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From Seder to Seder, a Passover GPS
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From Seder to Seder, a Passover GPS

Handwritten recipes and homemade ritual objects form a map of memory.

“Today recipes are digital documents put into computer files. Not these recipes.”
Photos by Laura Shapiro Kramer
“Today recipes are digital documents put into computer files. Not these recipes.” Photos by Laura Shapiro Kramer

Purim has come with noisemakers and mayhem and gone with the last of the hamantashen, meaning Passover is soon. Who is coming for seder? What are my menus for the eight days?

My mind is abuzz with lists while reviewing inventories, developing a cleaning schedule; shopping lists, directories of shopping places; shopping days are enumerated, cooking timetables are classified and ordered. It’s a mouthwatering chaos born of eagerness and expectancy.

From a high shelf I retrieve my Passover recipe box. Lifting the lid I feel a rush of familiarity. My eyes regard the farrago of papers, index cards and clippings. I paw through the jambalaya of recipes: Persian, Surinam and Ashkenazi charosets; Roman, Greek and Yemini artichokes; Tunisian soup with lamb, cilantro flecked matzoh balls; Megina — Turkish matzah pies; Bulgarian boumuelos, Russian latkes, Venetian tortes, Spanish sponge cake.

Among the recipes snipped and culled from now anonymous magazines and newspapers are the frayed and stained sheets of stationery, notebook paper and cards in the distinct handwriting of my mother and grandmother.

Today, recipes are digital documents put into computer files; emailed to one another or downloaded from internet sites. Not these recipes: my mother’s “Passover Walnut Torte” is written in her handwriting — I would know it anywhere — on fawn-colored stationery. Her name is embossed in script across the top and she added a personal handwritten note: “Bon Appétit.” The page is severely creased with two blemishes — misshapen water stains like tears — and I treasure them as I would a kiss or caress between us. I can smell her torte baking in a spring pan in the oven of my childhood kitchen.

A dark orange 3×5 card is printed: “From the kitchen of…” and she has added her first and last name in her distinct handwriting that instantly evokes her, describing her like handwriting expertly does. Her attractive, sure hand is purposeful: she held cancer at bay for more than 40 years, made a new life after my father’s death, traveled, worked and continued to do good deeds. I am still following her recipes.

My paternal grandmother’s kugels linger in my taste buds, joined to memories of my index finger squishing in her macaroon batter. On the other hand, my maternal grandmother was not much of a cook, yet nestled in my Passover box on a sheet of yellow paper is “Nana’s Tzimmis” written in her characteristic script.

Her penmanship is clear, certain and strong like she was. Born in 1900, one of eight children, she marched for Women’s Suffrage in 1919. Widowed early, she still made certain my mother had a college education. In her late 50s she reinvented herself when she remarried and relocated to Toronto. She became a force in Hadassah and was able to pursue her inner passions: painting and playing piano into her eighties. Cooking was not one of her talents, yet her tzimmis is on the menu every year. Made with prunes and carrots, sweet potatoes and pineapple — it’s hard to mess up or improve on.

Unpacking other Passover boxes sequestered since last year, I meet characters that reside alongside the strong women in my recipe box. I have the first matzah “plate” my son made. It consists of a square lid from a shoebox taken to preschool and pasted with thin floral paper.

There is my daughter’s first Haggadah assembled from different colored construction papers illustrated with her childhood drawings: scenes of the Ten Plagues (will we discuss coronavirus plague this year?), the crossing of the Red Sea. Enfolded gingerly in tissue paper is the Elijah’s Cup we bought on our first family trip to Israel and the cup for Miriam my parents gave us before my father’s death. These are the enduring guests at my seder table, treasured, steadfast visitors and permanent callers.

The apogee is a piece of matzah from last year’s seder tucked into an afikomen pouch, also a gift from my parents. My father-in-law observed a custom at the end of each seder meal: he took a piece of his piece of the afikomen and folded it in a napkin, placed it in his breast pocket: that we should all be kept in one piece — intact — by his heart until the next seder meal.

At home afterwards, he placed the wrapped piece of matzah in the back of the top drawer of his bureau. The last time he performed this ritual is now many years ago. He died two days before Passover, and I perpetuate his custom. I keep him in my heart (always) and consecrate his memory annually when I open my Passover box and the piece of matzah I squired away at the end of the eight days last year is there. Unleavened bread that gives rise to so much emotion and lifts me out of my mundane pursuits.

These characters — literally the handwriting and the ritual companions — are my GPS as I navigate from year to year, from seder to seder, the notes taking me from year to year. They are the signs on the doorposts of my life and the visitors to my table. They are my chaperones at and through seder to seder. L’dor v’dor. I pass through the yearly yummy gates, the recipes standing like sentinels guarding my memory and instructing me; the ritual objects reminding me of life’s recipes and joy.

My children and their friends, who are millennials, many wandering in the desert of mixed marriages and agnosticism, will join us. They will take their places among my ritual companions, my trusty guests, enduring, dependable and unwavering, from whom they will take many cues and many clues while smacking their lips with every taste.

Laura Shapiro Kramer (www.laurashapirokramer.com), is a writer and the author of “Uncommon Voyage: Parenting Children with Special Needs” (Blackstone Audio). Her travel articles and personal essays are widely published.

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