The Passover Seder, a ritual feast celebrating the liberation of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage, includes a seder plate with symbolic elements of the bitter and the sweet, such as bitter herbs and sweet charoses. For the Gertz family, Passover 2018 was bittersweet because it marked two years since our final Passover with matriarch and patriarch Fran and Jerry.
In the spring of 2016, Fran was at the final stage of a 20 year devastating struggle with Alzheimer’s, and by the end of that summer a seizure would put her into the Salem Haven long term care facility, specifically on the third and final floor, where the next level up is heaven (she passed in January 2017). Passover was less ritual and more family get together by now, the seder having been reduced to the Four Questions and a couple of quick prayers. But the wine flowed and the food was plentiful, as was the case with every Gertz gathering.
Whereas past dinners were strictly Fran’s dominion, the meal was now prepared potluck. Jerry got non-traditional with barbecued brisket, tenderized into submission in a slow cooker; he also contributed matzoh kugel, courtesy of his sister Sonia’s recipe; Lisa added her panache to Sonia’s gefilte fish casserole; Dee made sure her matzoh balls were as light and fluffy as Fran’s. We filled in the rest with easy veggie sides and finished with chocolate macaroons and fresh fruit.
By the time Passover rolled around last year, Jerry had become rapidly weak from a cancer that had come on unexpectedly and strong. He was certainly too sick to host a seder, let alone contribute to the meal, but he had also lost interest: when the offer was made to hold the seder at Dee’s house, Jerry turned it down. So the holiday passed over the Gertz family without food or fanfare, and Jerry passed away on Memorial Day.
I’m what you might call a bad Jew. Having grown up in Baltimore with a Jewish father and shiksa mother, I tended to gravitate toward the side that offered Easter baskets and Christmas trees. My father’s mother Rachel was Orthodox, and every Friday evening the family gathered at her house for the Shabbat dinner, always kosher of course (dairy and meat were offered as either/or, and at a tender age it baffled me). After dinner I was occasionally left behind to spend the night in order to accompany her to shul the next morning. Thinking back, this may have been an intervention.
Growing up, Passover seders were also held at Rachel’s and were reverential and full-blown. My memories are an amalgam of mostly yawning tedium, but one day it was finally my turn to read the Four Questions, an honor bestowed upon the youngest member of the tribe. I remember feeling happy that I had something to do besides sit, fidget and starve, but also proud because I could show off my newly acquired reading skills. Unfortunately, that was the extent of my interest in the seder; afterward I went back to daydreaming about the Easter egg hunt with my shiksa clan while Hebrew prayers droned in the background. Bad little Jew.
When I was nine, we moved from Baltimore to Burlington, MA and, freed from my grandmother’s orthodoxy, I have, over the years, participated in our family seders with joking irreverence. This had to drive my father crazy but he never said so, which I attribute to the calming resignation that comes after a few glasses of Concord Grape Manischewitz, a super sweet wine with dubious consequences, as shown below.
Having said this, I always read the Four Questions, in Hebrew, with respect. And every Passover, just like sitting to my father’s left at the dinner table, that particular reading was understood to be mine.
So here it is 2018, I have ascended to matriarch, and the perspective, the vantage point, is suddenly loftier. All I can think, as I watch The Ten Commandments for the umpteenth time, is that I now have an important job to do. Something as sacred as a bad Jew with years of questionable religious karma can muster: I must pay homage to the past with a modicum of reverence.
Hosting this year’s seder at my home is a given, the rest is a journey of faith, less religion than rediscovery; a test to see how much Judaism actually sank in over the years. I start with my grandmother’s sabbath candelabra, willed to me many years before and relegated to a big Filene’s bag, tarnished and dusty in my father’s garage. Given that Rachel kept it proudly displayed and protected in plastic, its sad state is a testament to my transgression and the first step toward redemption: I must restore it to its rightful glory.
Next, I must locate Rachel’s Crest Wood china, handed down to my parents, then to me. At this point I have lost track of these dishes after several moves forced me to stash things hither and yon, but pray they miraculously made it to my basement after we cleaned out and moved boxes from my parent’s house for the final time last summer.
From a mountain of boxes I miraculously locate them quickly, transporting them up to the kitchen for a wash and dry. I then locate my mother’s delicate crystal stemware, to be gently removed from newsprint and oh-so-carefully cleaned. The last cleaning task is to shine up my parent’s flatware, a wedding gift from 1957.
The biggest hurdle toward redemption is the hardest: the seder itself. Jerry always took us through the Haggadah, and I’m not sure it was the same year after year (drinking was going on after all). So I decide to actually read the book, design a seder based on its relevance to us as a family and where everyone had a part to play.
Stu read the Kiddush, a prayer over the wine; Eva, our youngest member read the Four Questions; and in true Bad Jew fashion I can’t remember what the rest of us read; my design notes have since disappeared. But I will say that the past was with us that day, it was a longer seder than Jerry’s ever was (though not as long as Rachel’s), and I shed a few tears along the way. Hopefully that counts.
So the gig is up and now you know… the Gertz Girlz are part Jewish and part shiksa. I grew up in a Catholic family (half French-half Irish). And of all the holidays, Easter was my least favorite. Perhaps it was the lightweight cotton dresses and our bare legs only covered by thin lace ankle socks with Mary Janes, when the temps were still in the 40’s. Perhaps it was the long church homily and the incense that made me nauseous. It could have been that the traditional Easter dinner of ham, potatoes, etcetera, was something we ate every few weeks anyway. It wasn’t my mother’s fault that’s for sure. She went all-out playing the Easter Bunny with treat-loaded baskets, and even made her own chocolates one year. I was just “meh” about Easter.
So when Easter and Passover fell on the same Sunday this year, it was a no-brainer which one I would choose to celebrate. Some of my fondest memories of “becoming a Gertz” were the beautiful Seders that my in-laws put on. They are warm family memories, with food and ritual that was unique to Passover and therefore very special. It helped that they were delicious meals, too.
I looked forward to this Passover for many reasons. We needed to be together as a family, having lost both the matriarch and the patriarch Fran and Jerry in the last year. We needed to heal with food. And we needed to know that tradition would continue. There was only one person who could pull that off and it was Dee. And she did it with STYLE!
I got the head’s up phone call weeks before Passover. She was going to create a beautiful Passover and she gave me my assignments: The Charoset. The Gefilte Fish Casserole. The Matzoh Toffee. I was tickled Manischewitz pink.
I used Sonia’s recipe to make the Gefilte Fish Casserole. This was one of my favorite dishes of our Passover dinners, and I had begged Franny for the recipe 18 years ago. She had always served it as an appetizer, cut into small, delicate quiche-like squares. I’m always so happy cooking this dish, and I actually hope for leftovers so I can enjoy it all week long.
The matzoh toffee is something I’ve been making for the past 15 years at Hannukah, and I decided to create a real variety of toppings for this special Seder. It was fun and made a pretty snazzy presentation plate!
I was most intrigued with the making of Charoset. I couldn’t recall If we had it during past Seders…perhaps it had appeared at table in a very small plate and only as a symbolic gesture. So I decided to research and create a real side dish of Charoset. Because “Jewish food” essentially exists in almost every corner of the earth…this was where some creativity was allowed.
The Charoset’s color and texture are meant to represent mortar or mud used to make adobe bricks which the Israelites used as slaves in Egypt. Depending on what part of the world it’s being made, the fruit and nuts can obviously differ. Since we are in New England, I went with the locally sourced choice and created a dish with apples from a local farm, chopped walnuts, New Hampshire maple syrup and apple cider, and cinnamon.
I was almost speechless when we arrived for Seder. I had never dreamed we would again see a replica of what Fran and Jerry Gertz had created for their family at Passover. But Dee had commanded the helm, and boy did she bring the ship into port. It was a beautiful sight to behold – the polished silver, the crystal glasses, the heirloom dishes, the ironed cloth napkins and tablecloth, the aromas.
The brisket, the matzoh ball soup in a tureen, the kugel, the salad, the flowers. It was an incredible amount of effort and such a colossal show of love to her family, both deceased and living, that I will never forget it. We will always be grateful to this incredible Gertz Girl for what she gave us that day.
Did I mention I got kicked out of Hebrew School?!
Haha! After this last Passover Auntie Dee, I think you’re forgiven!
What I remember most about going to my Gaga and Papa’s house was that it always smelled good there. Even if nothing was cooking, it just smelled so good there. And as the only grandchild, the best part of Passover was that I was the only one who got to hunt for the Afikomen!
Papa was always busy in the kitchen with his trademark cook’s apron on. But he would always stop what he was doing and remind me to look for the treasure. After a couple of years, I realized that Papa always hid it in the same place – under the center cushion of the sofa. I caught on but still tried to pretend to look for it in different places first. This makes all of us laugh. We never did find out if he realized he did that…was it his own quirky brand of humor or just a 10 year coincidence? We will never know but it’s a fun memory. Eventually, like Aunt Dee, I also enjoyed getting to read the Four Questions as the youngest of the tribe.
Losing Papa and Gaga has taught me the importance of family and I love my Aunt Dee for bringing us all together.
Gertz Girlz Final Dish:
In the end, we have to agree with Tevye ….”Traditions, Traditions. Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as, as….as a fiddler on the roof!”