Remembering the Seder Maestro

I remember my Uncle Harry. He was in that most Jewish of Jewish professions, a money lender. Or to put it more plainly, he owned a pawn shop.

Today’s euphemisms would call it a commodity lending agency. So for 364 days a year, he was a commodity lending specialist, but on that first seder night, he was a Hebraic scholar.

Besides his expertise in appraisal of a watch, a ring or even a musical instrument, he was the only adult in our family who could read Hebrew, which uniquely qualified him as Seder Maestro.

His generation — frenzied for integration — was interested in the Charleston, 23 Skidoo, big cigars and fast motorcars.

But Uncle Harry, alone amongst his family peers … Uncle Harry, though he opened on the Shabbos and ignored kosherkeit … Uncle Harry could read Hebrew, maybe because he was already 18 when he left the murderous hell of Russia.

When World War II started, and all the radio pundits predicted a quick blitzkrieg victory over Russia, Harry said, “Wait’ll they meet the Cossacks.”

So Harry was our Pesach Generalissimo.

He was the boss who led us through the Pesach scenario, like Moses led his flock through the gritty Sinai. Starring in their respective seder roles was Harry the money lender and his nephew, Teddy the Hebrew school student — me.

He read. I nodded — I mean in agreement, not sleep.

And of course, who but the Hebraic scholar, me (Hebrew School, Monday, Wednesday and Friday) asked the four questions?

His two daughters were older. Nobody else said squat, as we Southern Jews say. And we did not tell the Exodus story (“with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”) as the Chumash commands.

Well, Uncle Harry sort of told it by reading the Hebrew side of the haggadah, which nobody — including Teddy, the Hebrew scholar — understood.

He did hide the afikomen. But so unimaginative: living room couch, under the second cushion from the right. Same place, every year.

I can’t help but think of Uncle Harry and his seder audience when we gather for our seder this year.

His family is scattered all over God’s universe, including the hovering heaven that covers it.

He and his generation are now elevated to that realm where it’s always Pesach and the matzah balls always float — never sink.

My generation — his kids, nieces and nephews — simply moved sideways to D.C., Miami, Huntsville, Ala. and sites in between.

Uncle Harry would be amazed at the change in seder traditions. The patriarchal concept has vanished. Yes, there’s a leader, but at least at our seders, he’s a moderator, an emcee.

Everybody talks. Everybody tells the Exodus tale, from my 3-year old granddaughter (“We carried big rocks then we left town” … a rough, but accurate paraphrase) to my kids, who each demand 30 minutes without interruption for their recital. (“I’ll take questions when I’m through.”)

My kids diligently prepare by reading Exodus every Pesach.

To them, the seder assembly is a fantastic meal preceded by an appetizing discussion.

Wow, do we follow the biblical directive to tell the story. Sometimes all at once.

And we show all the curiosity and even skepticism of the biblical commentators who began with: “An apple in Eden? No way. The Hebrew word is fruit, not apple.” And so on.

We thoroughly seek the truth (just like Rashi or Ben Ezra). Is it not strange that Moses, our first and foremost prophet — our CEO — would marry a Midianite? Not only a non-Jew, but the daughter of a priest. So says one of the family cynics.

But a better-informed family member (I’m not going to name names here) says, “Izzatzo — well, the Midianites descended from Abraham and Keturah. Zipporah could well have been as Jewish as Miriam.”

Another debater: “Well, how could Sinai support 600,000 hungry, food-obsessed Jews? (Oh, those flesh pots of Egypt!) Answer: “Who knew the fertility of the Sinai peninsula three millennia ago. Do you?!”

Somebody questions the Red Sea miracle, and somebody answers that it’s a natural phenomenon that even today occurs in the Gulf of Suez.

“And notice God didn’t descend and push the sea apart with his divine hands. He simply sent a strong wind to do the job. Is that so hard to believe?”

He hates to interfere with his own natural laws, you know.

Uncle Harry would be shocked at our departure from the haggadah. And I think he’d also be impressed at devilish sites where we hide the afikomen.

Even the 3-year-olds know to throw the cushions off the sofa — but who would suspect the den chandelier?

Ted Roberts’ blog can be found at and his Web site is

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