Friday, April 18, 2008

Schmaltz in my veins, and Gribines in my heart. Don't call a doctor, it's Passover!

Tomorrow marks the first night of Passover. One of my favorite Jewish holidays, second only to Shmini A'tzeret (please note, that was the first of several references only Jews will get. For more information on Jewish holidays, consult your local library).

As long as I can remember, Passover was a pretty well-organized holiday. My mom would start cooking about three years in advance, stashing away briskets and chicken dishes in recesses of the basement freezer. That freezer was a constantly rotated inventory of large foil-wrapped platters, and I always knew Passover was coming when the number of platters became so many that the secret tin of frozen chocolate chip cookies she thought I didn't know about became almost impossible to reach behind the frozen tsimmes.

She'd invite no one officially, yet we never seemed to have fewer than 18 people including at least one person whom no one else at the table knew and and everyone wondered who invited. For years I thought it was Uncle Izzy, til I realized Uncle Izzy died in 1803.

Grandpa Jack would spend all morning bent over a wooden bowl preparing the chopped liver. From the depths of New Jersey Aunt Gert would deliver the 55-gallon drum of rendered chicken fat she'd been storing since last Passover (ah, schmaltz...sandwich spread of the gods) as well as the gribiness, a delicacy consisting of bits of chicken skin and onion fried black in schmaltz, (and low fat, too) and mom's friend would deliver the most insanely large and elaborate bouquet of flowers gathered since last season's Rose Parade.. Dad and I would spend a half hour wrestling with the nine-thousand pound dining room table he built himself out of solid oak and kryptonite (it's that heavy), and grandma would spend most of the afternoon grabbing various youngsters' arms, giving them $5 bills, and telling the to put that money in a safe place because, "you were always my favorite grandchild, not like your sister who never writes me."

The service was impeccably organized. Grandpa Jack, in his brown polyester shirt with the tan circles, would lead the proceedings with his Brooklyn accent and Ashkenazi prayers. As the youngest in the family, I'd usually get stuck asking the Four Questions. Mom would force the table to sing "Dayenu" in a key that totally pissed off the dog. My sister, my uncle and I would make the same lousy jokes every year about rabbis overcounting the days the Jews spent in the desert and about the "frog bowls" used to pour the wine into during the recital of the ten plagues. And when the meal started, it was matzah with schmaltz, chopped liver with schmaltz, and perhaps a hard-boiled egg with a little schmaltz on the side. In more recent years my brother-in-law Hillel would become the butt of a corny joke as the meat in the Hillel sandwich. And ever year, the various children would take that brief eighth of a second out from their meal to find the afikomen, which my unimaginative grandfather would predictably hide in the same place each year, under the chess set on the counter directly behind his seat. Easiest dollar you could earn.

Of course times have changed. My grandparents have long since been gone and, living 8 hours from home we don't always make it back for Passover. This year, however, we are looking forward to a new challenge. We're hosting.

Hilary has been cooking for the past eight weeks, sending me on countless trips to the grocery for potato and beef products. Natalie has been studying the four questions and Jessica has practiced Dayenu, looking forward to their on-stage debuts. The plastic seder plates they made in preschool have been dug out from the art bins under their beds, the ones that contain semesters of crayon and marker masterpieces from their formative years. There's a new cup on the table, placed next to the Cup of Elijah, to remember Hilary's mom who passed this year. And my mom and dad arrived yesterday in preparation for the big event.

Now anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis is probably wise to the fact that my parents come in and part of the house gets renovated. No exception this time. Dad and I tore down the front porch this morning. Hopefully by the time the first seder starts tomorrow we'll be able to access the front door. My sister, her husband and two kids arrive tomorrow night, using a Passover visit as an excuse for their daughter to tour Carnegie Mellon in search of a design school. Tomorrow there will be at least a dozen for dinner. Maybe more. Maybe Uncle Izzy will be there.

But some things don't change. The back of my parents' car contained the contents of their freezer. The flowers arrived from my mom's best friend today. Again, a Rose Parade float. And I've already sought out the best location for the Afikomen hiding place, on the buffet behind my seat at the table. As my daughters recite from the Haggadah and sing the passover songs tomorrow night, I'm looking forward to the time when, one day, they will have the opportunity to make fun of MY shirt. Traditions live on.

And mom brought Schmaltz.

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