By Larry Gordon
It feels like it was long ago, but with minimal effort, I can easily transport myself back to my father’s Seder table on that first glorious night of this long-anticipated yom tov.
I do not know when the remarkable innovation of grape juice as a substitute for the mandatory four cups of wine began, but it was definitely sometime during my childhood or teen years, and it was not only a tasty drink but a good and important substitute for having your head spin from imbibing wine for the first two cups on a mostly empty stomach.
To this day, the debate rages between the requirement of alcohol content in order to meet the halachic requirement of the four kosos versus the “easy does it” option of drinking Kedem’s bestseller — grape juice.
Actually, Sholom Rubashkin tells the story about one Pesach when he was allowed to have his own personal Pesach Seder and was permitted a cup of grape juice. He explained that once he left over some of the grape juice overnight, and when guards discovered the tiny bit of the drink they accused him of trying to ferment the drink and turn it into an alcoholic beverage. While that was not his intent, the accusation got him thrown into solitary confinement.
Let me go back to my formative years and the impression those early Sedarim made on me and the ideas they implanted in me that I carry with me until today.
My best recollection is that I sat at my father’s immediate right at our dining room table. The table was set majestically with silver kiddush cups and an assortment of other serving finery that was punctuated by my dad’s three-tiered matzah tray that had a curtain pulled around so as to shield the matzos, with the top level being a Seder plate on which the special foods of the night were strategically displayed.
We may not be that conscious of it these days, but everything about Pesach, the foods, the customs, the remembrances, the Haggadah we recite, is interconnected and one grand and spectacular experience.
Erev Pesach was a crossroads of sorts. We were home from school, not really hungry, but at the same time aware of the fact that there were so many things we usually ate that we could not consume because the time of not eating chametz had arrived. As a result, all we could think about all day was what we were going to be eating. Come to think of it, that is probably one thing that has not changed over all these years.
One matter we were conscious of for sure was that we were not allowed to eat matzah on erev Pesach. Actually, most folks do not eat matzah beginning on Rosh Chodesh Nissan so that the concept and the taste (or the lack thereof) of the unleavened bread should be new, unique, and even tantalizing at the Seder.
So what did we eat on erev Pesach after our annual pyro-maniacal indulgence of building a fire and burning the pieces of bread, the wooden spoon, and the feather that we used in the traditional home search the night before the chag?
Don’t forget that the idea here was not to eat too much food through the day so that we would be able to dine and drink the four cups without coming into the Seder already stuffed from eating practically nonstop all day long.
What we ate on erev yom tov as children and probably way beyond those years, brings up the recurring image (and lingering taste) of hamburgers and mashed potatoes. I cannot say exactly why this was other than that both these foods seem to be the type that lend themselves to nonstop snacking. It seems that over all these years, those erev Pesach foods have become something between an absolute imperative and some version of a generational old tradition.
Then there is the matter of the wines at the Seder back then. Kosher wines have evolved into an unprecedented bonanza, with outstanding award-winning wines from Kedem and Herzog of Royal Wine Corp., which has grown into a giant from what was once a little store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
These are the wines that were at our Seder table many years ago: Concord Grape, Malaga, and Tokay. As a non-connoisseur of these or any other wines, all I can say is that they were pretty sweet and fairly thick, and after imbibing a full first cup of the traditional series of four cups, the room was spinning like a fidget-spinner or some other similar gizmo.
The Seder always was and still is one of the high points of the year. Two of my favorite non-menu items were the eggs in saltwater (that I later learned is not featured at every Seder table) and the exquisite Hillel sandwich.
These two distinct dishes are unique inasmuch as they communicate to our palate the fact that we are sitting at the Pesach Seder, not just remembering but reliving the experience of our national liberation from Egypt. The Seder is chock full of great symbolism designed by our sages to keep us and our children, and generations before and after us, connected to Al-mighty G-d, cementing the unique and special relationship that exists between us.
There is a lively discussion and even a debate about the egg on the Seder plate and the egg eaten with saltwater. The egg might represent the Korban Chagigah that is brought together with the Korban Pesach, also present on the Seder plate in the form of the z’roa.
The saltwater symbolizes the tears shed by the people of Israel through the years of torturous slavery for more than two centuries. Other than that, the eggs carefully sliced into a dish of saltwater and then mixed together just tastes great, to me anyway, and tells me that it is Pesach and that once again we are together at the Pesach Seder.
The Korach part of the Seder and the sandwich designed by Hillel the Elder to bring the message of Pesach all together is another unique and distinctive taste of the chag. The ingredients include two pieces of matzah stuffed with marror and charoses, sandwich-style. The charoses, an apple-and-nuts kind of dish, represents the cement of the bricks the Jewish slaves had to manufacture, and the bitter herbs represent the extreme difficulty and anguish caused by the enslavement.
The sandwich, aside from its special taste and flavor, usually creates a big mess as the matzah crumbles and the ingredients cannot help but spill out of the ancient and tasty concoction. But the Hillel sandwich brings the Pesach experience all together and is consumed just prior to Shulchan Orech, the festive meal that has been on the drawing board of great balabustas, cooks, and chefs for weeks leading up to the holiday.
At my parents’ Seder table as a child and then a young adult, I never could have imagined that one day I would be leading a Seder surrounded by children and grandchildren anxious to chime in, recite the Mah Nishtanah, and share with us what they learned in yeshiva leading up to this day. But here we are and here it is again. May we celebrate next year in Jerusalem with all our loved ones.
Chag kasher v’sameiach.