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At 110, a family seder keeps going strong
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At 110, a family seder keeps going strong

An immigrant couple’s many descendants gather for a Passover reunion

The Tepman family meets at the Gillenwater home in Warren in 2013 for their annual seder, now reaching its 110th year.
The Tepman family meets at the Gillenwater home in Warren in 2013 for their annual seder, now reaching its 110th year.

Mobility, assimilation, and the passage of time have frayed so many traditions. Not so the Tepman family seders. Though no one at the gatherings still bears the name, Jacob and Temma Tepman’s descendants — now Bergers, Presses, Danzigers, and many others — gather with as much eagerness as they did at the clan’s first American seder, back in 1905.

Jacob and Temma and their six daughters and one son gathered in Jersey City for the festive meal soon after they emigrated from Pinsk, on the Russian-Polish border. Over the years, the family grew, and many moved away — but never too far. And they and then their children took turns orchestrating and hosting the annual seder.

Warren resident Ila Gillenwater, Jacob and Temma’s great-granddaughter, is coordinating this year’s seder — the 110th. It’s taking place in Freehold, at the home of her cousin Carl Danziger and his wife, Patricia. He’s the guy Gillenwater remembers years back scaring everyone else half to death when he arrived for the holiday unexpectedly, back from a trip abroad, bearded and on his motorcycle, just as they were about to ritually open the door for the prophet Elijah.

The number of guests has ranged over the years, from about 50 to 70; this year they’re expecting around 65. That includes three fiances and four boyfriends or girlfriends. 

“There are friends we’d like to invite, but there just isn’t enough space,” Gillenwater said.

Livingston-based photographer Jan Press will be there with his wife, also Ila, and their son Raime, the fourth-generation photographer in their branch.

“We always had an open policy,” Jan said. “People brought their college roommates, or curious neighbors.” 

Raime admitted to being a little miffed when one of his cousins brought a new boyfriend to the 100th gathering. Space was tight at the Scotch Plains home of Ila’s mother, Reva Berger, in 2005. They had to rent a big tent to accommodate the crowd, so maybe casual acquaintances should have been excluded. 

“But now he’s her husband, so I suppose it wasn’t that casual,” Raime acknowledged.

The seders can be rowdy. “You don’t come expecting peace and quiet,” Gillenwater said. The aunts and uncles and cousins make themselves heard across and along the long seder tables. Jan described what the family has dubbed “the Tepman gene” — which, he said, has produced people who are almost all strong and assertive, but also friendly, open, and kind. 

“They’re all interesting individuals in their own right — attorneys, judges, physicians — and, yes, photographers, and a jeweler,” he said. 

Next door to Jan Press’s studio in Livingston, where Raime works with his dad, is his brother George’s jewelry store. Members of the Tepman clan seem to love one another’s company. Aside from a few who have moved, almost everyone lives in New Jersey. 

They all used to spend summer vacations together at the Pine Bush, NY, house Jan’s father designed, which they called Maldeb — “bedlam” spelled backward. The house was sold and no one has enough space to hold the whole crowd, but many of the male relatives still meet at venues around the country to play golf, and others gather in smaller clusters during the year.

The first-night seder remains the family’s focal point. Everyone helps, and coordinating has become easier since they started using the on-line group scheduling site SignupGenius. Some plan the menu and manage sending out invitations and tracking attendance; others do the cooking; and someone is even assigned to look after the family Haggadas. They all clean up afterward, and everyone helps pay for the meal. 

“We have a system,” Jan said. “Everyone brings their receipts, and one person handles a balance sheet.”

Only the hosts are spared assigned tasks, “because they have enough to do, just hosting,” Gillenwater said.

A couple of mainstay cooks handle the traditional favorites, like the secret-recipe brisket, or the pudding-style carrot ring, but volunteers take on other dishes. There is some experimentation, but mostly they stick to the familiar. Gillenwater said a new generation of women in their 30s is taking on what their mothers did.

“They’re really invested in the effort,” she said. Like everyone else in the family, they want to keep the tradition going strong. As part of that tradition, they’ll be using the family’s special Haggada, with the cover redone each year to feature everyone’s names, including newborns and added in-laws. And they will sing a Yiddish song brought over from Russia — a folk song that parallels the end-of-seder staple “Had Gadya.” 

Very aptly, the Yiddish song is about a pear tree with fruit that doesn’t want to fall off.

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