When I was a child, Seders seemed to last for eons. All my mother’s family — my parents, my two uncles and their wives and children — were always present, because anything bubbe hosted was a command performance. The good linens, china, and silver made the table gleam under the light of bubbe’s two candelabras.
We children were excited beyond hysteria until the ceremony began, and we were forced to come to the table and stop hanging upside down from the sofa, climbing the walls, and knocking down the furniture. I particularly enjoyed the presence of my cousins because I was an only child at the time, and lonely. My eldest cousin, three and a half years older than me, was a goddess of sophistication to me. Her brothers were rowdy playmates. Uncle Doc’s little girls were too young to play with, but they were mighty cute and dressed to the nines.
Once the youngest child present had recited the four questions, the prayer competition began. Both my uncles and my cousin Bernie read the Haggadah aloud, individually and in Hebrew as quickly as they could. The conversation went like this:
Uncle I: It’s time for the first (or second, third, or fourth) cup of wine.
Uncle II: I haven’t gotten there yet. You read too fast.
Uncle I: It’s a long service.
Uncle II: All right, all right. Come on everybody. Drink the fourth (or third, or second) cup. Where’s the bottle? Pass me the wine, somebody.
They raced through the prayers and then had to stop and wait impatiently for the others to catch up. It was rather like riding in a car that alternately sped up and stopped dead, causing you to lurch forward and back.
Meanwhile, my cousin Sam, and sometimes one or two of the other children, would drink too much wine and slip quietly to the floor. It taught me the meaning of drinking yourself under the table. After a brief nap, the culprit would re-appear, refreshed.
The two little girls were too small to read, so they raced around the table fighting with each other until Uncle Doc started yelling at them and threatening to spank them. My aunt, his wife, would burst into tears because he had shouted at the girls. She would threaten to leave. They would yell some more until he calmed down and apologized to the girls and gave them some candy or gum he just happened to have in his pocket. The girls, of course, would stuff themselves with sweets and would not eat the festive meal when it appeared.
The festive meal! Chicken soup with matzoh balls. We called bubbe’s matzoh balls cannon balls. They were heavy, but nourishing. Then we had chicken. With the chicken came potato kugel and chopped liver. Gefilte fish. Someone probably slipped a green vegetable in there somewhere, but I don’t remember it. Bubbe didn’t hold with all this greenery anyway. Her idea of a salad was to take one cucumber, add a pint of sour cream, and eat. We couldn’t have that; this was a fleisheke meal.
Bubbe would heap each of the children’s plates with massive portions of food and then bawl them out for not eating it all. We were starved and ate voraciously. If someone had thrown one of us into the river we would have plummeted to the bottom and sunk without a trace.
Dessert featured, but was not limited to, Manischevitz macaroons, served in the can. The featured wine was Mogen David.
After eating, there was a timeout while the children searched for the afikomen and the adults sat still and burped.
Since I was not used to staying up late, the remainder of the Seder was one big blur to me, except for opening the door for Eliyahu hanovi. Then came Chad Gadya, which meant the end of the service and blessed release.
Then we did it again the next night.