“Steve, my dear,” my mother, calling my office in Manhattan from her home in Buffalo several years ago, began an uncomfortable conversation, “we love you dearly, but . . . .”
The “but” had me worried. That conjunction usually leads to the crucial part of a sentence.
“But please don’t come to us for Passover anymore.”
“Us” were Mom and Dad, who was still alive.
Dad, who had grown up in an extremely secular home in Berlin, knew nothing about attending a Seder, let alone leading one. Mom, from an Orthodox home, is from the generation where a wife would not upstage her husband; she would not feel comfortable leading the Seder. So from the time I was in elementary school (attending a few times a week after-school Hebrew program), I led our family Sedarim—sometimes for just us, sometimes for a smattering of guests.
My proficiency in this improved as an adult, after I joined the ranks of ba’alei teshuvah. It was a responsibility I truly enjoyed, engaging in months of research beforehand. I tried to make the Seders interesting, “relevant.”
But it was to be no more, Mom told me.
After I had studied the various halachot of preparing one’s home for a kosher Pesach, and married a strictly religious young woman, the mounting demands of Jewish law and tradition made Mom nervous. While she did her best to accommodate me and make me feel at home on the Festival of Freedom—shlepping cartons of yom tov dishes from the attic, kashering pots in the weeks before the holiday began, looking for kosher l’Pesach items at the local supermarket, trying to accept my way of making Pesach—finally it was to no avail. I was disinvited.
I would miss Pesach with my mishpachah but was free to spend the holiday with friends who invited me, by then divorced and single, to be their guest. And, later, to start the tradition that became my standard practice for nearly two decades—leading Seders in far-flung places, for small Jewish communities largely unfamiliar with the richness and beauty of a true Seder.
Then Covid came. No traveling. Just a solo Seder in my Queens apartment.
Then last year, my sister, who lives a mile away from Mom in the Houston area, asked me to come down and help take care of Mom. For social distancing reasons, Mom could not attend my sister’s Seder, as she had done since she moved to Texas fifteen years ago, following Dad’s death.
I would be with Mom for the Seders. Four of them. Because of her age (she turned 100 a month before this past Pesach) and her health (she tired easily, by early evening), Mom decided that she would do her own Seder—while it was still light outside, before the chag actually started.
But no Seder (even if only a scaled-down version) was no option; Mom would do her best. “I didn’t think I’d make it to this Passover,” she told me gratefully during chol hamoed.
In her small apartment, I set the living room table with a dark blue plastic tablecloth, laid out Mom’s ceramic Seder plate and a plastic cup for her grape juice (at her age, no wine), and a new, large-print Haggadah I had found online.
Finally, I set out three pieces of matzah on an acrylic serving tray that one of Mom’s granddaughters had made (Mom saved it for Pesach), put on my Shabbos uniform of a well-ironed white shirt and black pants, and sat at the other end of the table, answering Mom’s basic questions about the Seder traditions, pouring her cups of grape juice, serving her meals and making sure she did not feel alone.
Mom wore a long green print dress, and read from an old, juice-stained Maxwell House Haggadah she found preferable to the large-print one I had procured; she had used a Maxwell House version as long as she could remember. Besides, the large-print Haggadah contained paragraphs of commentary and explanations she found distracting from the plain text.
She read slowly, haltingly, some blessings in Hebrew, the rest in English; she recited every word, straining to see in the fading late-afternoon light. We were serenaded by the quacking of ducks on the man-made lake outside the window.
Three hours later, at the proper time, I sat down at my place at the table, a Lubavitch Haggadah with the expected learned commentaries at plate-side. My kind of Haggadah. Mom was in bed by then. My meal was some cold chicken and kugel from a local shul.
No one hid or found the afikomen. I was the sole participant. L’Shanah Haba’ah in a world without Covid.
The second night, Mom’s blood pressure was high; she felt ill and tired. A few minutes of a Seder sufficed.
I missed my accustomed style of Seder—the table full of adults and children, the creative explanations of readings and rituals, the theatrics to engage the kids’ interest, the prizes and awards and photocopied sheets to be handed out.
On one hand, last year was very frustrating.
On the other hand, it was very fulfilling.
Despite Mom’s earlier Seder disinvitation, I got to spend another Pesach with her. This time, she did not object.
Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.