I grew up in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, in a predominately Italian neighborhood in which a prosciutto ball was more common than a matzo ball. My mother maintained a proper Jewish home where we observed Shabbat and celebrated holidays as a family. Passover, however, required more preparation than a typical Shabbat or holiday dinner.
The kitchen was given a good scrubbing, the shelves were lined with paper, the Passover dishes and utensils came out of the cupboard, and a special wood rack was placed in the sink so kosher for Passover items would not touch anything treif. Beforehand, my father would go to the specialty bakery in Boro Park. I can still taste the seven layer loaf; the icing was the best part. An order was placed with the butcher. Sometimes, if the timing was right, we would go to the matzah factory. My mom, who was confined to a wheelchair because of polio, relied on household assistance, especially in the kitchen. Making the matzo balls, however, was my dad’s specialty, and seltzer was his secret ingredient, ensuring that they floated in the soup. The aroma in the house—the chicken in the rotisserie, the brisket in the oven, the soup boiling on the stove, and all the trimmings—was inviting and I couldn’t wait to sit down to dinner.
We dressed for the seder, and no matter what my mom was wearing, the addition of her gold-trimmed apron always signified Shabbat or a holiday dinner. My best friend, who attended parochial school, came to our apartment and we would read the four questions, and follow along in the Haggadah in English. We’d stare at Elijah’s cup to see if he drank, searched for the afikoman and shared the bounty when we found it. The next day, she would go to class and give a report on how the Jewish people celebrated Passover. It wasn’t fair that she got extra credit for my holiday.
More than the shopping or the cleaning, two far greater events signified the arrival of Passover for me. The first was the presence of Easter candy in the stores. Passover candy in the 1960s was boring and flavorless, especially compared to the chocolate delicacies associated with Easter. And yet, eating a marshmallow bunny during Passover just didn’t seem right. The other event was the reappearance of the Good Humor man after his winter of hibernation. To some, the sound of his ringing bells as he pushed or pedaled his cart through the neighborhood signified spring. To me, it signified torture. I would have to wait eight whole days until I could eat a chocolate éclair. Ironically, under other circumstances, I could go months without an éclair, but suddenly eight days felt like an eternity, and it was torture. It must have been those bells.
Today, I celebrate Passover on Long Island together with my wife, daughter, son and mother-in-law. Along with my Brooklyn accent, I still have my grandmother’s green Elijah’s cup, and the same baked goods from my past are imported from Brooklyn and available in our neighborhood supermarket. The meals are more elaborate, thanks to inventive recipes that include eggplant rollatini, chocolate mandel bread, and matzo rolls. And, although matzah pizza is a far cry from a slice from my local pizzeria, it will temporarily suffice.
Howard Lev is a member of Temple B’nai Torah, Wantagh, NY, where he serves on several committees.