I always think of my parents at this time of year, both because it’s between their birthdays and because it’s Passover.
Nettie Frank would have been 99 on March 26. She died in 2011. Herman Frank would be 103 on April 16. He died in 2014.
There’s a photo of one of our family Seders. I’m 6 and I have the impiest smile on my chubby face. My Uncle Eddie is at the head of the table, my dad to his immediate left, so it must have been at my aunt and uncle’s house.
My red-haired mom and her red-haired sister Stella are opposite me. I suspect they sat just for the photo op because my memory of all holiday meals is that the women spent more time in the kitchen than in the dining room.
Also present: Belle and Herb Jacobs, who died in a plane crash in 1982; their daughter Sonia, who spent 17 years on death row (her conviction was overturned); her brother Alan; and of course, my sisters Meryl and Wendy, my cousins Susan and Marci; and, out of the frame, unfortunately, my Grandma Yetta.
Old as I am, Seders transport me back to those long-ago gatherings, when I, as the youngest male, was called upon to sing the Four Questions (Why is this night different than all other nights of the year?, etc.) – in Hebrew, no less. (My sisters tried not to snicker.)
Old as I am, I was still the youngest person at our Seder last weekend, and so reprised my recitation of the Four Questions.
There were four of us: my wife and our friends Susan and Gowen. We’d all been twice vaccinated.
It felt momentous. It was the first dinner we’ve hosted at our house since Summer 2019. We were away for the second half of 2019 and the first half of 2020 and then, of course, COVID.
It also felt fitting since the ceremony includes the recitation of the Ten Plagues that were visited on the Egyptians to persuade them to release the Israelites from bondage and allow them to return to their own land.
The plagues, as enumerated in the Haggadah — the booklet that contains the prayers and songs to be recited and sung as the story of Passover is told and the ritual foods consumed — are a series of afflictions and infestations, culminating in the killing of the Egyptians’ firstborn children.
This is everyone’s favorite part of the Seder because it involves dipping a pinky in one’s wine glass and letting a drop fall on one’s plate with the naming of each plague.
This year, we added COVID to the list. Afterward, I thought of a few more: guns, greed, conspiracy theories, vote suppression, gerrymandering, the filibuster, webinars, etc.
But that was in the middle of the ceremony. To tell the story of our Passover, I have to go back a few days.
Any day now, we’re going to decide that we’ve consumed enough flesh for one lifetime and become vegetarians. In the meantime, we bought a weg of wamb, as Elmer Fudd would say it.
Then, realizing we have never cooked such a thing before, we chickened, or rather, brisketed out. I’d made all of two briskets in my long life, which made that the slightly safer choice.
But then we chose a dangerous recipe, the main ingredient of which was coffee, as in rub the brisket with ground coffee, let it sit overnight, then pour two cups of brewed coffee over it before putting it in the oven.
The rub also called for cardamom, both green and black. Green, we had. The black required a trip to the International Market.
I went there straight from an eye exam, my pupils as dilated as they’d be if I were walking around in pitch darkness, which may be why the only black cardamom I could find was in-the-pod.
That’ll work, I thought, because we have an electric coffee bean grinder. So: got home, threw the pods in the grinder and set the blades a-whirring.
Mistake: The blades did not like the pods. I managed to pulverize enough cardamom for the recipe and separate the outer pod bits from the inner seeds, but the grinder appears headed for the home appliance scrap heap.
The brisket, though, was killer – if you like coffee-flavored beef. No, really, it was fab. My mom would be proud. My dad would be in heaven.
A few hours before mealtime, I fretted about having to reheat the meat at 350 while cooking the asparagus at 425 and the potatoes at 475. At that moment I gained a deeper appreciation of what my mom, my grandma and my aunt were doing in the kitchen all that time, all those years ago.
I split the difference, temperature-wise. It all worked.
And so the four of us sat on the screen porch, drinking the wine and eating the matzoh balls, overjoyed to be in the company of friends again, performing the ancient ceremony as my parents and grandparents had before me.