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at a hard-won seder

Encountering a Holocaust survivor over grapes in the grocery store, Moldaw overcomes her own Passovers from hell.

by Hila Peleg

I was picking out grapes at the market on a last-minute errand before Passover when I heard someone say in a lilting, foreign accent: “It’s hard work to harvest grapes.”

I looked up. The voice came from a gnarled, elderly woman with sunken eyes and a gaunt face. She wore a gray dress and a purple knit shawl knotted around bony shoulders.

“Yes,” I said, hoping she would go about her business so I could go about mine. “Being a farmer is hard work.”

“But grapes — grapes are especially hard work,” she insisted, bending lower to the fruit and picking out a bunch. “I should know. I was a slave laborer when I was a girl.”

I stopped bagging my grapes. She straightened up.

“It was in Poland during the war,” she said. “I’m Jewish. I got papers and hid my identity. A family took me and I worked for them, harvesting the grapes. Oh, it’s hard work, let me tell you. You must twist each strand to the fence, and if you make a mistake, so much money is lost.” She shook her head. “I lost my parents in Auschwitz and Treblinka. My sister and I, we worked with false papers. One day the Germans came. The family told them, ‘There’s no Jews here,’ so the Germans left. But they came back. ‘We know you’ve got Jews,’ they said to the family. But the father put them off again and they told us: ‘Run away! Run away before they come back tomorrow!’ That’s how they saved us. We ran.”

By now I was in thrall to her voice and her story. People stretched their arms in front of us for grapes, circled their carts around us to reach bananas. Passover and Easter coincided that year and the market was swarming. Bob, my partner, waved from the nearby apple bin, as if to say: “What’s up?” Barely looking at him, I shook my head.

“Have you told anyone?” I asked. “Have you recorded this?”

“No. I can’t talk about it. I’m crying now. You see, I’m crying.”

She hunched and pulled her shawl more tightly. Breaking out of a sudden spell, I reached out and patted her.

“I’m glad you’re telling me.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I asked if she had children.

“I have two children and three grandchildren,” she said, brightening.

An ending! I thought. A happy one.

“So that’s how you’ll have continuity,” I said.

“Yes. That’s what my son says. We carry on through our children.”

It was getting late. In a few hours I’d be gathering with friends and family for a seder. We’d eat the traditional meal and recount the Passover story: how God led the Jews from lives of slavery in Egypt to lives of freedom.

I touched her arm warmly and thanked her for talking to me. As she walked toward the vegetables, I heard her saying, over and over: “I’m crying now.”

“What’s going on?” Bob asked as I joined him in the checkout line next to carts laden with matzo for Passover and chocolate for Easter.

“She lived through the Holocaust,” I said. “She told me her story.”

Exactly nine years before that Passover, my husband and I observed our last seder together with our 14-year-old triplet sons and our parents.

A week earlier, my husband had coolly informed me that he was inviting his religion-averse parents, who had never attended our seders. He and I, at that point, slept in separate bedrooms. He wouldn’t move out. I wouldn’t move out. The in-laws — who had hated each other for years — weren’t speaking.

Our house abutted the synagogue we belonged to. Every Friday night, our back playroom was suffused with the glow of the temple’s stained-glass windows, bringing holy light into our unholy situation. Hyperventilating at the thought of our two families at the seder together, I decided — last minute — to dilute the impending catastrophe by inviting my sons’ sweet b’nai mitzvah Hebrew tutor, Natan, as well as my friend Samantha and her son, Jimmy.

I had prepared as I always did, because shopping for the seder meal, cooking it and setting the table were the only aspects of the evening that I could have the way I wanted.

We were Reform — though my husband wasn’t Jewish — and though we never removed the hametz, or leaven, from the house or did a thorough spring cleaning as custom dictated, I wanted my children to have the memory of celebrating Passover. Of course, I wanted more than that.

I wanted us to loudly sing Had Gadya, Eliyahu Hanavi, and Dayenu. I wanted everyone to pound on the table when we recited the plagues. I wanted the boys to recline lavishly in their chairs and jump up and down looking for the Afikomen. I wanted to share Passover stories and debate how the holiday informed gay rights and feminist liberation. My husband’s intimidating presence, however, squelched all of this.

The menu that evening is still tucked inside my 1976 Settlement Cookbook, along with all the other Passover menus for the years we celebrated together: 1995 through 2003. They’re handwritten on notepads filched from hotels where my husband and I stayed before we had children, and after, when we stayed as a family.

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

Passover 2003

matzo ball soup

radish

parsley

egg

shank bone

gefilte fish

matzo

chopped liver

haroses (no horseradish)

roast chicken

carrot kugel

noodle kugel (p. 187)

roast carrots (p. 417)

wine

honey cake

candy fruit slices

macaroons

One year I added homemade matzo apple pudding (p.194). Another year I served asparagus with hazelnut dressing and rosemary chicken breasts — recipes I learned from a Passover cooking class at Judith Ets-Hokin, a culinary store in San Francisco’s Laurel Village.

For this last Passover we had all the usual foodstuffs, but Natan brought the chicken, Samantha made the matzo ball soup, and I added that carrot kugel as well as a noodle kugel — as though abundance would bring happiness.

When I set the table in the dining room (instead of the kitchen) to accommodate the extra guests, I used place cards to seat my husband and his parents at one end, and my parents and me at the other, separated by the boys and our guests. I covered the matzo plate with tie-dyed, red-blue-and-green cloths the boys had made in their Jewish pre-school. Silver candlesticks held the blue and white beeswax candles they’d also made. I put A Children’s Haggadah at each place setting, as I did each year, having decided years earlier that the kiddy version suited our family’s level of ritual tolerance.

Fortified by my parents’ on-time arrival and the sight of their steely, determined faces — expressions that predicted the evening’s inevitable hell, but were also a buffer for whatever shape our disaster might take — I hurried them to the kitchen and presented my father with his customary Gray Goose vodka from the freezer. I placed a good crystal glass on the counter.

Smoothing her trim, navy wool dress, my mother watched my father pour two shots and add ice.

“Just one,” she said disapprovingly.

“No, two,” he replied. “I’m going to need it.”

I wanted a rollicking, happy Passover, but I also wanted it to be over as soon as possible. In that latter hope, my husband and I were one. He had no feeling for the holiday at all except to be able to state that he’d done it. That evening he planned to blast out with the boys for a fishing trip to Baja.

From the kitchen, I heard the front door slam and my mother-in-law’s big, trademark guffaw. I went to the front hall to greet her and my father-in-law, determined to stay above the fray. My mother-in-law was wearing a purple-netted hat and black polka-dot stockings; she gave me a cool look of hate.

My husband produced a bottle of red wine and shepherded his parents into the living room (away from my parents in the kitchen) where he immediately poured his father a drink. He knew I hated serving anything in that room because carpet stains there were always indelible.

Then Natan, the balding, mild-mannered, tall and lumbering Hebrew tutor arrived — all innocence — carrying a large platter heaping with roasted chicken. My husband, wrongly certain I was having an affair with this man, nodded knowingly to his parents.

Samantha and her son arrived soon after, Jimmy scooting off with my sons to flock around Natan in the family room off the kitchen, where our side had camped. Samantha gave me a huggy look. Her ex-husband had landed in jail on drug charges, so scenes like this were not unfamiliar.

Inviting everyone into the dining room, my husband and I took antipodal seats at the long mahogany table, as we had once upon a time, more happily, presided over dinner parties. We didn’t make eye contact. We opened our Haggadot and I called on each person to recite a prayer or read a part of the Passover story, everyone dutifully complying except my mother-in-law, who looked up when I said her name and simply said “No.” My father rolled his eyes.

The Haggadah recitation mercifully eliminated the need for actual conversation, as did the fact that we served and ate the entire meal while we read. As soon as we hit the final page, my husband leapt up and rushed the boys upstairs to get their packs for the fishing trip.

My in-laws made for the door. Samantha started clearing the table. My parents went to the living room and sat on the couch while I got Natan a plastic container to take home leftovers. As I walked him to the door to say goodbye, we heard screaming from upstairs. An army-green duffel flew over the bannister and landed with a thud. Then my husband marched down the stairs gripping one son, both of them scowling. The other two boys trailed with lowered heads, packs strapped to their bodies. Samantha emerged from the kitchen, crossed her arms, and watched.

“Get the duffel,” my husband ordered.

Their frames laden, the boys crossed into the living room to say goodbye to my parents, then moved to plant a quick kiss on my cheek.

“Move it,” my husband said.

Natan, the gentle bear, was still standing at the door clutching his chicken platter and the bag of leftovers. My husband gave him an enraged look, and with a quick, frightened glance at me, he fled.

They all tumbled out, and I let out a breath, resolved to call poor Natan to apologize the following day.

Samantha put an arm around my shoulder.

“What the hell,” she said.

Nine years later to the day, I met the elderly survivor over grapes at the supermarket. My mother and I went to seder at the home of friends. My boys were now in college, in New York, Boulder and L.A., and my father had died.

We arrived at the same time as another guest, a woman I knew from my book group. She was dressed and coifed beautifully, as always — her Chanel suit hitting just at her knees and her navy pumps neither too high nor too flat. She gave me a hug and said somberly, “I’m getting a divorce.” I thought: What a long way I’ve come through the desert.

I opened my Haggadah and our host covered her head with a white lace mantle and lit the candles. I looked through the dining room’s sheer white curtains, saw the street lamps coming on, and had a deep shehechiyanu moment — so grateful for this place and this time.

Drinking from the first cup of wine, I thanked God for the 20 of us gathered around the table. At the second cup, I gave thanks for my children, my parents, and my new partner Bob. At the third, I thanked God for granting me the courage to leave my “Egypt” — the prison of an unhappy marriage.

And when I drank wine from the fourth cup, I offered thanks for the elderly apparition in the fruit aisle earlier that day — perhaps she was Elijah — whose story and person pulled me into Passover’s essence: the journey through deserts, the guiderails of family and tradition, and the fiery presence of l’dor vador — generation to generation. We are never too old, I suddenly recognized, and it’s never too late to forge one’s destiny.

“I’m crying now” surely also includes tears of redemption.


 

Susan Moldaw works as a chaplain in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama, Narrative, the anthology tell me again, and Brain, Child.