As a half-and-halfer who leaned too much to the gentile side, I might have secretly liked one Jewish holiday -- Passover. To be honest, it’s the only one I knew. Barely. “We’re going to Seder dinner at Celie’s,” my dad would announce each year. Celie was my dad’s younger sister who treated him like the baby of the family. My dad, known as Duke, and stricken with polio as a child, walked his whole life with a brace & cane. It was Celie, till she died, who hand made for him the flesh-colored, stretchy compression socks that improved his circulation. Chappy, my aunt Celie’s husband -- okay, my uncle -- would conduct a pretty serious, religious event. He was sanctimonious, no-nonsense, and an easy foil for my fun-loving dad. I always came starved, but ate very little.
This was a rowdy, boisterous group -- a ton of aunts, uncles and cousins that all knew each other well and lived in the VALLEY. They seemed to include my brother in their group. Me, not so much. So, I clung to my dad for comfort, laughing at and enjoying everything he said, hanging on like it was his last day on earth. That’s how it was with us all my life. He was an older dad. Magical. My hero. And out there in the Valley I was often petrified. I secretly longed for that other soon-to-be-celebrated holiday, Easter -- with the gentiles.
For some reason, I identified much more with my mother’s side. If my father’s chaotic mishpucha was like Alvy Singer’s in “Annie Hall “(with dad as Uncle Joey Nickels) for my mother’s family, think Grammy Hall. Only stranger and more white trash. Yep, I was more comfortable in a room full of pathologically quiet people who just kind of stared blankly into space. Occasionally, someone like my uncle R.T. might whisper a word or even an incoherent monologue. Something inaudible.
Then without warning, parakeets were released from their cages, swooping over my head as I cowered out of the way. But at least my mother’s family was in Long Beach or Compton, places where I could still smell salt air. I always loved and craved the ocean.
Back to that oppressive Valley.
It was a horseshoe-shaped dinner table, with everyone able to face each other. Calling to me were stacks of matzo. We weren’t given permission to indulge. Chappy was a strict Seder moderator. Everyone was waiting patiently for the part of the ceremony called the breaking of the matzo. Only I was REALLY hungry. And cranky. And, I was sitting next to the biggest troublemaker around, my dad, who would sneak little pieces and encourage me to do the same. We chewed them up quickly, hoping not to get caught.
Soon, but not soon enough, would come the gefilte fish. I’d eat every last morsel. I can’t tell you if it was good -- I was so hungry, I didn’t stop to taste. But my dad loved it, and identifying with him was my legacy. The matzo ball soup followed. Always beyond great.
Meanwhile, my dad played to the kids, always going for laughs. A loud belch? Hysterical. Chappy rarely said a word, trying to govern with an assortment of glares and scowls. But when that failed to silence my father and he became too exasperated, he’d yell, “Cecelia!” Hoping that his wife could get Duke to shut up.
Bowls were set out on the table filled with a concoction that to me looked a lot like cat barf. The color alone made me fear it. Haroset. Everyone else seemed to be gobbling the stuff up. Not me. Naturally, it was my brother’s favorite. And that just made them love him more.
And when the Haggadah dictates you dunk bitter herbs in salt water and take a bite? Not me, ever. When platters of chicken, vegetables and brisket arrived and everyone filled their plates, mine remained empty. Picky, picky me.
Between the appetizers and the entrée, for what seemed like hours, Uncle Chappy tried to show by example how seriously he took this holiday. Unfortunately, he had my unruly father -- his own personal Passover plague -- to deal with. Rolling his eyes whenever my dad tossed out an F-word, he struggled to get his own children & grandchildren to behave, almost begging them not to laugh at every childish thing his brother-in-law did for their benefit.
I was so painfully shy in this group that I refused to read from the Haggadah. And my brother -- such a great guest, fitting in, socializing with the cousins, reading from the Haggadah. (Chappy, wherever you are, I want you to know that both my sons had Bar Mitzvahs.) But even Alan couldn’t refrain from laughing at our dad’s antics.
Letting Elijah the Prophet in and out was always a cue for entertainment from my father. Chappy must have wished my dad were invisible too. Duke was like a child with ADHD that couldn’t sit still. Chappy’s grandson Russell, Lori’s son, couldn’t get through the Four Questions without him making four wisecracks. One time, he looked across the table at my cousin Norma’s very young daughter and asked, “Getting laid yet?” Everyone gasped and in unison all the cousins said “Oh, Uncle Duke!” Uncle Chappy would shoot daggers at my father and resume reading the ancient story of the Jews fleeing Egypt and slavery.
By the end of Seder each year my uncle was exhausted and you couldn’t help but feel for him. Still, he was willing and excited for the ritual of finding the afikomen -- the piece of matzo hidden at the beginning of the meal. He took great pleasure when none of the kids (I never participated) found the matzo, which he sometimes hid in his own coat pocket. And maybe he just liked that everyone’s attention for that brief time was finally on him and not on that ill behaved brother-in-law.
Each year, we would leave their house with Aunt Celie restraining her husband. Chappy was still steaming. It would take him the next 12 months to calm down. Then we would be invited back to relive it. And again, year after year.
By the way, I learned later in life to love haroset, which I eat on matzo, as much as I want, whenever I want, all year long. Though I do miss my dad interrupting.
6 apples—peeled, cored and chopped
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
½ teaspoon or to taste ground cinnamon
I keep it simple and do not add these, but some recipes add one or more of the following
1 teaspoon white sugar
3 ½ teaspoons honey
1/3 cup sweet red wine
Place the apples and walnuts into a large bowl. Then sprinkle the cinnamon over the mixture unless you are now adding the next three ingredients. Mix together the cinnamon and sugar; sprinkle over the apples. Stir in the honey and sweet wine. Serve immediately, or refrigerate until serving.
Fredrica Duke shares how she discovered her love of food while growing up in Los Angeles on her blog Channeling the Food Critic in Me.
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