Above: A festive meal. Sidney seated on the far right.
Sidney Gross (1941-2016)
Passover remains the most memorable of the Jewish holidays for me. The ritual associated with Passover was so pervasive that it permeated my existence for a week each spring. The appearance in the grocery store of cans and boxes marked kosher l’pesach was my tip that Passover was coming. At first, the Passover display would take up just a single shelf near the front of the store. Within a week, enough merchandise had arrived to fill several bays and the front windows as well. The matzohs, of course, were the crowning achievement. During the year, matzohs were normally sold in twelve ounce boxes. At Passover they came in one pound boxes baled together in five pound cartons. These cartons would be stacked so high that to my eyes they went from floor to ceiling.
My mother never used to go grocery shopping with a list. She would scrutinize every aisle in the store and grab whatever she thought she needed—the type of impulse buying that consumer advocates warn against today. Before Passover, however, things were different. She had to estimate her needs for a whole week very carefully. The reason was that the grocer, whose stock and trade was chometzdik simply closed his store and went to the Catskills on vacation for that week. Our butcher remained open, but he had to make special preparations. He put his meat grinder in storage and brought out a second machine which was for Passover use only. We knew he was using a kosher-for-Passover machine, because it was painted a different color from his usual one. He also used a different set of knives and cleavers as well as a special chopping block.
For many years everything we ate on this holiday had to be kosher for Passover. As I got older, I became aware of a growing disenchantment in our family circle. Did vegetables, salad greens, and even soft drinks have to be kosher for Passover? Should we pay a premium for such items? It was rumored that my cousin had walked by the grocery store after hours one night and had seen the grocer pasting “k-p” labels on bottles of Pepsi Cola that were already sitting on his shelves. What was the world coming to when the grocer became a rabbi, the arbiter of the clean and the unclean?
Thinking about the theory of kosher-for-Passover foods at a twenty-five year remove, I might now be tempted to abandon my earlier cynicism. There is no doubt an element of hair-splitting logic if not sophistry in the act of judging certain foods fit to eat. But I wonder if the significance of it all lies, not in the ritual, but in the readiness to abandon the familiar and adopt something entirely fresh as a stepping stone to salvation.
More intimate preparations for the holiday took place within our own apartment. On the very top shelves of the kitchen cabinets, so high up that I couldn’t reach them, even on a step ladder, were two sets of Passover dishes and utensils. The day before the holiday, my mother would take these down and spend the entire afternoon washing them thoroughly. One set of dishes was made of glass, a minty green color. I especially liked these because I could look right through them and fantasize about the folds in the tablecloth.
Although my father did not go quite as far as the feather and spoon routine in searching for chometz, he nevertheless did ferret through the larder and put all non-pesachdicke items into a cardboard box. Even I was aware that his judgement as to what went and what stayed was arbitrary. Crackers went but spices in open containers stayed. Fresh fruit went, but canned fruit salad didn’t. After the box was filled, and we were all satisfied that our house was clean, I was delegated to bring the box of food to the superintendent’s apartment on the first floor. The Grahams were quite literally the only gentiles in a building of thirty families, and doubtless Passover was a big holiday for them too.
For a recipe for matzoh-brei turn to page 2.
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