Our Turkish Sephardic Seder growing up was always conducted in a unique mix of four languages: Hebrew, Ladino, Turkish and English. Our family sat at a very long series of tables, the elders at the head (the real dining room table with nice wooden chairs) and the youngest at the end (a card table and folding chairs of varying heights and widths). Men were treated preferentially. They rarely, if ever, left their seats to serve or even wash their hands. For years I obediently made my way around the table holding the water pitcher and towel for my seated male cousins.
As years passed, my sister Çaya and I noticed that we didn’t seem to be “moving up” toward the adults, either because guests including rabbis and visitors from Turkey got preferential seating or because we weren’t yet married. In our traditional family, marriage was a serious status boost. It got my younger cousin Suzy and her groom Jak a prime spot near the head of the table while she was still in her late teens. I was 35 years old before I could actually sit with the adults, embarrassingly late to the party.
Let’s talk about the meal. About a half hour before the end of Seder, foods that had been prepared ahead of time were drizzled with chicken or meat broth and placed in the oven to warm. Then, immediately after the last prayer, the women quickly made their way to the kitchen to plate the assorted cuajados and fritadas to serve to the elders, men and children.
While the women quickly laid out the food, the children played the customary “egg game” where each person chooses a hard-boiled egg and raps it sharply onto another person’s egg to see which one breaks first. The last uncracked egg wins. (Don’t forget to have salt and pepper on the table for the eggs!)
The meal started with chicken soup (Tant Mati’s specialty), followed by Tant Ida’s fish, an assortment of albondigas (patties with vegetables and beef) and the spinach fritada. Finally, the main course arrived: a very tender roast or brisket accompanied by a crisp salad and peas with dill. Passover cake called Gato de Pesah (notice that gato is the Ladino spelling for the French gateau) and burmuelos (matzah fritters sprinkled with sugar) ended the meal.
I recently prepared the entire Passover meal for the very first time. Though my parents and elders were sorely missed, I was comforted by the familiar aromas and flavors. I felt good about carrying on the traditions that were so important to them. Still, it was a bittersweet event. I was finally sitting at the head of the table with my husband, and I realized that all the elders I had so eagerly wanted to impress with my presence were no longer there.
It occurs to me that they probably had the same experience when they made it to the head of their own tables. This is the sort of thing generations don’t share with one another, perhaps because they don’t want to bring sadness to the festivities. But the Seder is meant to remind us not only of the Exodus from Egypt, but how each of us personally benefited from it. Perhaps, then, Passover is exactly the right time to remember all the family members who no longer share our Passover table, and to consider just how long that list truly is.