On the first day of Passover I open my email to find a gift from my cousin Dianne, an mp3 file. The recording is of a family Seder from 1957.
I click the link, and from within the computer I hear voices of beloved relatives, some that I haven’t heard in more than 40 years. I hear my paternal grandparents, Leon and Allegra; grandma’s brother and my great-uncle Saby; and my great-grandmother Joya (we called her Bisnona – literally, “twice a grandmother”). I hear my parents, Rose and Sam; my father’s sister Flora and her husband Leo; dad’s brother Aaron, and youngest sister Jeanette. The children’s voices belong to cousin David (son of Flora and Leo), my sister Joyce and… me at age 6. I wonder if I’m the one Joyce claims is whining that she doesn’t like olives. Joyce thinks it was cousin Ellen but I don’t think Ellen was there, so that narrows it down to me. But everyone in the family likes those purple-black, salty, meaty Kalamata olives that you find at good Greek stores. And I don’t hear olives being mentioned. I think the child on the tape didn’t want any vinegar. And I think the child was Joyce.
Present but not yet heard is my sister Donna, whose existence is unknown at this point, except possibly to my parents. This may be the only documentable moment of silence in her life. A difficult-to-hear bit of dialogue between my grandmother and my mother about going to the doctor seems to support that my mother was pregnant.
Before the Seder begins, there is brief, confused interchange about the text in the Haggadah, which makes it clear that they were using more than one version. This remains a family tradition. We NEVER all have the same version, even though it wouldn’t be a problem to buy enough of any one kind. It wouldn’t be our Seder if we didn’t stop to make sure we were all in the right place — arguing the relative merits of each version in the process. In fact, that lively debate is a hallmark of our family Seders, ranking right up there with complete chaos and a tendency to stray way off topic. One year, I bought a bunch of Haggadahs to bring to my sister’s house, so that we’d have enough of one kind. And then I purposely left them home. Bringing them just didn’t seem right. When we sing traditional songs, some sing in English, some in Hebrew, and occasionally someone will interject a bit of Ladino (basically the Spanish version of Yiddish). Nobody ever remembers when you’re supposed to just lift the wine-cup and when you drink it all down. So many things call for debate.
In the middle of the tape, my great grandmother sings a couple of songs in Ladino and then everybody starts singing in a mixture of Ladino and Hebrew. My favorite parts, though, are at the end, when everyone has had just enough wine to be goofy and the singing progresses from traditional Passover songs to random bits. Somebody starts singing Jingle Bells and then, somehow, they’re all singing La Marseillaise and then Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner (nobody knows all the words), and then bits of any patriotic U.S. song anyone can think of — including the “alternative” schoolkid versions. All of it is accompanied by Uncle Aaron on the guitar. Mainly, though, what I hear is family members enjoying themselves and each other. Four generations crowded into one smallish room laughing and singing and not needing anything else. Sufficient unto ourselves. How could I feel anything but joy, listening to that?
The tape runs out as they’re singing the Banana Boat song.