We called it the Passover pilgrimage.
Dressed in new and formal clothes – dresses for mom and I, dress slacks, shirts and ties for dad and my brothers – we made the ninety-minute drive from our home in Rockland County to the Grand Concourse apartment, my paternal grandparents’ home for many years, untl they heeded the sunny siren call of Florida and moved south in the 1980s.
Our Long Island family: my father’s brother, his wife and their three children joined us; a perfect match to the three of us in terms of age and mischief-making. They too, were dressed stiffly and properly for the occasion. And what an occasion it was.
The handsome dining room table, extended with rarely-used leaves for this night, was set with a tablecloth, real napkins, china, silver and crystal. Matzoh lay in a covered silver tray, and those familiar smells emanated from that shoebox-sized kitchen: the honeyed, roasted and baked dishes to come. I still miss that kitchen, with its one window looking out onto the red-painted fire escape. When I was not helping Grandma cook, I would gaze out that window, into other windows and other lives.
We kids spent the pre-dinenr time in the den, reading, watching TV, playing cards and amusing ourselves, while the grownups had cocktails and gossiped, switching to Yiddish when the conversation took an “adult” turn.
The call to dinner was prefaced by the donning of prayer shawls and yarmulkes for the men, lacy headcoverings for the women and the chanting of prayers, along with the children taking turns reading the story of Passover. We were reasonably well-behaved, until the traditional four cups of wine were poured. I never liked Passover wine, but my youngest brother did. So I slipped him mine, sip by sip, until the little tyke was swaying and stumbling. I did it for years, and got laughs for years.
The food never failed to please. It was always the same menu. Chicken soup with matzoh balls: deep golden homemade broth, with chicken, onions and carrots. Grandma’s matzoh balls were firm, but not rock-dense; soft, but not “floaters”. Her gefilte fish was so special that I cannot eat anyone else’s. She got the texture right. It was smooth, but not completely beaten to a paste. We ate it on matzoh spread with horseradish, purple-red and sharp. The main course was crispy roast chicken, potatoes and tzimmes. Her noodle kugel was the sweet variety, raisin-studded and slightly crunchy around the edges.
In my mind, I still replay the Seders in that apartment. My grandparents’ place was elegant, with high ceilings, and the windows in the formal rooms curtained down to the buffed floors. I thought of it as a grand place in so many ways, not just because of the address, but because it was so right that my grandparents lived in such an imposing building, with its marble hallways and dark, polished bannisters along the stairwells. Fortunately, that neighborhood, and that time in my life, are recorded in print and celluloid memories. My grandparents moved when the weather and the encroaching crime became too much. They have both passed on, graciously leaving behind the Passover recipes, tableware, linens, and memories.
*Mishpoche: the Hebrew word for extended family