Hebrew Helpers’ father-daughter team Michael and Leah Schatz share memories of their family’s Seders, from the perspective of their respective generations.
Passover is about memory. We as the Jewish People take this time of year, and the Seder in particular, to remember our foundational story- we were slaves in Egypt, and God through his messenger Moshe brought us to freedom and to the promised Land of Israel. The various elements of the traditional seder dinner, celebrated for one-hundred generations, recount this story with symbolism that is rich with connections. From the flat matzah, which didn’t have time to rise as our slave ancestors escaped, to the bitter herbs and salt water that evoke the tears of slavery, to the rest of the stories told in one form or another year after year, we remember.
My earliest Seder memories are in the lower level of my grandparents’ modest house in Northeast Philadelphia. Long folding tables sat end to end, with my great-grandpop Abe presiding from the middle. He sat, in his suit and tie, and gold-embroidered kippah, flanked by my grandpop Sid and my great uncles. Grandmom and the aunts sat at the end nearest the kitchen, while we kids sat with our parents and their generation at the other end. Invited guests, of which there were always plenty, sat across from the uncles at this table for 30 plus.
The table was set with certain objects that came out each year- the egg shaped salt water bowl, the blue and white handwashing cup, the embroidered matzah covers, the gold haroset dish, and at each place a sterling silver kiddush cup engraved with their owner’s initials, gifts from Grandpop Abe to his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and spouses as they entered this tight-knit family.
The seder was recited with readings around the table from the blue Maxwell House Haggadah, punctuated by key blessings and songs like Kiddush and Dayenu. For an afikomen prize the kids got a silver dollar and a small bottle of wine. As I learned more songs in Hebrew school, I introduced them to the family seder.
Eventually, leadership passed from Great Grandpop Abe to Grandpop Sid, and the venue moved from Grandmom’s house to my parents’ dining room. I took the seat next to Grandpop and assisted in the Seder- adding more songs, and a new Haggadah– Feast of Freedom, by the Rabbinical Assembly–with better translations and more pictures alongside the traditional text.
After I was married and we moved into our own house, our daughter Leah, the first of her generation, arrived, and Grandpop died a few months later. That first seder was the hardest seder of my life and it took many tears to get through without Grandpop. But I knew I was the leader (my dad never wanted the responsibility), and my precious daughter was passed from lap to lap, too young to take much in. I knew that I had the responsibility to carry on the family traditions so that she would grow up instilled with the innate memory of the 101st generation of the Jewish People to continue the story.
As our family grew, we kept the traditions, we made the recipes, we kept the various seder objects, though it took a few years for my mother to permit them to remain in our home rather than pack them up to be stored in her dining room until the next year. We added more songs like The Frog Song, and more objects, like the seder plates and Afikoman bag that my children made in preschool, and props like frogs on the table. We retired the “read around the table” ritual in favor of more discussion, choral reading, songs and blessings to engage all types of learners, especially those for whom reading aloud might have been anxiety-provoking. Today we look forward to new friends and guests, and new generations to come to continue the Pesach traditions and bring their own to our table, to continue to add to the rich tapestry of Jewish memory.
One never knows what sinks in as a child grows up, witnessing and participating in the plans their parents set out for them. Sometimes the traditions stick, and sometimes the outcome is the child’s own take on how they build the memory. Read on to see how that little girl made her own understanding of the seder.
Passover is about memory. Some of the memories belong to me because they were mine in the first place, and the rest were given to me, passed down in reminiscences at shivas, in tales alongside bedtime stories, and certainly at seders. To me, seders look like mismatched folding, formal, and living room arm chairs gathered around a dining room table- a table stretched to its limit, full of all of its leaves and filled with all of the relatives. My parents host the seder now, and from what I can tell from the stories, it looks just the same as it did in my great grandparents’ house; There are the same people, just a little older, a matzah cover my great grandmother made, the same haggadahs, only with a few more stains and crumbs between the pages, and the same notes in the margins Grandpop Sid scribbled to guide him as he led the seder 70 years ago.
The seder was simply lifted from my Abba’s (Michael’s) childhood and replanted in our house in Elkins Park. My great-grandfather Sid is no longer with us, but Abba leads the seder with the same words, from Sid’d notes in the margins and from memories, and also because he recorded Grandpop onto a cassette tape in the early 90s so he could keep the seder just so.
Over the years we’ve added an anecdote, a reading, and an extra song here or there, but the core remains. Notable additions include the “seder of the seder” hand motions, Dr. Steve Brown’s “Haseder tzarich lihiyot beseder”, and chanting the four sons in seder trope that Hazzan Tilman taught us. To make sure the seder was kid-friendly, my mother has collected a small village of table props and decorations for the ten plagues. I recall a year when my grandmother and great grandmother sat together as always, only this time, they laughed as they sprung the spring-loaded toy frogs around the table. They knew when the seder was serious, and also when it was meant to be fun.
Other unofficial happenstances that have become tradition are spearheaded by my grandfather. He doesn’t lead officially (he never wanted to), but he always begins “Echad Mii Yodeah” in his childhood tune, a solo performance, before he smiles and pauses to let us sing the tune we all know. About 4 verses in, he calls out joyously, “Last verse!” and we jump to the end. The process repeats for “Ha-gadya” and “Adir Hu.” The year we had to opt for a virtual seder, we couldn’t really sing all together like we used to, but for a moment we were in sync together again to pause, let Zaydie begin each song, and then also pause for him to declare, “Last verse!”.
My aunt Melanie had to ask the four questions for 25 years because that was how long she was the youngest in the family. I asked them for a time, followed by my brother, and then second cousins after him. These days, Aunt Melanie’s children are the youngest at the seder, and as they lead, they can rest assured that if they stumble or forget, they have a 25-year reigning four questions champion at their side to help them.
At Maggid, the longest section of the seder, we read the age-old story. When I tell the story, I talk about being strangers in a strange land, a pharaoh that did not remember Joseph, miracles, plagues, a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and freedom. When I tell stories about telling the story, I talk about Abba reading Grandpop’s notes in the margins; about Zaydie reading aloud, “My father was a wandering Aramean”; matriarchs playing with toy frogs; and about the one time my uncle’s shirt caught fire on the candles in Aunt Lee’s candelabra (he was fine). I tell the stories that came up and happened in between the stories in the Haggadah.
Passover is about memory. We tell the story each year to remember it, to remember all of the times we told it, and to remember the ones who told the stories to us. All my life I had been the oldest of the kids, and more recently, I’m also the youngest of the adults. And in my seat as seder helper, next to Abba, I’ve watched as the seder has changed and also stayed the same, full of stories from 100 generations ago, also from 3 and 4 generations past.
Over my 26 seders, I’ve become a teller of the story and a keeper of the memory, and as dearly as I hold the words of the Haggadah, so too I hold the stories of the seder that my father passed down to me.
Dr. Michael Schatz is Hebrew Helpers’ East Coast Manager. Aside from this work, he is the assistant director of a synagogue religious school, guides tours of historic Jewish Philadelphia, and bakes a pretty decent wine-nut sponge cake for Pesach dessert.
Leah Schatz runs a tutoring program between the University of Pennsylvania and a West Philly elementary school when she is not mentoring students for Hebrew Helpers. She is a Ramah Poconos lifer and loves Israeli Dance.
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