Memorable Passovers, from prison to Japan

The matzah balls were the toughest Marilyn Borovoy had ever chewed.

That was totally fitting, given the setting. After all, Borovoy and her husband, Robert, were celebrating this particular Passover in the mess hall of San Quentin prison, a place known for some pretty tough customers.

The year was 1959, and Borovoy was among the dignitaries invited to sit down for a seder with Jewish inmates.

"It was eerie," recalls the longtime community volunteer, who at the time served as the local president of the National Council of Jewish Women. "It isn't every day I'm in jail."

Nor is it commonplace for regular folks like Borovoy to voluntarily sit down to Passover, prison-style. This was one of the most memorable of the Passover memories tracked down by the Jewish Bulletin.

Before the group at San Quentin sat down to dine, "All they said to us was, 'Don't give your full name' and 'Don't ask their circumstances,'" said Borovoy, a fourth-generation San Franciscan whose relatives were among the founding members of Congregation Sherith Israel.

Now 80, Borovoy remembers guards patrolling the event as some 75 invited guests and inmates, the latter in their blue prison garb, exchanged pleasantries.

"Everyone was very polite, and the dinner was just awful," she said with a chuckle.

Bulletin reader Dana Levy Gross of Berkeley will be seeing double this Passover. In addition to her twin 22-month-old daughters, the guest list includes another set of twins — the identical toddlers of family friends.

"I have my script," Gross said, as she prepares for the occasion. She intends to go through the entire seder, but in an abbreviated and child-friendly manner.

Her plan calls for spending much of the evening in the family room, where the gathering will read board books with a Passover theme, dance and recite "all the prayers," says Gross.

"We'll see how it goes," she adds, hopefully.

Last year, Gross and her husband, Coleman, and his parents entertained fraternal twins Maya and Aviva while conducting much of their service on the family-room floor. The adults took turns dancing with the girls in a service that lasted about 45 minutes before sitting down to dinner.

"We've just made it more like an interactive seder," she said.

Ask Ruth Opper of San Francisco about her early memories of Passover and she'll probably mention her grandfather's special vintage "goose wine."

"We always went to my grandfather's house in Vienna," recalls Opper, a volunteer for the Bulletin. Sitting down to a formal and lengthy seder, Opper was offered the odd-sounding wine that turned out to be nothing more than water.

"They were just fooling me," she said. But on one occasion, after perhaps sipping too much "goose wine," Opper remembers seeing something happening to Elijah's cup as it sat on the table.

"I could see the cup of water move as if the Messiah had drunk from it," she said. "I was convinced that something was really happening."

Harry Fink, 78, grew up in Berlin, and his mother kept such a tidy house that there was no chametz to be found.

"We kept a very clean place and there weren't any crumbs," said Fink, a retired drapery-maker and also a volunteer for the Bulletin.

Ever resourceful, Fink's mother, Elsa, resorted to tearing up pieces of bread and planting them around the house for her son, daughter and husband, Abraham, to seek out.

In 1939, the family escaped Germany and wound up in Shanghai. There, resourcefulness again came in handy during Passover.

Living in a cramped single room that included the workshop for Abraham Fink's tailoring business, Fink's mother had no kitchen and resorted to cooking on a small camp stove. On top of that, food was in short supply during the war.

"You'd be surprised what my mother would do with that little stove," Fink said. "She did everything." Passover was also a time when his grandmother, who had left Germany as well, came to stay with the family.

"It got a little tighter [but] it was a happy occasion," Fink recalled.