Reliving the memories of seders past

I am standing on tiptoe on a wooden stool in my kitchen. My left hand holds me steady while my right reaches into the cabinet above the refrigerator. Feeling past the silver candlestick holders, the party-sized coffee thermos and the antique Limoge china bowl, my fingers finally arrive at their destination and firmly grasp the object of my affection: my grandmother’s seder plate.

We pass each other, the plate coming up and out of its tattered cloth cover, embroidered with Hebrew writing and me going down and back into my childhood memories of Passovers spent with my grandparents Gussie and Al.

Al, the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, possessed a blue-collar work ethic and American patriotism. His stoic nature made him a master of seder ceremonies who went by the book, literally. My grandfather put on a traditional, non-edited, 3,000-year-old version of Passover. No Hebrew prayer, song or story was left out.

My grandmother Gussie came from Russian-Polish roots and ruled the roost with an iron fist and a great brisket. She would bring the old rickety metal folding table and chairs out of storage and place them like a bridge between the tiny kitchen and short entryway — setting the table with a variety of mismatched plates, cups and wine glasses, enough to make a sit-down seder for 10. Like Jews who had been wandering in the desert for 40 years, we ate with abandon the classics — her homemade matzah ball soup, crispy potato kugel, fall-off-the-bones stewed chicken and famed brisket.

Despite my grandfather’s best efforts to keep the second half of the service on track, after two hours and as many glasses of kosher wine, faces morphed from smooth, serious congregants into scrunched-up red prunes bobbing up and down in stifled laughter.

The worst offender (usually my father) was shot “the look” from my grandfather. This was followed by a stern reprimand where his name was said in one long, low, drawn-out “Nooorman.”

My Uncle Arnie (egged on by my father) was the next to give in and started a chain of laughter that made its way around the table, landing in front of my grandmother. She would hold her arms up and forcefully flip both wrists forward in the unofficial but universal sign language for “I give up.” Despite her desire to be a supportive wife, she would eventually break down, cover her mouth and laugh along with the rest of us.

With the service complete, we retired en masse to the living room where every year the same scene played out. My grandparents transformed before our eyes from tough table taskmasters to entertainers.

Al played the ukulele while Gussie, dressed like Moms Mabley with several layers of big billowy skirts, knee-high stockings and a dishtowel on her head, would sing and dance. They performed traditional Jewish songs in Yiddish and original songs written by my grandfather in English.

Invariably they would stop abruptly in the middle of a song and start arguing about lyrics, or dance steps, or who forgot to turn off the coffee pot. They would fight for a few minutes and then continue, finishing the song, as if nothing had happened.

My grandmother Gussie lived to be 93. A few years before her death, I went to visit her in that same small, two-bedroom apartment in California.

“You know,” she said, with not so much as a hint of sentiment, “I won’t live forever.”

“I know that, Grandma, but you’re not gone yet!”

“It’s all right — I don’t mind. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I’ve had a good life. Is there anything of mine you want?”

“Really, only one thing,” I said. “After you’re gone I would like the seder plate you used at Passover when I was a kid.”

My grandmother got up and walked three short feet into her kitchen. She stood on a small stool, reached into the cupboard next to the refrigerator and took out her seder plate. “Here, darling, this is for you. Take it now and use it in good health.”

Karen Leland lives in San Rafael. She can be reached at [email protected].