By Rebecca Goodman
Erev Pesach, Pittsburgh 1941.
An April Sunday and my Mother and I are at Bobe Rubin’s in their Jackson Street apartment. Yesterday I had been allowed, big girl seven year old that I was, to go as far as the corner of Jackson Street and Negley Avenue to meet my Zeide and walk home with him from his little shule on the other side of Stanton Avenue.
We walked, my Zeide with one wrinkled hand on his cane and the other cradling my hand. I felt so special. I think I always felt special to my Bobe and Zeide, having started my life as a Goodman in their old house four years before. In the apartment my Zeide would unlace his high black shoes, put on his “steck sheck” (house slippers) and have a “glazalah tay” (little glass of tea) in a yertzeit glass at the kitchen table, sugar cube held between his teeth as he sipped.
But the Seder was Monday, and so my mother and I, as well as my Aunt Ceal and cousin Seretta – six years my senior and my idol – had come to make the apartment Pesedek. How our six bodies managed in the tiny space of that kitchen was a dance of determination. Chometz dishes were sitting in a box under the kitchen table that had been covered with two clean white sheets. The cabinets were scrubbed and the sink koshered with many repetitions of boiling water and Brillo. My favored part was coming.
By some magic, my Bobe’s mysterious locker in the dank basement of their little apartment building had been unlocked and the wooden staved barrel containing all the Pesachdek-y dishes was brought up stairs. Seretta and I both heard the “not-so-secret” secret that at the bottom under all its contents was money, maybe as much as a quarter, and we were being “allowed” to empty it, piece by newspaper wrapped piece. “Go slow children.” “Don’t drop anything.” “Seretta, don’t push her” “Stack the plates carefully on the table.” And the race began.
I was clearly at a disadvantage with shorter arms and legs, but the excitement of seeing the dishes pile up, and the barrel empty out surrounded by an ever growing mound of newspaper that reached above my knees was exhilarating. And I was doing something with Seretta; together we’d uncovered the bottom layer. There lay the large platter, too heavy and too far down for me to lift. Under it I knew was the money, a fortune for me who could buy probably two jaw breakers with it, if I could find a store in the new neighborhood we’d moved into several months ago. Seretta hauled it up and held it for a moment in triumph. And there lay four coins, barely in reach of her thirteen year old arms. “Share it,” one of the adults ordered, and so she did. I believe I got two pennies and a dime, the small money. She got the quarter – but I had three pieces and she had only one – I won!
My Mother must have come the next day to set up while I was in school, because that evening we returned to Jackson Street and the space was transformed. My Bobe and Zeide’s bed disappeared against the wall. From the living room, through the bedroom and nearly to the kitchen, stretched a long table flanked on both sides with metal folding chairs borrowed from Suguars’ Funeral Home, enough for the families of my two aunts and four uncles. All thirty of us dressed in our very best clothes, squeezed next to each other for the four-plus hour Seder we’d been anticipating all year. My new Mary Janes shone on my feet.
My Zeide was not an imposing figure. His shoulders were bent from years huddled over a tailor’s needle and thread, but sitting at the head of his table, he was king. The room hummed with the chanting of Hebrew. Everyone seemed to know what page to be on as they dovened and drank the prescribed cups of wine. Rather than my five-year old cousin Faye Ellen, who was stuck on the other side of the table and couldn’t get out, as next youngest, I got the special job to open the door for Elijah. I studied his special cup and was certain that the level of wine had decreased as the phantom prophet came, drank and left. Wine seemed to be the most interesting part of the Seder to me.
The meal was served at the appropriate time, three hours into the dovening. A seven-year old doesn’t remember Seder food, but I do remember being alerted by the smell from the little plates being passed by me. They each held a grayish oval of cold fish – something that all the adults seemed to be delighted with and I wouldn’t touch.
Years later, when the Seder and the gefelte fish came to our house on Jancey Street, I witnessed how it was made. My Mother was not such a purist as to keep the carp swimming in our bathtub, but how clearly I see her and my Aunt Ceal bent over the green plastic kitchen chair, one steadying it, the other churning the arm of a cast iron grinder clamped and screwed to the chair seat, wooden bowl under the mouth as the white fish and pike oozed out. Yet grinding was not enough. Aunt Ceal dumped the mixture into a wooden bowl and pulverized it even further. Watching it being produced didn’t encourage me to taste it, but the chicken soup and my Mother’s knadlach were all I needed for my meal.
With dinner over, the dovening resumed. By the fourth ceremonial glass, or rather my tiny maple syrup pitcher, I was half off my chair and half hanging on my Father. At one point I was removed to the bedroom and so ended the Seder for me, my shiny new shoes resting on the floor beneath my Bobe’s bed.
The sounds of clopping fish, the smells of crackling onions in the bubbling schmaltz and simmering chicken soup on the stove and the sight of my Mother in her flowered housedress, apron and earrings, always earrings – all these are memories of a Rubin/Goodman Pesach.
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