The Festive Meal
by Elaine Rosenberg Miller
She recalled her uncle's exclamation, midpoint in the Passover
The family had gathered in her parents' Brooklyn apartment. The table was set with white linen, silverware and gold rimmed china. The cousins sat at an rickety card table, playing with half filled paper cups and scattered matzha shards. The youngest cousin, a toddler, bit on the rim of her slatted playpen and gazed at the participants from a distance.
"Now, it is time,” her uncle would slowly say in his accented
voice as he read from the Hagaddah, “for the Festive Meal!"
She had always thought he could have done without the entire seder,
the building of the cities that sank in the mud, the flight from Egypt (perhaps
he would have enjoyed the "borrowing" of his Egyptian neighbors’ valuables
as "payment" for centuries of slavery), even the miracles.
He had survived Dachau, Bergen Belsen and several sub-camps. His
eye warned her that if she asked, he might just tell her what he thought of
the ritual. He took nothing seriously. He had gone into the toy business, importing hula hoops and roller skates from foreign countries. Life, to him, it seemed,
was a random turn of fate.
Each year, the children waited for his declaration, glancing impatiently in
Decades later, in Florida, he died of a massive sepsis in his eightieth year.
She looked at his swollen body and hands and asked herself, "How will they ever
get his wedding ring off his finger?"
Her aunt realized long before any of the others, that he was gone. His
children, came and went, grieving, yet clear in their purpose, their efforts,
moving on with their lives.
She remained consumed with the past.
A word, a phrase, a name and memories flooded her vision.
"Divorce is like cancer," the woman said.
They were at a gala dinner. Across the table a short, squat woman
stared at her.
"Divorce is like cancer," she repeated as if she had coined a timeless
She knew that the comment was directed towards her.
"My mother always said" she intoned "if you need a divorce, cut it out like cancer.”
Her father raced through the Haggadah using odd chants, unlike those
of her Israeli teachers. He impatiently listened to her recite the Four Questions
that she had practiced for weeks. He did not deviate from the paper book, soiled
with goblet rings and chocolate fingerprints of past years. He, who had raced
across the Russian steppes to escape the blitzing tanks and planes could have
turned to her and said "I, too, lived under oppression. I too, fled. I was saved
by miracles.” But he didn't. He reserved his history to himself.
The first year after they separated, she prepared the seder as usual.
The children sat around the gaily decorated table and they waited. Time passed.
Finally she reached him.
"I got delayed," he said, drawling his words. "I met some people.
They began the seder without him, his seat vacant.
Her mother had purchased carp at the market and placed it in their
bathtub where it swam aimlessly until she was ready to club it, dress it and feed
it into the steel grinder clamped to a wobbly wooden chair. She molded the
fishmeal into oblong shapes and dropped them in boiling water. After they had
bobbed and collided with each other for a sufficient amount of time, she would
remove them, and once cooled, slide them onto a suspension of jellied sauce.
She brought plate after plate of food to the table. Brimming bowls of scalding
soup, flecks of parsley and swollen carrots and fat noodles floating in the
yellow broth. Broiled chicken seasoned with paprika, its skin a crisp black
and brown. Crumbling potatoes. Cold compote of pears, apricots, peaches
and plums. Chocolates sitting in stiffly pleated paper beds. Multicolored
layered cakes. As the seder went on, wine glasses were refilled. The door
was opened for Elijah. A breeze seemed to enter the room lowering
its temperature. She saw the sweet ruby liquid descend in the proffered cup.
Had anyone else seen it? she wondered.
"School? Why are the children in school?" her mother asked. "Isn't it the
"Mom, no, it's winter. Look at the calendar. The calendar is by the fridge.
Every day when you get up, look at the date. Chanukah is coming."
"Oh, Gott vell helfen," she said in Yiddish. "Dahn mazel veln zen oyfgerekhtet.” Your fortune will be raised up. Righted. Justified.
Was her mother's vision like that of Joseph's the Prophet’s first dream?
That he would prevail over his brothers? Or did she foretell his second dream,
its message of filial sovereignty foreshadowing slavery, imprisonment
"Good-bye," she said. "I don't want to make you a big bill."
"It's for free."
"It is? All right. Good Shabbos."
"No, Mom, not yet. Look at the calendar."
She was drawn to the bureau. She pushed aside her daughter's
sweaters and uncovered a small pine box. She lifted its lid. The hinges were
askew. Two gold rings lay toppled against each other on the maroon velvet
lining, their flickering reflection dissected by the blades of the rotating ceiling
fan. She ran her finger along the ridged edges of the bands.
The Jamaican housekeeper fixed their meals. The door once held ajar
for the visiting spirit was locked. Her uncle's skepticism, her father's solemnity,
the children's fevered efforts, all memories now.
Like the incense of the Festive Meal.
from the April 2008 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine