I followed my father down the long flight of wooden stairs that led from the back porch of our house into the yard. The stairs may not have been as lengthy as I remember, but I was small and everything in a grownup’s world seemed big. (I often dreamed of taking off from about halfway down and flying the rest of the distance.) Our mission that day was to pick the grapes that grew profusely along the fence that separated our property from that of the neighbors. These grapes were not going to be used for some ordinary purpose like eating or even being made into jelly – no, not these grapes. These grapes were being harvested so they could be taken to my grandfather (Zadie) so he could wondrously transform them into wine for Passover.
Zadie and Bubbie lived in southeast Baltimore near Patterson Park in an area populated by many groups of immigrants; Italians, Poles, Jews, etc. Their house was 3-stories high, long and narrow and had a yard on one side that was enclosed by a cinder block wall. They had a little garden there (and an outhouse before they got indoor-plumbing). You entered the house through the living room that had just enough room to pass between the overstuffed furniture on either side. On the left side of the room was a closed up fireplace with a mantel that held a great many framed black and white photographs. The fireplace may have been operational at one point, but never in my time. On the windowsill there was a cactus growing in a flowerpot.
A steep stairway ran halfway up to a landing then doubled back to complete the journey to the second floor. There was no light on the stairs so they always seemed rather foreboding to me. I remember Bubbie’s ankles were very swollen all the time. I can’t imagine how she managed to navigate those stairs even once a day. Passing the stairs brought you into the kitchen and then on to the back porch, which became a sukkah when Zadie cranked up the roof and placed some bamboo and branches across it. In the kitchen also was a door to the steps that went down to the dirt floor basement. It was very dark and creepy and I did not go down there often.
In this little house my father, his 5 brothers and one sister were raised. The second floor had a bedroom where Bubbie and the one daughter slept. Zadie and the boys had the two rooms on the third floor. The other room on the second floor was where Zadie worked as a tailor on his foot-pedal sewing machine and which also became the bathroom when plumbing was installed. It had a huge ball and claw foot bathtub in which Zadie made wine by crushing the grapes with his bare feet. As I recall, the door didn’t lock but the room was large and the door was too far to grab the handle if someone entered without knocking. My father and his siblings managed to survive it anyway.
Zadie did not pay very much money to purchase the house. Our family was not very prosperous and my father was selling newspapers on the street when he was 10. In the early 1920s perhaps it cost a few thousand dollars, maybe less. One of my uncles later told me that the house had passed through several owners after my grandparents and then was totally gutted, refurbished and then resold for $350,000.
Zadie was very religious and it was said that he observed laws and customs that most Jews never even heard of. My mother told me that he wouldn’t even eat in the homes of some rabbis because they were not kosher enough. He wouldn’t eat the food at my Bar Mitzvah party (even though it was prepared by a kosher caterer in a Chabad synagogue).
In this collage of memories the strongest center around Passover: the little pendulum clock in the kitchen, whose unceasing tick tock kept me company during the hours at the seder table; the incredible aroma of Bubbie’s cooking and strong sweet taste of Zadie’s wine. As a child, with my tummy full of both, I was always led to a spot on the couch in the living room where I slept through the second half of the Seder.
There’s something special about memories. They are foundational in the perpetuation of faith. Passover Seders are a part of my life: Those at Zadie and Bubbie’s house, those at homes of other relatives, those in my own home. Some are associated with strong memories and others to just vague images, but all tied to a God who has been at all of them – sometimes very evident, other times seemingly quite far removed. The purpose of the Seder is to connect us with a very specific, supernatural and seminal act of God that occurred in time and space. It is a celebration of memories. But the realities of life, family and culture that frame our Seders tie us back to that event.
My children have memories of home and celebrations stretching back to ones in which they were not old enough to understand what it was all about, but just that it was. Understanding, like faith grows and matures as we do. And now it passes to my grandchildren because it has been built into my children – their parents. My children have no memories of the house in southeast Baltimore or the Seders held there, but their essence flows through the generations and were encapsulated in those Seders I conducted at my mother’s home and at our own house. (Even asleep on the couch I was absorbing the reality of generations of Seders.
My grandchildren, born and raised in Israel, don’t have those memories, but will always connect with Seders held here at our home. (Our home may not be as unusual as Zadie and Bubbie’s, but it has the great feature of a connected living space. One can run through the main part of the house in a complete circle – my grandchildren are expert house racers.) Initially, candy gummy frogs and flying rubber locusts during the recitation of the ten plagues are more interesting than the biblical reason for the Seder. But while those memories will never disappear, they will take on their proper perspective as my grandchildren encounter the Lord in their lives. Their memories will create for them a base upon which they can build memories for the next generation. In this they can carry on the tradition and in it find relevance and reality in expressing their faith as Jews and followers of Messiah Yeshua.