Friday, April 22, 2011

The Last Supper or Let My People Go

Tradition. This is something a boy growing up in a waspish suburb in Toronto knows little about. We did have our family traditions - excellent roast beef and yorkshire pudding dinners served on mother's best china every Sunday evening, which were always served and consumed just in time to watch the Walt Disney hour and then Ed Sullivan - Christmas: listening for the sound of Santa's reindeer passing overhead, opening the first present early Christmas morning before our parents got up and an afternoon game of bridge with grandmother - Easter: chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies, mixed in with tales of crucifixion and resurrection.

But I always felt that something was missing. Something to do with age old tradition - a mixture of unique song, dance, culinary delights and stories. This may sound strange from such an anti-social cultural outcast, as myself. But I have always wanted the opportunity to reject something, once tasted, rather than have it denied me, unseen. 

So maybe Pesach (Passover) on the kibbutz was some sort of ironic justice. Picture this - the kibbutz dining hall overflowing with kibbutz members and their guests. A stage set up in the middle. The long tables decoratively covered with tablecloths and an assortment of plates and silverware. Matzah piling up on the tables. Rumblings from the kitchen promising more.

The festivities begin. 

The reading of the watered down kibbutz version of the Hagaddah. Performances by kibbutz children, kibbutz members, more kibbutz children... One hour passes, two hours pass. It is 10 p.m. and we still haven't eaten anything, except for small pieces of matzah which we have managed to stuff into our mouths, trying not to crunch down too noisily. Now and then we reach a point in the Hagaddah where another glass of wine is raised. This may have quietened the noisy grumbling of our stomachs, had it not been that it was more grape juice than wine. 

My brother-in-law added his own touch of tradition by spiriting in a bottle of vodka each year to help us through the evening. We would try to get our pre-arranged seating by the window so that at some point, when his parents and others weren't watching, he could slip the bottle through the window to his sister, and she would then place it strategically on the floor. Their parents could never understand why our sour mood suddenly sweetened after that point. Although I do think that their mother - a tough sabra former officer in the Palmach - did know, as you couldn't get much past her without her knowing. But if so, she humoured us with her silence. She had rebelled against much more in her life than we could ever dream of doing.

One year the bottle broke on the floor under the table, and the strong smell of vodka swept through our corner. My brother-in-law slid open the window to its fullest and tried to divert attention with one of his funny stories, while we painfully held back our laughter in our already tipsy state.

I often envied those kibbutz members who went to celebrate the seder (Pesach dinner) with their families outside of the kibbutz, experiencing the more intimate Pesach celebration that I had only heard of. 

But those years of celebrating Pesach in the kibbutz dining room are behind us, not only because we left the kibbutz long ago, but because most kibbutzim have become privatized and there are no longer communal meals in the dining room, let alone holiday celebrations. We now gather together, immediate and extended family, perhaps somewhat ironically at my brother-in-law's house where he (an excellent cook) puts together an impressive Pesach celebration. And the grape juice is replaced with real wine and the food served before the singing of Had Gadya and the search for the afikoman. There are times, though, when I sense him searching, out of habit, for that bottle of vodka to help him through the reading of the Hagaddah.


  1. David Happy Easter/Pesach. I was just sitting here feeling sorry for myself because the great troyka of Ukrainian women who made up my adolescent reality are no longer with us - my grandmother, mother, and aunt.... no longer bustling creating an Easter extravaganza traditional Ukrainian dinner complete with beautifully painted eggs.... I am glad you have your vodka stories to keep you warm!! Never mind the wasp Scarborough Easter, complete with annual disappointment no doubt at how crappy the weather always us. TS Eliott was right - April is the cruelest month. Thank you for joining me in looking back....and one way or the other we had it good. Just remember, the vodka doesn't have to be kept for Easter/Pesach - it can be hauled out whenever necessary!

  2. I know the perspective of a stranger in a stranger land...with strange food that keeps mounting on your plate.

  3. You are the head ot your own family today. You are in charge of creating and supporting traditions for your grandkids. Enjoy and happy Passover. It was a pleasure to read your blog entry.

  4. You are the head ot your own family today. You are in charge of creating and supporting traditions for your grandkids. Enjoy and happy Passover. It was a pleasure to read your blog entry.