In over 50 years of changes in my life — many of them dramatic — the one utter constant has been the Levy family Seder. Maybe it’s occasionally been at the Coopers, but the dramatis personae have largely been the same: the wise son, the wicked son, the dull son (always my sister-law Sarah, the joke never gets old), the son who is too young to ask, and Elijah, who has never yet said “thanks” for all those free cups of Palwin No 5. Maybe he’s trying to tell us something.
Yes, there was a short feminist patch egged on by my older cousin where I refused to pour the water to wash my father’s hands. The manishtana has changed hands a few times with the arrival of sons and nephews, and dayenu went through several years of endless, annoying choruses — but Pesach is pretty much always the same chez nous: a breakneck dash though the Haggadah before the eating of matzah and maror together, and the joyous declaration that “the meal is now served”, on page 26.
At least, it’s on page 26 of The Children’s Haggadah, an announcement preceded by a sepia-toned picture of a family round a table where the mother wears a red dress and it’s ten past ten on the clock (they are clearly more thorough with their process than my family). There is meant to be a “pull-across” paper tab where the son disappears under the table to find the afikoman, but on my haggadah — given to me in 1976, when I was eight — the tabs were ripped off, long ago, and you have to lower the sliding pieces of paper manually.
Do you have The Children’s Haggadah in your family? Woe betide if you do not, because if you came to our house on Pesach, you’d never keep up and would always be on a different page. The cover of this particular tome is blue and shiny with an illustration that looks like a question mark. The words “Pesach” and “maror” are picked out in red Hebrew letters, and there are pictures of flowers, that look oddly Japanese, now you come to think of it. Inside, the type is big, and bold, important words picked out in red and blue, with cute little stick drawings.
But the perennial highlights of The Children’s Haggadah are the flip-up/pull-across interactive tabs, which even today transport me back to the thrill of encountering them for the first time as a child. There’s Moses on page 12 rushing across the Nile in his basket from left to right, to a welcome of flamingos and cheerful-looking crocodiles; on page 16 the wheel of the ten plagues (we have to stick our fingers in the middle to spin it around, the clip holding it together long gone); the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea on page 22 — the one night of the year when such a thing is allowed.
According to the frontispiece (my edition is the sixth one, from 1972), the book was edited by Dr A M Silberman, illustrated by Erwin Singer, translated by Mr Isadore Wartski and Rev Arthur Saul Super MA. Has anything ever sounded more like the libretto of a Broadway musical?
Interestingly, I’ve had this haggadah in my hands once a year (occasionally twice) since the late 70s, and never once had I absorbed this information.
My 79-year-old father has a (very faded) version of exactly the same haggadah. Though it’s inscribed in his childish hand, there is sadly no date. Dad reckons it was given to him when he was about nine years old. My children, born in 2002 and 2004 respectively, were given editions when they were old enough to chew them and my cousin’s young kids are being given their very own this year.
Flicking though my Children’s Haggadah, there really is an April dinner-time Levy history on these pages, documented in splotches of red wine and splashes of chicken soup. Now we are here, on the day itself, I can still hear my dear, late mum clattering about in the kitchen making sure the consistency of the charoset is exactly just-so. Like the feelings behind the Seder itself, a mix of emotions that have a touch of bitterness, but are, in the end, ultimately sweet.