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Where Is Your Family From?
A Passover Story.

Where Is Your Family From?A Passover Story.

 

Photo: Necee Regis

 

 

By Necee Regis

 

I’m a sucker for ritual. So Passover is naturally one of my favorite holidays. I love going to a Seder, reading the 3,000-year-old prayers, and eating the same prescribed foods at the same predetermined times during the meal.

This would be perfectly normal, even expected, if I were Jewish. But I’m not; I’m Catholic. Well, ex-Catholic to be precise, though one can never really escape their heritage. I’m steeped in doctrine and pickled in a culture I wear like skin. My upbringing, with its layers of storytelling and drama, miracles and mysteries, allows me to appreciate this ancient ceremony of freedom and redemption. And I love the food. Pass me a matzo, some gefilte fish, and lots of beet-stained horseradish and I’m in heaven.

My ex-boyfriend Ray introduced me to Passover. As a young boy in Cincinnati in the 1950s, Ray sang the Passover Kiddush on TV. He’s that Jewish. When we lived together, he’d pull out his family’s precious Maxwell House Haggadahs, with their blue and white food-stained covers, and we’d host big communal feasts. The meal had its own distinct variations based on his family traditions from Minsk. And since Ray was vegetarian, as his ancestors were not, he added spicy Indian dahl matzo ball soup to the menu. The broth, made with pureed yellow split peas and mustard seeds, was a tangy, cumin-scented wonder.  I can’t remember what we substituted for lamb shank.

My favorite part of the ceremony was when we read together–aloud–the names of all the plagues. With each intonation we dipped our fingers into a glass of wine and placed a blood-red drop on the rim of our lily-white porcelain plates. Frogs. Boils. Locusts. Lice. Hail. The merging of sound and action, color and symbol, was as potent as any work of art.

Years later, my husband Louis introduced me to a first course soup of steaming hot water poured over a hard-boiled egg. In his family lore, this symbolized a time when money for chicken broth was scarce. Even though they now could well-afford it, they honored their ancestors by continuing this watery tradition. With some pepper and a lot of salt it was quite tasty.

When my marriage unraveled, I moved to Miami Beach and found myself alone in an unfamiliar landscape. With spring in the air, Passover loomed like an emotional blotch on my empty calendar. I yearned to feel connected to something larger than myself, and so asked my new friend Anne—whose husband was Jewish—what they were doing for the holidays. The next day, she called with an invitation to her mother-in-law’s home.

“I’m thrilled,” I said. “What can I bring?”

“Nothing. Marty says they’re short on ritual side, but they’ll have plenty of food. We’ll pick you up before sunset.”

We arrived to find a long table set for a dozen guests, with candles, embroidered linen, fine china, silver cutlery, and crystal stemware.  I went to the kitchen and asked if I could help.

“Put this in a bowl,” Marty’s mom said, handing me a plastic tub with chopped apples, nuts, and cinnamon.

“Haroses! This is my favorite part of the meal,” I said, scooping some into a polished silver tureen.

As we sat, Haggadahs were passed around the table. The cover was a familiar blue and white, with a Maxwell House logo. But these weren’t rumpled and spotted; they were brand new.

“These haven’t changed since the 1950s!” I said, turning the pages with something like religious zeal. It seemed a good omen. I felt at home. I looked at Marty’s mom, seated directly across from me, and smiled. That’s when she pushed her chair back from the table, stood, and lifted her wine glass.

“Welcome to our Passover Seder.” Without spilling a drop, she moved her arm in a benediction from one end of the table to the other. Her eyes flitted from guest to guest before locking onto mine. “Perhaps you can tell us why we’re all here,” she said.

Me? What? Why was she asking me?  Eleven sets of expectant eyes focused on me, heads tilted, waiting for a response.  My mind went blank and I started to sweat. I stammered something about the plagues, and how the Jews marked their houses so their first-born would be “passed over.”  I stumbled on about the parting of the Red Sea and continued blabbing about the escape from Egypt.

“Yes, our escape from bondage,” said Marty’s mom. “That’s why we’re here tonight, to celebrate our freedom.”

She sat and we opened our books. No one seemed to know how to begin. Marty’s dad was a Jewban, a Cuban-born Jew, who had left his mom years ago. Marty and his brothers and their wives had no sense of the ceremony. The other invited guests sat with their hands on their laps. I found myself gently guiding the group along, informing them which page we were on, and passing around the appropriate foods.

“When do we eat the haroses?” someone asked.

“Page seventeen,” I said, flipping through the book to find the prayer. Then we made haroses and matzo sandwiches, to symbolize the mortar and bricks used by the Jewish slaves in Egypt.

After asking the Four Questions things began to fall apart.  It was hard to keep everyone’s attention on the ritual. Hoping to keep some semblance of the ceremony intact, I pressed for the answers to be read. Eventually the evening dissolved into an eating-fest, as Marty had predicted. I didn’t mind; we had covered the basics.

Still, a fifth question slowly formed in my mind. I had noticed Marty’s mom looking at me for approval before every prayer or sip of wine. At first I thought she was being kind, but a nagging doubt grew stronger.  I leaned over to my friend and whispered between a clenched smile.

“Ann, do they think I’m Jewish?”

“You’re not?” She whispered back with a matching artificial grin.

“No.”

“What are you?”

“Catholic,” I said, still smiling, trying not to be heard, our blonde heads inches apart.

“Me too,” she said. “What are you doing for Easter?”

People glanced our way as we dissolved in fits of weepy giggles but no one paid us much attention; everyone was eating, and drinking, and having a good time.

When I caught my breath, a thought hit me like a skillet to the back of the head. My skin pricked cold. My heart thudded.

I was a poseur, an imposter. Marty’s mom wasn’t being kind; she was self-conscious and felt bad for knowing so little about her religion. And here was this “nice Jewish girl,” the guest of her son, who knew the Maxwell House Haggadah from the 1950s, who probably could conduct the entire Seder in Hebrew, and she was embarrassed.

I resolved to not let her down. I owed it to my hostess to be the best Jewish girl to ever set foot in her home. Though with every bite I took of bitter herbs, I grew more ill at ease.  The dinner scene in Annie Hall flashed in my mind. Just as Alvie Singer imagines that Annie’s midwestern family sees him as a Hassid, with a long beard, payos, and a large black-brimmed hat, I was certain that a glowing crucifix was branded on my forehead. But as the evening progressed, I relaxed. The wine flowed freely and dessert was served. Perhaps I wouldn’t be banished in shame.

Then the questions began.

“Where is your family from?” one of the guests asked Marty’s mom.

“Texas,” she said. But I knew this wasn’t what they were asking. They meant where did her tribe originate? Where were her roots? Russia? Poland? Germany? They asked again.

Panic scratched my back.

“What if they ask me?” I whispered to Ann.

My grandmother, Nelly Kelly, was from county Cork; her husband came from southern Italy. Clearly, that wouldn’t do.  I decided to assume Ray’s identity, lock, stock, and bialy. My family came from Minsk. And one grandfather escaped Moscow before the Revolution. We use potatoes as our bitter herbs, and chopped walnuts with almonds in our haroses. Yes, that’s my story.

I wasn’t asked.

When we left I thanked Marty’s mom profusely, and escaped with both our dignities intact.

We drove in silence across the long causeway back to the beach. With the windows open, the humid breeze bathed my skin and I breathed in deeply, sprawled across the back seat.

“What were you girls laughing about at dinner?” Marty asked.

I sat up and looked at Ann.  We spoke over each other’s words, divulging the secret like giddy schoolgirls released from the fear of punishment.

Marty eyed me in the rear view mirror.

“What other religions do you impersonate?” he asked.

I’m not sure if he was kidding.

I still love Passover and attending a Seder. But I know to announce I’m an appreciative member of a foreign tribe. Unless asked, of course, about my grandfather in Minsk.

 

Editors note:  For other stories by Necee Regis see:  www.necee.com/