Exit Ramp: Honored guests at the seder table
In the mid-1970s, Fair Lawn, the New Jersey suburb of my childhood, welcomed an influx of Soviet Jews. Our rabbi devoted a fair amount of pulpit time to the wonder of it, pointing to evidence of a miracle in our days.
My response to this sudden presence of Soviet Jews was an emotional one. Perhaps because of my young age at the time, I was particularly excited about helping my mother fill shopping bags with clothing and other household items for the new arrivals to use in setting up their homes. The experience lit a fire in me, showed me the value in small acts of kindness, and invested me early on in the idea of community. And yet, I was taken by surprise when my parents announced that we, who rarely had holiday company, would be hosting an émigré couple for seder that Passover.
They were a welcome diversion from the predictable festivities. In my memory, she had long, bright red hair. He was tall and sported a thick mustache. They joined in as we went around the table, reading the Haggadah in turn, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. They savored the charoset and the turkey and the treacly Malaga we drank for the four cups. They stayed through the singing of “Dayenu.” Yet I paid little attention to the retelling of our redemption from slavery. I was too busy listening to every lovely beat of their accented English.
When they returned the following Passover, I began to think of them as ours — relatives, and not just in the metaphorical sense. One set of my maternal great-grandparents had come here from Russia in the early 1900s, so it seemed entirely possible. They even attended my bat mitzvah, and I cherished for decades the hair dryer they gifted me. When it stopped working recently, I had a hard time tossing it, as if the memory of them might dissipate, too.
I think of them in the lead-up to the holiday each year, curious whether they went on to make their own seder or joined another family wherever they lived next. Hopeful their time with my family had been as meaningful to them as it was to me, my mind has always ruled out the possibility that their Passover experience began and ended with us. All I recall of them, however, finishes there, preserved sacredly as if under glass. Sometimes, I even wonder if we imagined the whole thing. Maybe they were just angels in disguise, in cahoots with Elijah the Prophet, who had come to elevate our experience of the holiday and remind us that we, too, were among the generations that left Egypt thousands of years ago.
Either way, their presence at our seder table was a watershed moment in my life as a Jew. It inspires me still today to keep our Shabbos and festival table hopping with guests year-round. It solidified my love for Passover and every aspect of its preparation — yes, even the cleaning, though I doubt that sentiment will go viral. The holiday really is a blessing, and I am grateful each time I have the freedom, strength, health, and finances to transform our kitchen into a tinfoil-covered wonderland and bring Passover into our home.
This year, as always, I will throw myself with abandon into the shopping and cooking that define the holiday almost as much as the matzah and the bitter herbs do. My eyes will sparkle when I pull the dishes out of the cabinet in the garage and set our frog collection on surfaces throughout the living room. Yet, by the time I light candles and the flames begin to cast their shadows on the ceiling, I will have forgotten the hard work that brought us to that moment and remember only the magical results.
I will also think about those not with us this year, like the couple my family once hosted and those who have departed from this world. In my imagination, they will all squeeze into the spaces between the place settings, their spiritual presence hovering among us as we read the story of our Exodus from Egypt and dip our greens in salt water to remember the tears of our long-ago suffering. Because even though they won’t have a seat at the table, my memory of them will.