The Passover Seder reminds me of two amazing women in my family: my grandmother, Evelyn, and her sister, Sadie.
My grandmother, Nana Evelyn
Nana Evelyn was born in Latvia sometime around 1895 (“the year of the big snowstorm” according to family records). Her father, Paul, had a dry goods store, but he placed it in the name of a Gentile acquaintance since it was illegal for Jews to own such businesses. The wife of the Gentile “owner” often came to the store, strutting in “like the Queen of Romania” as Nana Evelyn put it. She would leave with an armful of parcels (all carefully wrapped by one of my great-grandparents) offering neither payment nor a simple thank you, knowing full well that the family could do nothing but wait on her and smile because of the ownership agreement.
Nana Evelyn, who was about four at the time, once saw her mother go into the back store room after one of these “shopping sprees” and weep at the humiliation and injustice. When she was in her eighties, Nana Evelyn told me that this remained one of the saddest scenes she’d ever witnessed.
My grandmother had countless stories of her childhood (some happy, some not), and although she enjoyed sharing her experiences, she often ended her tales with: “But I don’t look back.” Nana Evelyn was a firm believer in keeping her eyes forward. For her, the struggles and joys of the past were not meant to intrude on present day life; they simply provided topics for conversation when she felt like reminiscing. To think too much on previous hard times, she believed, was to indulge in self-pity.
Nana Evelyn was fiercely devoted to her family and friends. She always acknowledged kindnesses with a carefully written letter, but was never interested in receiving credit for the many kindnesses she performed. She’d wave a hand and say: “Oh, get on with you!” if anyone tried to offer thanks.
I don’t look back.
Nana Evelyn was also an extraordinary cook and expressed her love with her culinary skills. And when my grandmother was in her nineties, she would take the streetcar to the kosher butcher so that she could make chicken soup for an ill relative or friend. Nana Evelyn was as tough as nails. She was the one everyone leaned on for strength. My grandmother outlived her six siblings and died two months short of her one hundredth birthday, faculties intact, still of the attitude: “I don’t look back.”
We close the Seder with the words: “Next year in Jerusalem!” For Nana Evelyn, “Next year in Jerusalem!” was how she chose to live her life. It symbolized the importance of looking to the future and maintaining an endless reserve of hope that all of us will continue to thrive in peace. Nana Evelyn was correct when she said: “Eyes forward!” After all, the past cannot be re-written. My grandmother broke free of the bonds of her difficult childhood and focused on the limitless possibilities of life.
The Bitter Herbs
Sadie, one Nana Evelyn’s sisters, was a tiny woman filled with energy and genuine goodness. She married a wealthy widower with six children and went on to have two sons of her own. This marriage allowed Aunt Sadie to enter a world of great privilege, but she remained distinctly down to earth. Like her husband, Uncle Abe (one of the founders of Brandeis University), Aunt Sadie took a keen interest in many charities. However, she was not content with simply writing out a cheque; she wanted hands-on involvement. So when Aunt Sadie donated clothes to an orphanage, she dressed simply and brought in the bags of clothes herself. When she volunteered at a local hospital, she donned an apron and pitched right in.
Uncle Abe expressed concern because some of the neighborhoods Aunt Sadie visited were not particularly safe, and he insisted that she stop taking public transportation and
taxies and let the chauffeur drive her in one of their Rolls Royces. Aunt Sadie reluctantly agreed, but she made sure to have the chauffeur park down the street from her destination and keep the car out of sight.
Nana Evelyn went to visit Aunt Sadie on a cold winter day and noticed a dusky mark on her sister’s forehead. She exclaimed: “Gott in Himmel, Sadie! Where did you get that bruise?”
Aunt Sadie hurriedly looked in a mirror. “Oh,” she laughed, wiping the smudge away with a handkerchief. “That’s not a bruise. That’s coal dust!” Aunt Sadie explained that she had loaded up the trunk of her car with bags of coal, been driven to (or near) the homes of the needy and lugged in the coal herself. Nana Evelyn was shocked.
Aunt Sadie exemplified the maror, the power of remembering our past in order to create a better tomorrow.
“Sadie, what are you, meshuga? You’re as rich as Midas! If you want these people to have coal, pay someone to deliver it!
Remember where we came from and how we had nothing!”
“That’s just it,” was Aunt Sadie’s reply. “I don’t forget.”
Aunt Sadie exemplified the maror, the power of remembering our past. We eat this bitter herb to remind us not only of the sufferings of the Israelite slaves but that we all, in one way or another, come from our own Egypt. Remembering the unpleasantness of the past keeps our own personal growth on the right path; it reminds us of the horrors mankind is capable of committing so that we try to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring as we honor the memory of the dead. We can use prior difficulties to motivate us to assist those who are in need as we once were.
Aunt Sadie was a master at finding the balance between paying homage to the past while focusing on the future, using her difficult past without sinking into the mire of self-pity in order to create a better tomorrow.
This Passover I will recall two remarkable women in my family: my Nana Evelyn with her indomitable spirit and my Aunt Sadie, who sat in the backseat of a car, her forehead smudged with coal dust.