People we have loved and lost from our Seders

There are always Seder place-settings in my heart for those who aren’t here any more, says Daniel Finkelstein

April 24, 2019 11:10

It’s hard to think that there is anyone on earth who wasn’t at my sister’s last Friday, but Passover is a time for thinking about those no longer on earth, too. There are always Seder place-settings in my heart for those who aren’t here any more.

My parents, of course. Until they couldn’t manage it any more, first night was always at my parents’. An impossibly large number of people — 25? 26? — would be packed in the dining room. I’m not sure how Mum coped with a job and the catering. One year, she forgot to serve the coleslaw she’d made and we were still eating it in June.

To fit everyone in, we’d have to assemble the ping pong table and, in its last few years, that was the only time it got used. It just about worked, but if someone leant on the edge, half the table would spring in the air taking the Seder plate and glasses of wine with it. It was a tradition at least as sturdy as Elijah’s glass, and more sturdy than the table.

My father loved the communal spirit but was quite serious about getting through the Haggadah and the two weren’t completely compatible. He would be ploughing away at one end singing about the only kid while up the other end everyone else was still on the karpas. He loved the chaos but the chaos drove him crazy.

It was partly Aunty Franja’s fault. She wasn’t a real Aunt but deserved the title since we adored her. She was a friend of my grandmother’s since Lwow days. They were reunited in exile after my grandfather’s deportation and Franja’s husband having been shot in Katyn. Her son Erwin had been my Dad’s best man.

Franja always arrived for Seder with a tube of chocolate eggs with a £10 note attached, one for my brother and one for me. My sister was less impressed because she got items of clothing — a nightie for instance. I shared the eggs, but I may just possibly have been less generous with the £10.

Franja talked very loudly, even, or perhaps especially, when my father was reading from the haggadah. It wasn’t easy to follow her point as her English was terrible. Dad said this was a mystery because her Polish was terrible, too.

She talked loudly because she was quite deaf. As was Uncle Erwin. Once, I explained to him that they sold grapes in the market at the end of the road where I worked. He understood that I had suddenly taken up selling grapes for a living and started peppering me with complicated questions about grape production and which varieties sold best.

I always knew my dad as very committed to his Judaism, emotionally and intellectually, so it’s odd to reflect that he really wasn’t until he met my mother. He acquired the interest from his father- in-law, Alfred Wiener. And our Seder was also acquired from my maternal grandfather.

Mrs Regensberger was Alfred Wiener’s friend. So it wasn’t Seder without that family. They are the golden thread.

It’s a big part of the Seder to think of it going back, back to when I was little, back beyond that. I was too young really to know her properly as a person. But there isn’t a year I don’t think of her with love.

I’m not a big one for the second day of festivals. My iPhone has a calendar. I only need one night. But if I was compiling a list of the great evenings of my life, I am pretty sure that second night Seder at the Wagermans would make the cut.

We lost Jo this year and, for others, she was the formidable community leader and a pioneer for women and education.

She was that for me too, of course. But foremost there is the warmth and the laughter and the food and the songs of second night.

You may be wondering what the point of this is. And you’ll be wondering too why I talk about table tennis and not religion.

But my point is really just a simple one. If you can’t find God in all of this, you won’t find God at all.


Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times


April 24, 2019 11:10

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