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A funny thing happened when I had a baby. People in my neighborhood whom I had never spoken to started speaking to me. They had seen me walking around Brooklyn since I myself was a baby. They had spotted me on my bicycle, buying candy and Iâ€™m sure some had seen me in my various teenage phases of trying cigarettes and dyeing my hair. Since I live three blocks from my childhood home these same people have now watchedÂ me carry my daughter around the neighborhood from the day she was born. Now though, they speak to me.
This week is Passover week and I am shocked to find that in every store I enterÂ with my daughter strapped to me I am asked, â€śWhat do you need? What are you looking for?â€ť Sales people pull things off the shelves for me and when I make my final purchase, my cart filled to the brim with potatoes, horseradish, parsley and all of the other Passover delights, the cashier says, â€śWe will deliver it to you by four oâ€™clock, you live on Avenue M., right?â€ť They know me and have known me my whole life, though we have just now exchanged words.
The sense of community in my neighborhood during Passover is overwhelming. At night when the first Passover seder begins one can walk down any block and look into peopleâ€™s windows to see the same table settings, the same Passover plate and the same book we all read from. This year Passover is extra special for my family because my daughter and my twin nephews are new editions to the table and we are passing down the traditions of my family through them.
My significant other, Adrian, had to work which was unfortunate. Being from a Mexican Catholic family he appreciates both food and family. But he joined my mother and me in the morning as we prepared the matzah kugel, marinated the brisket and chopped onions. My daughter watched and squealed.
Our food delivery came at four oâ€™clock as promised and my mother said, â€śWeâ€™ve never gotten delivery from Avenue M.â€ť I just pointed to the baby as if to say â€śNow itâ€™s a different ball game, Ma.â€ť
Itâ€™s been a long time since weâ€™ve had babies at the seder table in Brooklyn. My mother usually does the first seder and my aunt does the second seder in Long Island. But this year I cooked the entire first seder with some help from my mother. I am a new mother and so I wanted to do the cooking. It is an enormous amount of work because a lot of people come to our seder and it made me appreciate my own mother and how hard she worked every holiday.
Because my daughter is from an interfaith, multi-lingual family we have a special hagaddah for her. Thatâ€™s the book we read from on Passover. Her book is in Spanish, English and Hebrew. It was special to share the Passover story with my daughter and Adrian so that they can understand what we celebrate and why.
Thatâ€™s another thing about my neighborhood. My interfaith family has become the latest gossip. Sometimes itâ€™s hard to break the barriers of age-old tradition and make room for new tradition. I understand that when I walk through Midwood with Adrian and my daughter, people stare. People whisper. People can be cruel. But the lesson of Passover is that we should never let ignorance lead us. The only way Moses parted the Red Sea was because he believed in what he was doing and ignored everything negative around him.
My daughter is a light, a path to a new world. There is a Jewish proverb that says, â€śA little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.â€ť It is this light that compels the people in my local grocery stores to speak to me for the first time in 30Â years. It is this light that wins over the many losses my family has endured over the years. My daughter and my nephews are new lights who shine at the Passover table and ask for the first time, â€śWhy is this night different from any other?â€ť
Spring means color. Splashing greens and yellows. Purple tulips cascading over front porches and red robins bustling in the trees. Spring also means Easter for Christians, with blue and violet painted eggs. It means Passover for the Jews. For South Americans and Mexicans it means Semana Santa (the days of Jesusâ€™s crucifixion). For me, it is a season shrouded in black. It is the green/grey eyes of my father, his brown hush puppies scuffling across the carpet. It is the ivory keys of his baby grand piano.
My father loved the spring. He loved it for three reasons. The first is that he could smoke outside again without freezing his fingers off. The second is that he could go fishing and play golf in the same day and still get home in time to practice playing his Chopin. But mostly my father loved Passover. Purim came and went in our neighborhood but Passover was an event to be reckoned with.
Every year my mother would slowly begin changing the dishes from our regular meat and dairy dishes to the â€śPassover dishesâ€ť (because the holiday of Passover has its own dietary laws). This meant that my brother and I would have to carefully carry 10Â full cardboard boxes up from the basement. They contained pots, pans, plates, glasses and my grandmotherâ€™s heavy black roasting pot. Ancient silverware passed down from our ancestors was in one box along with glasses, cups, a traditional seder plate and a tray for matzah. In another box there was a cup for Elijah (a biblical prophetÂ who makes his presence known in the middle of Passover dinner). One box contained breakfast tools; my Grandma Helenâ€™s eggbeater and my Grandma Rosieâ€™s potato peeler.
When these boxes came up from the basement my mother would begin the preparations for the first seder night and the days to follow. She would make her menu and call the cleaning lady to ask her to come the day before.
My father would sit regally at his piano. He would sneak pieces of matzah from the boxes my mother had put aside and dip them in cream cheese or tuna. Then he would bang out Beethoven on his Steinway or he would ask us to sing.
â€śBaby Faceâ€ť was a song I knew all the words to because my grandmother would sing it to me. My father could play that song by heart and make our house sound like a ragtime bar. He also loved musicals and ballads. There was one song called â€śCome Josephine in My Flying Machineâ€ť which was first published in 1910 but was popular in the late 1930s. I loved to sing that song sitting next to my father on his piano bench, while my mother changed the dishes and my brother roamed around outside.
My father would start, â€śOh, say, let us fly girlâ€ť and I would say, â€śWhere dear?â€ť and Pop would smile and say â€śTo the sky dear,â€ť and we would sing for days. Sometimes when Passover would finally arrive we would do the whole duet for the guests while my mother was roasting the brisket and adding cinnamon to the kugel.
And what I remember is the smell of our house during those spring days. Onions, garlic, rosemary and cumin wafted up the stairs and out the front door. There was the metallic hint of chopped liver, the eye-piercing strength of horseradish and the kosher wine fumes mixed with my fatherâ€™s Aqua Velva after-shave and Marlboro Red tobacco. There was the smell of my motherâ€™s perfume, grassy and effortless, and the musky velvet of my brotherâ€™s yarmulke.
Then Passover would emerge. My cousins, my aunt and uncle, my grandmother and family friends would gather around my motherâ€™s seder table to read the story of how the Jews escaped Egypt, how Moses parted the Red Sea so that our people could cross over to the other side.
In Brooklyn, we sing songs and read this story. My father, who was big in every way (he had been an actor and had a voice that bellowed through the walls) would shout this story in Hebrew. Then he would point to me and say, â€śAnd now Anna will say the four questions.â€ť It is a Jewish tradition that the youngest person at the seder table asks four questions. And there are so many traditions that accompany this holiday. Elijah the prophet has a cup placed for him in the middle of the Passover seder table. The front door is opened for him and it is said his spirit passes through each house and he drinks from the cup. Elijahâ€™s cup is called the â€śsilent cupâ€ť and as a child I would open the door for Elijah and after I closedÂ itÂ I would run back to the table to see if the wine had a ripple in it or if it was less full.
There is also the tradition of the afikomen. This is the middle piece of matzah andÂ each year in my family, in the middle of the service, my uncle hides it and the youngest child has to find it. When it is found, the child can ask for money in exchange for returning the middle matzah. Since I was a girl, my uncle has always hidden the matzah in his inner suit jacket pocket. When he takes his jacket off to eat I steal it.
Last year on Passover I was pregnant with my little Helen Rose. No one knew except for my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law. My father has been gone for over 20 years. His soul went to G-d on August 23,Â 1994. I was almost 13. My uncle is his older brother. I turned 34 last year and was the youngest at our seder table. When my uncle took his jacket off to begin eating his meal, I stole the afikomen.
I have a Mexican Catholic partner. I am not married. I am Jewish. These three facts do not define who I am. I am much more than that.
Last year as my uncle reached into his jacket pocket to take out the afikomen I held it up with a shaky hand at the other side of the table. My uncle went to Crown Heights Yeshiva, as did my father. We come from a long line of Jewish beliefs, customs, traditions and schools of thought. I desired one thing for the afikomen and it wasnâ€™t money.
â€śThis year,â€ť I began as my uncle sat quietly at the head of the table, â€śthis year I want something in return for the afikomen. But this year I donâ€™t want money. This year Uncle Jeff, I want your blessing. Iâ€™m pregnant and the baby is due in October and Iâ€™m so happy.â€ť
My Aunt Claire jumped out of her chair. My brother and his wife looked down at the table; they were expecting twins in August. My mother looked at the wall. My cousin Arnoldâ€™s mouth fell open. My uncle, who fought in Korea and jumped out of planes, who married my aunt when she was 18 and moved to Long Island and raised a traditional Jewish family, turned to me with his eyes that look so similar to my own fatherâ€™s and said, â€śMazal Tov kid. Congratulations.â€ť
My partner Adrian and I live in a small Brooklyn apartment with our little Helen Rose. We keep the traditions of my family. We go to Rockaway and fish every summer. Adrian smokes Marlboro Reds or Camels. On Passover, my motherâ€™s house still smells like roasted onions. On Rosh Hashanah we eat apples and honey and on Hanukkah we light the menorah. When spring arrives we buy Helen painted eggs and stuffed bunnies. For Christmas we make traditional Mexican holiday food. This year at Helenâ€™s first seder we will place a cup of wine in the middle of the table and when I open the door for the prophet, perhaps my father will walk inside as well. Maybe heâ€™ll steal a piece of matzah, sit at the piano bench and watch the new generation celebrate its new customs and its old ones. Maybe heâ€™ll whisper â€śCome Josephine in My Flying Machineâ€ť into Helenâ€™s ear. After all, spring was always his favorite time of year and Passover his favorite holiday.