“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“What do you think I am doing here — I’m leading the seder,” my Zaida answered.
“Oh, right. Of course.”
“Well, just don’t stand there. Go sit down at the table and be ready when I call on you to read from the Haggadah.”
It appeared that my Zaida had everything under control, but I was far from reassured. There was a slight problem, and I told my Zaida so.
“But Zaida, you’re not supposed to be here. You’re … well, dead.”
My father’s father had, indeed, been deceased for quite some time, but he kept insisting on coming back to celebrate Passover with us … in my dreams. My Zaida died two days before my 21st birthday, and he was my first grandparent to pass away. I missed him terribly and thought about him a lot, as I still do now, more than 20 years later. I especially miss him at Passover time, so I suppose you don’t have to be Dr. Sigmund Freud to be able to interpret the meaning of my recurrent, vivid dream of him sitting at the head of the seder table, kippah on his head and Kiddush cup in his hand.
My Zaida was completely in his element presiding over those seders (the real ones, but probably just as much so the illusionary ones). He was not the one having to slave over all the preparations: the shopping, cleaning, cooking and baking.
Having been born in Russia in 1909, rather than in post-women’s lib America, my Zaida had no compunction about freely spending much of Erev Pesach on the golf course instead of slaving away in the kitchen. Chopping the apples for charoset, boiling the gefilte fish, shaping the matzah balls, making the brisket and broiling the chicken — those were the responsibility of my Bubbe and the other female members of the family. My Zaida’s job was to be his jovial self and bask in the glow of his adoring children and grandchildren, who had returned to his table from the far-flung reaches of the diaspora, if only for two nights in the middle of the month of Nisan.
When I now think about how important these seders were to my Zaida, I look back and recognize that some of my teenage behaviors were far too self-righteous, lacking in graciousness and understanding.
Why, I ask myself today, did I need to feel so insulted when my Zaida told me I was pronouncing the Hebrew text of the Haggadah incorrectly? Why did I have to argue with him, trying to convince him that my modern Israeli articulation was correct and his old-fashioned Ashkenazi reading, with its “awws” and “oys,” was wrong? I did this, of course, because I was an adolescent, at a stage in which I naturally found it hard to see beyond myself and consider a larger context to our disagreement.
For the very same reason, I cringed at the mistakes my Zaida made in leading the seder. I knew the Haggadah inside out and could sing all its songs, so I was miffed that my Zaida did not dot all the seder’s i’s and cross all its t’s, so to speak. How embarrassing I found it to hear my grandfather, who had received very little formal education and taught himself English upon his arrival to Canada, refer to the parsley we were dipping in salt water as a spring “veg-a-table.”
At first, I was convinced that my Zaida was haunting me in my dreams, trying to make me feel guilty for my self-righteousness and lack of sensitivity. It was the only explanation I could come up with for his appearing at these illusory seders, rather than in other scenes from my early childhood when I was not yet bothered by my Zaida’s lack of book knowledge and intellectual sophistication. As happy as I was to see him again, I was sure that he had come back to teach me a lesson.
Indeed, now I do know that he was trying to teach me a lesson — just not the one I thought it was. My Zaida was thrilled to be able to celebrate Passover with me and his other grandchildren and was, as he faced death, surely deeply saddened by the prospect of never being able to do so again. It was his overwhelming love and pride for me, not my teenage insolence, that was on his mind as he slipped away. That is why he visits me periodically in my dreams, especially during the spring. The patience and understanding he exhibited at those seders serve as examples to me now — a mother with teenage sons who naturally like to point out to me what I am doing wrong.
Life lessons aside, I suppose it’s altogether possible that the real reason my Zaida likes to come back is for my Bubbe’s delicious brisket.
Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jewish educator and writer living in Palo Alto. Read her blog at www.truthpraiseandhelp.wordpress.com.