snowy tablecloth and all the traditional Seder trappings, with a big decanter of raisin wine my mother had made. My father, of course, sat at the head with a big pillow on his chair. 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 letting it be known that he was a scholar; and he had a fund of off-color stories that made him very popular, and caused me to blush, resulting in my being very prudish well into adulthood.
He would conduct the service from the Haggadah in Hebrew, giving explanations in English all the way through. When it came to the Four Questions, he had transliterated the Mah-Nish-Ta-Na for me in English letters, and our 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 was always allowed to find the “afikomen” as a reward.
I loved the songs, and so did our guests who managed – after some coaching from Dad, to sing along with us, heartily, with mostly mispronounced words. I remember we always sang one song in English: “Only one kid, 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 died when she was seven. But she tried valiantly. The chicken soup was good, apart from the matza balls 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 are my family. Maybe it was the last time as my two brothers soon went overseas with the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) and my sister Bobbie joined the AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service). The younger brother, shot down over Rommel’s lines in Tobruk, never returned. Over the intervening eight-plus decades, the losses multiplied until now there is only one 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 more than 50 people now, including all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I am sure we observe it far more authentically today.
But there was something special that 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 charoset. I will see the family I have loved and lost, and hear the songs and the jokes and the laughter.
I have come a long way, 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 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. [email protected]