A Seder Celebrating Sacrifice and Safety by
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One of the most memorable Seders I ever attended took place 50 years ago this month. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed, and how different life has become this year. Remembering this Seder gave me appreciation for what we had, and also hope for a rebirth of a better life after COVID-19 has subsided.

I have no memory of what we spoke about but cannot forget the image of this wonderful woman, now frail and with hands gnarled and arthritic, and her family's fortitude and selflessness.

During the 1960s and early 1970s our extended family took turns hosting Seders. In 1970, when I was 16, it was my mother’s cousin Joe’s turn, and we drove from New Jersey to Spring Valley, New York to be there. Joe and his wife Betty, and their children, my second cousins Len and Jeanne, always put on a great production. Their home had classic hippie decor, even though Joe and Betty were on the older side for that sort of thing–pleasantly mismatched and disheveled.

I loved being at their Seders because they invited friends of the family and their children as well, so the house was packed with as many as 30 guests. In this chaotic environment, I can’t figure out how the food actually came out when it did in the order it needed to, but somehow everything would fall into place.

Joe, who had been educated at a New York Yeshiva as a child and had lived in Israel for a time, led the service with a lot more Hebrew than my immediate family could appreciate. (See more about what Joe has been up to recently in my story Joe Beats Google, Both Win.) Betty also had excellent Hebrew. Born in Holland, after World War II she emigrated to Israel, where she’d met Joe. Joe didn’t like to skip much of the service, so it would be a long evening.

As the oldest child in attendance, this particular year was a relief for me because I got a seat at the main table, mercifully away from the kids’ area, where my cousin Len would get restless and tease my younger brother Allan. Len eventually put all that excess energy to use and ended up with a career in emergency medicine.

As I took my seat at the main table, three women whom I didn’t recognize entered the room. Two were tall and blond, and they helped the third, older and white haired, walking with a cane, to a seat right next to me. Betty entered and stood behind the older woman. “This is Tante Celia,” she said, “and these are her daughters, my hiding sisters. They have arrived from Holland.”

I gasped, having heard the story a few years before. These brave non-Jewish women risked their lives to hide Betty and her mother, almost identically to Anne Frank, in their Amsterdam attic during the war years. And now they were at our Seder. Betty had always referred to Celia as her aunt (Tante) and the daughters as hiding sisters. Tante Celia didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Dutch, but somehow we managed to figure out that we both spoke French and were able to converse. I have no memory of what we spoke about but cannot forget the image of this wonderful woman, now frail and with hands gnarled and arthritic, and her family’s fortitude and selflessness.

The Seder itself was long and wonderful. When it was time to hunt for the Afikomen,* my littlest cousin Jeanne found it, to the consternation of her older brother. At dessert time, one of Joe’s friends offered me a glass of slivovitz.** I took a swallow and that was enough–liquid fire went down my throat.

This year we had our Seders without the communal contact of the past, but I can’t forget the Seder when I met Tante Celia. Her sacrifice and Betty’s experience, so much more harrowing than what we are going through now, inspire me to be strong, do what I can, and look forward to a time when we have both safety and our freedom. That’s really what Seders are about.

*A portion of matzah removed from the Seder plate and hidden somewhere in the home, usually by the service leader. After the main meal, the Seder can’t continue until it is found, and the child who finds it usually bargains its return for money or a gift.

**Very high-proof plum brandy common in eastern Europe. Often used for Passover because it is made without grain.

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I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: moving

Comments

  1. Thank you Marian for sharing your treasured memory of Seder with Tante Celia and the hiding sisters.

    We have two friends who where hidden children during the war, and another who was born in Bergen Belsen. the camp where children and pregnant women were taken. May their courage give us strength today.

    At out Seder this year we placed family photos on the empty chairs.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    This is the perfect Passover story, Marian…a story of being freed from a form of bondage; of freedom, courage and fortitude. Also gratitude. Incredible that those women risked everything for your aunt all those years ago and they stayed in touch and were able to be at your Passover table. And now you share them with us; thank you for this great story as we are imprisoned in our own homes by this modern-day plague.

  3. Suzy says:

    What an incredible seder from 50 years ago, Marian! Thanks for sharing it with us. As others have said, very moving to learn about Tante Celia and the hiding sisters, and how perfect to meet them at a seder, of all times!

    Like Dana, I noticed the orange on your seder plate. We do that too, because of the long-ago rabbi who said that women belong on the bimah as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Suzy. We have been doing the orange for a number of years now, for the reasons you indicate. I always am amused these days because our synagogue leadership is 70% women. What a relief that times have changed in that way.

  4. Amazing story, Mare…and somehow it seems fitting that it was exactly 50 years ago that you experienced that particularly memorable Seder. We all seem to be especially thoughtful this year, the bright side of Covid-19 if we can even dare to call it that. I love what you said about Seder being about inspiring you to be strong, do what you can, and look forward to a time when we have both safety and our freedom. Beautifully put!

    • Marian says:

      Glad you enjoyed the story, Barb. I knew I wanted to write about this particular Seder, but it wasn’t until I started the story that I realized that it was exactly 50 years ago. Somehow that’s really fitting given what we are going through. It struck me that despite how serious our situation is, we are relatively comfortable, and we need to keep that in perspective.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a wonderful memory, Marian. I love your description of the seder and the thrill of making it to the adult table. My memory of seders at my grandparents’ houses was of cousins behaving badly and not being able to understand what my grandfathers were saying in Hebrew (or possibly Yiddish?) from the Maxwell House Haggadah.. What an exciting experience it must have been to meet Tante Celia and the hiding sisters.

    • Marian says:

      Oh, my, the Maxwell House Haggadah … Cousin Joe didn’t like it because it was too “Reform,” but everyone had it. The memory of Tante Celia is so strong. Also, I am the oldest cousin in my generation on my mom’s side, and the second oldest on my dad’s side, so it was a relief to be promoted to the adult’s table, especially with the younger, rowdy boys.

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