My friend Mendel Horowitz, who frequently comments here, has published a lovely piece about dishes that survived the trek from post-war Germany to Philadelphia and will now be used in Jerusalem at Passover this weekend.
Mendel is a writer; you may want to read his touching article right now:
Mendel’s article reinforces connections I recently made between seders and my family’s Easter dinners decades ago – holy days in the early spring, with a touching similarity: the stranger, the visitor, in our midst.
I met Mendel through this little therapy website – a rabbi and counselor of men, in Jerusalem, a long way from his childhood home in Queens. He is also a volunteer on emergency calls, never knowing whether the distressed people will be speaking Yiddish/Hebrew/English/Arabic, and it doesn’t matter. Oh, yes, he and his dad, Ahron are Mets fans.
Last week I had the honor of “attending” the wedding of Mendel and Michele’s daughter, Leah, on a hilltop in Jerusalem. It was a vibrant, touching ceremony – with young women greeting virtual friends and relatives in distant lands, and the men singing familiar hymns. I was there.
This weekend, for the seder, the family will use Rosenthal china that Zaidy Victor and Bubby Bella, Michele’s grandparents, bought and took with them as they escaped with their lives after the war.
Last year, Mendel and Leah lugged two knapsacks filled with dishes, bubble-wrapped, on the long flight, just ahead of the pandemic shutdown. (Another stash of dishes is waiting on Long Island for when flying is more feasible.)
Sometimes, the dinnerware and familiar furniture are part of the seder. I never attended one as a kid with many Jewish friends in Queens, although I must have gone to half a dozen bar mitzvahs. When I covered religion for the NYT, I was invited to the warm, welcoming Upper West Side apartment of Rabbi Wolfe and Jackie Kelman, our friends and teachers.
The tables radiated with people from all over – a Japanese couple one year, a Caribbean couple one year, lapsed Jews, observant Jews, and Christians like us. One year, as guests were asked to sing, I delightedly recalled a Hebrew hymn I learned in the chorus at Jamaica High School; the next year I sang a bit of “Amazing Grace.”
Many of the celebrants stressed the Passover concern for the stranger, the marginal, people who suffer.
Only recently have I made the connection with Easter dinners when I was young, when my mother cooked the specialties of England, where she was born – roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, mint sauce.
There was one tradition, if you will: at Easter, at Thanksgiving, at Christmas, a family often dropped in for dessert -- a father and his three children.
Missing was the wife, my mother’s dear friend at Jamaica High; she had died young, and this good and sad man was raising their children. I don’t recall us ever talking about the absent friend during that visit, but she was there.
In every civilization, the stranger is respected. My wife talks glowingly about meals served her in humble homes in India; my sister Janet and I were recently invited to visit (with lavish snacks) our family home in Queens, by the accomplished Muslim family that now lives there.
My wife and I are still holed up, waiting for the blessed vaccines to take hold, waiting for “normal times” to return. All three of our children have dinnerware with family histories, and Marianne brings out the Limoges china given us by her Aunt Emma, a sweet old lady who had no children. (Well, except for a dinner on Christmas Eve, years ago, when we entertained Jewish friends who kept Kosher, and Marianne used glass and paper plates. Warm memories.)
It makes me happy to think about the Horowitz family celebrating their seder with china that once belonged to their elders – a ritual of continuity, a celebration of survival.
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023