Sheldon Goldberg’s early Passovers were filled with mystery.
Now 84, the Silver Spring resident remembers seders at his grandparents’ house in Detroit, where the afikoman always proved elusive.
“No matter what I did or my cousins did, we could never find the afikoman,” he said. “Year after year after year, as long as we were there, we would see my grandfather break it and used to watch him like a hawk. We could never find it.”
Like Goldberg’s afikoman mystery, Passover memories for those whose holiday celebrations stretch back decades can seem dreamlike and magical. Filled with ritual and songs, food and family, for these Jews, some of their fondest childhood memories are of the Passover seder.
At Bill Fox’s childhood seders, the matzah ball debate was conducted with relish. The kneidlach were either called “feathers” — the light, fluffy kind — or “bombs” — the chewy, heavy kind. Fox’s mother, Anne, made both to accommodate everyone’s preference.
“We had great discussions every holiday about whether the bombs were chewy and heavy enough and whether the feathers were light and fluffy enough,” said Fox, 80, who lives in Pikesville, near Baltimore.
“Passover was the best holiday for me as a child, and it is today,” said Fox, an auctioneer, lawyer and former securities firm executive. “We were surrounded not just by our immediate family, but by our uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.”
Fox’s father always led the seder and loved to sing, said Fox. “There was a favorite cantor who was world renowned at the time, Moishe Oysher. My dad had an LP, and at Passover time, he played the various Passover songs like ‘Chad Gadya,’” Fox recalled. “The LP was passed down to me, and all my kids grew up with that as well.”
Fred Strober, 74, of Elkins Park, a Philadelphia suburb, remembers how large the seders were when he was growing up. His mother and her sister were married to his father and his brother. “Thirty to 40 people would gather at Aunt Betty’s house for Pesach. The two families, the Strobers and the Rivlins, were very close,” Strober said.
Strober, a soon-to-be retiring lawyer, recalled that he was the youngest boy, so he asked the Four Questions. His mother made him take an afternoon nap because he would be up so late.
“That was the highlight of my year,” said Strober, who grew up attending an Orthodox Hebrew school five days a week in Far Rockaway, N.Y. “I would practice and practice as if it were my bar mitzvah to make sure that I did it well in front of my family. I was very nervous, but they were very adoring, and I looked forward to the adoration and being the center of things during their seder.”
The proper consistency of matzah balls was also a lighthearted point of contention between the Rivlins and the Strobers. The Strobers’ hard matzah balls were young Fred Strober’s favorite. “My family members were of all political persuasions that by the end of the seder I thought we’d be throwing the balls at each other,” he quipped. “But I say that somewhat in jest.”
The food his mother prepared “was absolutely unbelievable. Everybody looked forward to the meals. Her fried matzah for breakfast sticks in my mind.”
Goldman, a Vietnam War veteran, is retired from the Air Force and from the CIA. One memorable Passover occurred in 1969, when he was stationed at a base in Georgia.
“We had a group of Israeli pilots, and the base did everything possible to have a Passover seder. But what happened, apparently, is they could not find a kosher ladle to dish out the soup. The Israelis got impatient, and pretty soon they were banging on the tables and were singing and yelling. Finally, everything got settled and the ladle came.”
Fred Shapiro, 90, a retired management consultant who is active in the Jewish community of Leisure World, started learning Hebrew when he was a 3-year-old boy in Brooklyn. The first time he asked the Four Questions was at age 4.
His father was a neighborhood grocer, and when Passover rolled around, he changed over the store to accommodate kosher-for-Passover foods.
“I delivered the foods, the matz\ah, with a wagon, walking around a three- or four-block neighborhood in East New York, Brooklyn,” Shapiro recalled.
Felicia Graber, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, wasn’t aware she was Jewish until she was 7 years old. Her parents pretended to be Catholic to escape both the Nazis and communists, before fleeing to Western Europe after the war.
Now 83 and living in Baltimore, she vividly remembers one seder in Germany after the war. “We had this beautiful apartment where all our friends, who were all Holocaust survivors, were seated at an extended table, and my mother would be going back and forth to the table set up by beautiful dishes — the best linen, china and crystal,” she recalled. “My father sat at the head of the table and had a Haggadah in front of him. He knew the whole book by heart. Other survivors recited from the Haggadah.
“My father sang the traditional tunes and interspersed it all with stories from the old days — from the days before 1939.
“It was a joyous experience, feeling part of a group, some of it a little bit new to me, but it felt good,” Graber said. “It’s almost like I came back to my roots, getting back to my Jewishness.” ■
Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.
Correction, April 12, 2023, 8:30 a.m. The text now reflects the correct city where Sheldon Goldberg’s grandparents lived.