Every spring, my family gathered for Passover dinner at my grandparents’ apartment in Chicago. Like most people with few blood relatives, my grandparents “adopted” friends and co-workers during holidays. Dana and I sat elbow to elbow in their three room apartment with other Holocaust survivors, their children, and their grandchildren, as well as my mother’s family. The large oak table covered with a white lace tablecloth in the dining room was reserved for the elders. Their offspring, including our parents, occupied a folding table set up in front of the bay window in the living room with a white linen tablecloth. The children ate at a card table with a plastic tablecloth not far from the door. If anyone needed to excuse herself during the meal, she squeezed through a maze of chairs to get to the bathroom, a feat for some of the plump sexagenarians who attended these feasts. “The crossing of the Red Sea was easier,” my grandfather commented.
Bubbe cooked enough food for an army. Maybe she wanted to feed the ghosts of the relatives who hovered over us as we ate. An underlying sense of gratitude for our lives and survivors’ guilt over those lost in the ovens of Treblinka mixed with the aroma of matzo ball soup, gefilte fish topped with sliced cooked carrots, sweet carrot tzimmes, lamb, and brisket.
Although we did not conduct a traditional Seder, which would run hours long, no one removed the ceremonial Seder plate from the center of the table. Free Haggadahs (the book guiding the Seder) with light blue covers and the Maxwell House logo were stacked in a tower on Bubbe’s small sewing table in a corner once the meal commenced.
My grandfather held court from his position at the head of the table as my bubbe brought out dish after dish. Between courses, he told his favorite Yiddish jokes, like the one about the old man and the whore. Before he began, he leaned back in his seat, stretched, and cleared his throat for dramatic effect.
His friend Leo interrupted. “Motke, I am not so young a man now. Are you going to tell this joke before I am dead already?”
My grandfather smiled. Finally, after sipping from his water glass, he commenced. “It was the alter cocker’s birthday, and his friends sent him a gorgeous prostitute as a surprise gift. When he opened the door, the corva leaned in and whispered, ‘I’m here for super sex.’ The old man thought for a minute, then said, ‘Dank! I’ll have the soup!’”
“Super sex!” Grandpa rocked back and forth, laughing. “Soup or sex!”
The dining room table shook as Leo pounded it with his fist. “And he takes it the soup! Yes, this is good joke.”
“Gottneyu!” Bubbe yelled, emerging from the kitchen. “Why you tell such jokes at dinner?”
The guests fell silent and looked at their plates. Grandpa waved his hand in her direction, dismissing her. “Ach! What do we have but jokes?”