In the Suburbs: Passover is still our favorite holiday

Of all the Jewish holidays we celebrate, Passover is our favorite. And for the past 54 years we have been married, my wife and I have tried to make this holiday — celebrating freedom from slavery, spring and rebirth — a chance to bring together family and friends at a Seder. A Seder is a religious service with a special prayer book called a Hagaddah that tells the story of the liberation of the Jews from 400 years of slavery in Egypt.

Because we have been away from family in Chicago for 50 years, holding our own Seders have taken on that much more significance. And our Seders, often as large as 30 people and spanning the six states where we’ve lived, have given us the chance to celebrate with those members of our family and good friends, creating wonderful and precious memories. There were so many years in Fairfield that my late parents, mother-in-law and various aunts, uncles and cousins accepted our invitation and that made our Seder even more special.

While the center of the Passover holiday seems to be the Seder, for us the real center of the holiday is the food. Anyone entering our home, or any home on Passover, will be quickly mesmerized by the mingling smells of delicacies like chicken soup, possibly home made gefilte fish and charoset — an outstanding mix of walnuts cinnamon, sweet wine and raisins. The main course is generally turkey or a brisket, potatoes and vegetables. One year, my wife made a flourless torte.

What I have greatly appreciated over these past nearly five decades of Seders is my beautiful wife’s enthusiasm for entertaining and her delicious cooking. She created Passover feasts, both special and delicious, until just a few years ago when her back and hips wouldn’t allow her to stand for long periods preparing and cooking Seder meals. And our Seder table always looked beautiful, especially with the special Seder plate as a centerpiece.

Two years ago, my wife wanted to create that homemade gefilte fish again for our Seder, so we asked my Aunt Charlene in Chicago if she was making the fish. She would soon be celebrating her 90th birthday, but she welcomed us to Chicago. Then, she, my wife and my sister-in-law Chris created the homemade gefilte fish recipe that my grandmother Kate, my mom Naomi and my aunt made faithfully for decades of family Seders.

Fortunately, several years earlier, my wife asked to make the fish with my mom in Chicago before she passed away. My aunt, my mom and my wife spent a wonderful afternoon in my aunt’s kitchen, creating 60 pieces of delicious fish and laughing. That day will always be an indelible memory for my wife.

When the pandemic hit last March, just before Passover, we weren’t planning anything fancy and had only asked a few people to our small family Seder. Obviously, that had to be canceled. So I suggested the idea of a Zoom Seder to my wife and the creation of care packages for our local Seder guests. Our guests from near and far loved the Seder, albeit simple and short, and our nearby guests truly appreciated the care packages of brisket, matza, soup, potatoes charoset and vegetables.

This year, despite the lifting of a lot of restrictions, my wife said she just wasn’t up for a Seder. Her back problems have been very tough on her these past few months and the last thing she needs is to spend an entire day cooking and then politely entertaining. I don’t know that this will be our last Seder, but unless our older daughter decides to take over the holiday, it doesn’t look promising.

But this year overall marks an important Passover, because there have been so many threats to the freedom of so many.

I was very interested in a piece in Women’s Day Magazine about the meaning of Passover. And these comments by Rabbi Danielle Eskow, CEO of Online Jewish Learning, summed up the way so many of us are feeling. “It is essentially a festival of freedom and justice,” Eskow told the magazine. “Part of the reason why Passover is understood and appreciated by so many, regardless of their religious background, is that the core of the holiday is about justice for all. It’s about helping the downtrodden and persecuted find freedom. We remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, and that it’s our responsibility to help others in similar situations.”

I couldn’t agree more with what Rabbi Eskow pointed out. As Jews we shouldn’t forget our own ancient roots of slavery. And whether we celebrate with a Seder or just honor the holiday, perhaps all of us can think about those who may be in situations that are far worse than ours and create ideas to help them.

Similarly, those who gather for Seders will not only be giving thanks for freedom, they will be expressing joy at being released from the oppression of isolation that has been brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For us, the evening will be quiet and we will probably begin the holiday with a dinner of some brisket and potatoes. But the Passover holiday will always remain our favorite and I wish the same to everyone who celebrates. Happy Passover.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.