Seder for 60: East Bay grandma brings far-flung family together at yearly event

Passover was still more than three weeks away, but in Doreen Alper’s kitchen, it had been crunch time since January.

“This year, I did 93 matzah balls,” she said nonchalantly during a March 28 visit from a reporter, gesturing toward the neatly stacked Tupperware in the freezer. “And over here, this is 24 quarts of chicken soup.”

On the side of the fridge, amidst a sea of her grandchildren’s artwork and school photos, was a list of tasks she still needed to accomplish before the first night of Passover on April 18: cleaning, changing of plates, some last-minute shopping. Oh, and she still needed to buy ingredients for her homemade horseradish.

For Alper, a Walnut Creek resident, the cooking and preparation is all part of a labor of love — and at this point, she could probably do it in her sleep. You don’t host a 50-person seder for your entire extended family for two decades without learning a few tricks.

“I just get very focused, start way ahead of time … and each year I wind up making a little more, because I never know how many people are going to come,” she said.

At 72, Alper is fit and sprightly as she moves around the bright kitchen.

“I just send out a teaser kind of invitation, you know, ‘77 days to Pesach — who’s coming?’ And whoever comes, comes.”

Alper has good reason to bet it will be a big group.

What began in a Cleveland suburb in 1992 as a way of bringing a scattered family together has aged into a well-loved tradition. Relatives fly in each year from New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Seattle, Baltimore, Las Vegas and Detroit. Three generations are always present at the table; the young ones this year will range from 6-week-old twins to recently bar mitzvahed 13-year-olds.

“It’s about family,” said Alper, a member of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. “That’s the whole point — bringing everyone together.”

Raised in a tight-knit, observant Jewish family in Beachwood, Ohio, Alper has clear memories of her first seders. Her father worked as a pharmacist, so the family would have to wait until the drugstore closed before they could start — and then it was time to be serious.

“We were raised to know that [the seder] was important: You couldn’t talk during it, you couldn’t breathe,” she said with a laugh. “Pesach was a very, very important part of our entire existence.”

As Alper grew up and had kids of her own, her mother continued the tradition, holding a seder for whatever relatives were in the Cleveland area. But it was usually no more than a dozen people, as Alper’s siblings and cousins had fanned out and were living in various cities around the United States.

In 1992, Alper had an epiphany.

“Several of my aunts had passed away — my mother was really the only one of that generation left — and my kids had grown up and moved away,” she said. “It felt like everybody was dissipating, and I had to do something.”

Doreen’s mother, Goldie Alper

The seder she held that spring has become part of the family’s folklore, as treasured as the antique spoon Alper uses to make her matzah ball soup. (It was her bubbe’s, she says proudly, and is likely 100 years old.)

“We held it in my big living room in those days, and 50 or 60 people would come,” she recalled. “I would cook, because I kept kosher, and as we kept doing it, more and more people would come. I met my daughter-in-law that way.

“There was always new family … and there were people who I know, otherwise, would have gotten lost in the shuffle. And each year, it was just something wonderful to look forward to.”

This year will be seder No. 20.

Alper said her passion for keeping far-flung family together comes in part from a family history that can’t be traced back very far.

“Some families, like my son-in-law’s in Baltimore, can name relatives six generations back,” she said. “We’re all victims of the Holocaust. We don’t go back generations and generations.”

What relics they do have are that much more precious as a result: Alper still uses her grandfather’s matzah cover and her mother’s horseradish dish.

A lifelong nurse, Alper moved to California in 2000 with her partner, Bob, and her mother. The hospital she worked at in Cleveland had shut down, and three of Alper’s four children—Jonathan, Daniel and Abigail — were already living in the Bay Area. (Alper’s older daughter, Joy, flies in from Baltimore each year for the seder.)

Doreen’s granddaughter, Rachel Katzenberg, helps make gefilte fish.

Alper worked as the director of a dialysis clinic in San Pablo for a few years, then retired, but the retirement “didn’t last three weeks,” she said. She then worked at Manor Care Health Services in Walnut Creek for a few years before retiring again, recently.

“I don’t know how long it will last this time,” she said with a small laugh.

This is clearly a woman who likes to stay busy. From the first of January each year, she goes into “Pesach mode,” and can’t focus on much else until the seder. (“But I was like this even when I was working full time,” she insisted.)

One thing she did think might put a crimp in the yearly seder was her move to California.

“I didn’t really know what to expect that first year,” she said. “But I sent out invitations, like always, ‘It’s this many days until Pesach,’ and just waited.” She paused for dramatic effect. “And everybody comes. Nobody comes for vacation. They come for the seder and they turn around and they go back. It’s just unbelievable. But this is what has kept our family together.”

Nowadays, part of the yearly tradition involves reserving a block of rooms at the nearby Holiday Inn Express. Some relatives stay with her; some stay with her children. The actual seder, having grown to be too big for her home, now takes place in a room they rent out at a nearby clubhouse.

Alper’s brother, Bill, a college professor in New York, leads the seder. Their Conservative haggadah is handmade and full of pictures of family; a cousin in New York presented it as a surprise in 2004. The last page was left blank on purpose; it now contains the signature of the person who used it each year.

Family members who don’t fly home immediately go to a second-night seder at the Oakland home of Alper’s son and daughter-in-law, Jonathan Bornstein and Amy Wittenberg. There are always leftovers.

“We didn’t know this when it all started, but we’re all so appreciative now that my mom got this going,” said Bornstein. “We all have these really good relationships even though we don’t live in the same cities. It keeps everybody close … and it’s certainly better than Facebook.”

Bornstein is also grateful that his daughter Talia, 11, and son Ari, 10, have gotten to grow up with an always-expanding group of cousins.

“We have pictures of them at every seder,” he said. “From Talia falling asleep at the table when she was a year old … and then there were the years where they were all playing with Barney, and now all of a sudden they have iPods.”

Has anything else changed since she first began the tradition? Not much, Alper said.

“The fact that we go to the clubhouse changed some things, I suppose,” she said. “Last year, for the first time, I was overruled on using the nice china, because it’s so hard to shlep over there, so we used plastic. I feel like: You cook and cook for months, and you want to eat on plastic?”

She shook her head. Her family won that round. She also no longer makes her own gefilte fish — it got too difficult to find good fish, she said.

But increasingly, Alper said, it’s about and for the kids. With four children and nine grandchildren of her own, she takes pleasure each year in watching the little ones reconnect with cousins they might not otherwise know.

“I know the kids look forward to it,” she said, “because it’s the only time of year some of the little ones get to play with each other. These are kids who otherwise night not even have met … and that’s a connection they’ll hopefully have forever.”

Before moving the seders to a clubhouse, Doreen Alper hosted up to 60 people in her home.

In the living room, Alper removed a photo album from a drawer and turned to a page with a group shot of 20 or so kids at last year’s seder. Sure enough, there are grins from ear to ear.

“It’s fun, it’s noisy, it’s loud,” she said, smiling, leaving the album open to a page full of her grandchildren. “It’s definitely not the seder I grew up with, where you couldn’t say a word. It’s something else altogether, but it’s truly something wonderful. These kids know their cousins, and they know yontif.”

And just like that, Alper was up again and back into the kitchen to assess the day’s to-do list. It was three weeks until the seder. There was still plenty of work to be done.

cover photo: cathleen maclearie

Doreen Alper holds a tray of matzah balls she made for her family’s seder.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.