My mother always kept a kosher home, which meant that we had two sets of dishes and two sets of flatware. By the time my sisters and I were seven or eight years old, we knew the difference between the milkhig (dairy) patterns and the fleishig (meat) ones. We never mixed dairy and meat at the same meal; the food that was served dictated which dishes and utensils were used to set the table.
This division between dairy and meat may seem way too complicated, but when you’ve been doing it all your life, it becomes second nature. In truth, we had it easy. I knew some kids who had two dishwashers at home. And rumor had it that there were some people who actually had two separate kitchens.
When Passover rolled around, we upped the ante. Instead of using the “everyday” dishes and flatware, we’d bring out the beautiful glass Passover dishes and the fancy drinking glasses. The week before Passover, my mother would polish her silver in anticipation of setting the Seder table.
In observant Jewish households, it is standard to have a dairy set of Passover dishes and a meat set of Passover dishes. These two sets are used only during the eight days of the holiday, and then put away for an entire year until they are needed for the next Seder night. In our house, however, we had only one set of Passover dishes, and they were used for meat meals. Passover dairy meals were eaten on paper plates with plastic utensils.
The idea of using two sets of dishes is a product of rabbinic law and custom surrounding the Old Testament prohibition against boiling a calf in its mother’s milk. On Passover, however, we have the additional obligation to ensure that the dishes on wish we eat have never been used with any of the leavened foods and legumes (hametz) prohibited during the festival.
My earliest memories of our family Passover Seder are from when I was six years old and we were living in a fourth floor walkup apartment in New York City. Instead of eating at our little kitchen table, we dragged folding tables into the living room, pushing them together and covering them with a single white tablecloth. The larger area would be needed to accommodate the Seder plate, the wine and water glasses and the array of delicacies that would grace the table.
When we finished recounting the Haggadah’s lengthy story of our enslavement in Egypt and subsequent emancipation, the shulkhan arukh (festive meal) would begin. In our family tradition, the dishes were served in a particular order. First, we would pass around a platter of whole hard boiled eggs; each of us would take one and dip it into the zaltz wasser (salt water). The salt water is a custom that is said to refer to the tears shed by the Jews in Egypt due to the backbreaking labor forced upon us by cruel taskmasters as well as the mandatory separation of husbands and wives. Next would come the gefilte fish, wonderful little fish patties out of a jar. They would be served cold with a bit of jellied broth on a lettuce leaf with a slice of tomato. The hot horseradish from the Seder plate would be our seasoning, the crunchy matzo our side dish. Then came my mother’s matzo ball soup, which typically contained a slice of carrot and more than a few pieces of chicken. Only then were we ready for the entrées, generally two of them. Although they varied from year to year, one would be beef, the other chicken. We would help ourselves from platters of vegetables, usually broccoli, carrots and boiled potatoes.
As a kid, my favorite part of the Seder meal was always dessert. Among the “four questions” asked from the Hagaddah earlier in the evening is “Why is this night different than all other nights?” For me, the answer was: “On all other nights, we do not always have even one dessert, but on this night we have many!” Cups of steaming hot tea with lemon slices would be served and we’d start the dessert off with fresh fruit salad or peaches or apricots stewed by my mother. Then we’d open the packages of Passover sweets for which we’d waited all year. There would be a sponge cake and a honey cake with slivered almonds on top. There would be coconut macaroons and sometimes chocolate ones. Treats might include coconut covered marshmallows, chocolate covered raspberry jellies or jellied candy “fruit slices” in a rainbow of orange, red, yellow and green.
By the time we were ready to sing the traditional Hebrew and Aramaic songs ending the Seder, the hour would be late. I would be stuffed, happy and falling asleep.
That Seder when I was six years old was the first without my grandmother, who had passed away that January. My grandfather led the Seder on the first night, but the second Seder belonged to me. Grandpa had to be somewhere else and my parents didn’t read enough Hebrew to recite the service from our paperbound Haggadahs, free of charge courtesy of Maxwell House coffee. Having been thoroughly versed in the ins and outs of the Seder in my first grade class, I felt up to the task. It made me feel so grown up!
That summer, my parents bought a house in the suburbs and by September we had moved in. The next Passover, I was seven years old and we held our Seder and our new oval dining room table. Both leaves had to be inserted to lengthen the table sufficiently to accommodate our embarrassment of culinary riches. As for me, I looked forward to presiding over the ceremony once again. My grandfather was still back in the city he so loved.
In my Orthodox Hebrew school, nothing but the Seder, and Passover generally, had been discussed by my classmates for weeks. We spent much time in class reviewing the parts of the Seder, the meaning of the prayers and verses recited, and the traditions passed down l’dor va’dor, from one generation to the next.
A few days before Passover, the rabbi who was my teacher phoned my mother at home. “Why don’t you make your son a Seder?” he asked reprovingly. Mom was taken aback by the question and assured him in no uncertain terms that we had a full Seder every single year on both the first and second nights of Passover.
My mother couldn’t imagine why he would even think such a thing. Soon enough, the situation became clear.
In class, the rabbi had asked his young students “Who makes the Seder in your house?” Everyone answered that their fathers did. But I answered “I do!” What I meant was that, because my parents couldn’t recite the Hebrew, that I led the ceremony.
It never occurred to me to mention that my mother spent days of planning and shopping and cooking and preparing for the very elaborate family event of the year. So it’s no surprise that my teacher imagined me facing the sad anticlimax of the season by sitting in a corner with a Haggadah and a piece of matzah, singing to myself.
Ah, to be seven years old.