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Soviet American Passover

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Passover with my family is a little bit like going to a three act play. In fact any family gathering is like a Woody Allen movie. Which is something I am beginning to love and recognize because it is never boring.

Every year we have a cast of characters and guest appearances. This year was my Aunt and Uncle. My mom had just had surgery on her foot, which means she took the day off from work to cook all day, hobbling with the foot in the giant shoe while my dad fielded interviews from his office. He had a dry spell after Microsoft took over Nokia and fired all engineers but it looks like things are finally becoming on the up and up. After every interview he would run down the stairs as he usually does, making way too much sound for the 150lb 5’5″ frame and begin telling us about the joke he told during his interview and try helping mom to her dissatisfaction. The quibble for a bit and then he goes back up to the office.

As it turns out my mom is out of horse raddish. Since horse raddish is a slang term in Russian, for our Jewish family it’s a reason for the pun. “Tell those “hrenovye” relatives to come over with the “hren” (horse raddish). My dad says laughing at himself.

It’s about 6:30 when my aunt and uncle arrive walking in through the garage just as I play the gypsie song, and sing out “How I love you so.”

They give my mom the hren and my aunt is ready for food, she’s been teaching all day and she brought her appetite. But everyone is talking and my parents can’t find the haggadah and then they can’t find the matches and with every moment my aunt is more and more irritated until finally the matches are lit, the prayer over the wine is said and we begin to eat. My mom tries to ask the Passover questions but she is interrupted with jokes and hackles. “Why is this night so much more special than any other night?” She asks. “Because tonight you cooked?” Someone asks and everyone laughs and my mom gives up on the rest of the questions. She does try to go over the symbolism of the apples, chicken, eggs, herbs and horse raddish on the plate but everyone confuses which on is which and for what. What we really do as Soviet Russian Jews is about our first seders.

Ours was brought on by my sister and I. When we arrived we were ushered into JCC camps where we painted menorahs and made plates. Like a friend of a friend told me  how his grand daughter brought his son to religion, so in our family we asked if we could do a Seder dinner and with a Russian Haggadah from JCC, my mom decided to do the Seder. She after work fed us, then set up the table with the plate and we went through the seder. She was telling the story as my dad through some chocolate shekels at me and I didn’t even realize how I at the entire bag as I listened to her realization on that first seder that the dinner is to be served after the reading of the Haggadah.

My uncle remembered his frist Seder in Rome while they were awaiting to go to the states. He said he was so interested in it and when they finally went it was in a giant hall full or Russian emigres with children running around and the whole thing run by Chabad. It was hot inside so some parent decided to go and get his child some ice cream. Upon discovery of the not-kosher for passover ice cream the rabbi nearly dismissed all participants as they made this whole thing unclean. And here I thought that 200 uncircumcised penises would make it unclean.

My aunt remembered none of this as she plunged her fork into the brisket and kugel but she did realize that this is her first time to a first night of Passover since then. It was a little surprising since we’ve been living in the states 23 years. In fact last night, April 3rd was the day of our exodus my dad reminded us and my uncle was our Moses, the one who brought us out of there by first coming to United States in 1980 with my aunt after her best friend left because she refused to raise her son in a dictatorship. To leave, his father had to renounce all connections to his son, in fact, as a factory manager he had to renounce his son in front of the entire factory floor as a traitor to the country.

We spent that exodus night at the airport, we were told to be there in the evening and I spent all night running around, playing with the automatic doors and looking at all of the amazing toys wrapped in beautiful packaging that I’ve never seen before. Somehow, as a ten year old, I managed to sneak through the metal detector a four inch blade that I carried with me at all times.

We got onto the plane and I still remember the beautiful Delta stewardess, with her red hair pale skin and blue uniform. The plane was our moses, spread the sea and we were in New York. I remember my uncle along with all his friends greeting us at the airport and taking us to our apartment in Claremont, where we were mesmerized by wall to wall carpets, dish washer and scared by the garbage disposal.

We raised a toast to our grey haired Moses and 23 years out of slavery and our talk moved to killings in Russia and how my dad thought that it was a very KGB-like assassination of Kennedy, who created peace and there is nothing worse for Russia than a counterpart who proposes peace and thus crumbles the Russian mentality of evil America.  At this point the conversation became heated between my mom and I as it usually does and before it got personal, my uncle said “Let’s move to something else, that this conversation isn’t important.”

“What do you mean not important? This is United States, this is Passover, it is for free people to discuss politics because we have a vote, we have impact through this discussion, unlike Russia where discussions mean nothing because you can do nothing.”

We quieted down as my mom brought out chocolates, lemon cake, porcelain cups and tea and the talk transferred to the usual: “Sam, when are you inviting me to your wedding?”

“I can’t” I respond “You’re already taken.”

“When are you getting a job”

“I already have a job”

In a Russian Jewish home a job is what provides security and that is certainly not what I do. Of the four of us, my dad and my aunt do what they love. They never sacrificed for others to do what they love so I prod into how my aunt, a piano teacher whom parents, seek out before their kids can walk, a teacher with so many students who played at carneghie hall that her walls are running out of space from the number of congratulatory certificates. Her path wasn’t simple but it was one marked by guidance. Her father moved to Leningrad to make sure she went to the best schools, her teachers were sometimes great and sometimes awful. At one point nine teachers refused to take her until a tenth helped her overcome her poor habits. She failed out of exams to get into a conservatory and battled back to get in again and again. She wasn’t the best player but she proved to be the best teacher early on.

“It’s great to look and do what you love, but your time to find it is running short.” she said.

We then battled some more about my business, at which point my father had to go and grab a smoke and my aunt pulled my uncle and said, “It’s time to go.” It was 10:30 by that point. We said our good byes, I began to help with the table, my dad began to play the piano.

I used to be embarrassed. By my mom’s passionate arguments, my uncle’s long and windy stories, my dad’s jokes and puns, but at some point you realize that there is no reason to be ashamed or embarrassed. It is funny, it is all unique and it is all you have and many people have much less.



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