Zeyda’s House at 5403 Grafton Avenue
Every first-night Seder I can remember in my childhood took place I this house, “Zeyda and Aunt Frieda’s house,” I called it. It was my favorite holiday that did not involve receiving gifts. I loved it most because it was the one time of the year that I would be with all my Cincinnati cousins on my mother’s side of the family.
Frieda wasn’t really my aunt, she was my step-grandmother, the woman who married my zeyda after my bubbah died, in November 1952. Zeyda didn’t wait very long to remarry. He needed a wife, someone to keep a kosher house for him, and he married the widow, Frieda (nee Lieberman) Citron. The match was made, I am told, by Minnie Gertzman, sister-in-law of my bubbah. She wanted to find a good, kosher, childless woman – childless, so that she would be devoted to Zeyda’s family (this story was told to me by Ida, one of Minnie’s daughters). The marriage was probably in 1954 or 1955. My mother didn’t stop me from calling her “Aunt Frieda,” the name I learned from Frieda’s niece, Karen Sue, because the pain of my bubbah’s death was still so fresh in my mother’s heart. She didn’t correct me and have me call her “Bubbah.”
Aunt Frieda and Zeyda were the perfect grandparents to make a Seder to cherish, year after year. Frieda was a glorious cook, always working alone to prepare everything, the same every year. She kept a lovely home. Zeyda was festive, singing the text from the Maxwell House Haggadah’s Hebrew side. I think I remember that my mother told me that he sang the words in Yiddish. Could this really be true, that he looked at the Hebrew and sang in Yiddish? I remember the sound, the cadence, I never understood a word. Some years I read along on the English side of the Haggadah.
We drank concord grape kosher wine, never grape juice, poured into pretty shot glasses Frieda had brought to her marriage. They had gold leaf around the top edge.
In the left-hand front foreground you can see the glasses, on the tray with the wine decanter. And the smiling lady in front is “Aunt Frieda.” She is sitting at the table the grown-ups used, in the dining room. We kids sat at a table set up in the living room.
The first part of the Seder, before the supper, was the part full of ritual. Unlike some other families, we did not drip the wine with our pinkies as we recited each of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians. We actually spilled a bit of wine from our glasses, into a bowl. And the “herb” we dipped into salt water (the tears) was onion, unlike other families’ traditions of dipping lettuce or parsley.
Charosis was my favorite of the symbolic foods. It was the Passover food I learned to make before any other. And it remains the favorite in my family, to the extent that nowadays we provide enough for each person to have seconds, thirds, and fourths. My father always performed his trick, his only trick, blowing a hard-boiled egg out of its shell, leaving the shell mostly intact. I still don’t know how he did that; we all expected it, and watched, amazed.
Dinner was served in courses, with Aunt Frieda in the kitchen, dishing out the servings, and the other women delivering them to the tables. Frieda made homemade Gefillte fish that she cooked and served with boiled, heavily peppered potatoes. There was also potato kugel, the least favorite item, I think, because we don’t try to duplicate it these days. Her knaidlach soup, ahh, it was the best. By the time the main meat course was served, most of us kids weren’t hungry for the chicken. Sometimes I think there might have been another meat, maybe roasted tongue? Or am I just imagining that? In any event, that’s the kind of thing we kids would have ignored.
That’s when the fun continued, because the grown-ups were still eating and we kids retired to elsewhere in the house. There was a bedroom that wasn’t used, with comfortable chairs and a little cedar chest with fragrant pressed hankies. We played while the adults eventually settled in for the second half of the Seder. We were basically excused, and we would wander in and out, returning for Had-gad-yah.
When I was a teenager sometimes I went to the house on Grafton after school – it was on my way, if I took a certain route. I’d try to help. But Frieda really didn’t want my help. It flustered her. I’d ask what I could do, could I set the table? I wanted to know how she made the delicious gefillte fish and the knaidlach, especially, and I don’t think she ever could have explained it. “A bisel of this, a bisel of that,” that was about all I could get from her.
Those Seders were a strong glue that pulled the family together and, still, at Pesach we have Seders in Cincinnati. This year is the first in many years that I have been unable to go, so I wrote this instead. And I’m going to try to be a virtual attendee, connecting by FaceTime and making my own Pesach food here, myself.