Remembering the spirit of Pesach past By Ann Harris

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How vivid it still is in the video of the mind — Pesach in the English spring with the apple trees in blossom swaying over the remains of a city ravaged by Hitler’s blitz.

We lived in a modest, middle-class Jewish neighbourhood a couple of miles from the worst devastation. We were the lucky ones compared with the dreadful loss of life and property which had been inflicted upon the poorer members of our community. They lived in miserable areas nearer to the city centre where Luftwaffe bombers had nightly sought out munitions and engineering works without thought for the homes, shops, schools and shuls nearby.

Even so we had plenty to complain about — the public utilities were the first to be knocked out — electricity, gas and water mains fractured, only nasty, wet coal for heating and cooking and plenty of water running in the streets but little in the taps — oh, the spring was very cold! And although terrible stories were beginning to filter through, we did not yet know that we were safe compared with what had started to occur on mainland Europe.

But in our house, preparations for Pesach remained on track as they had always done. The first visitor after Purim was the chimney sweep. If the winter soot wasn’t cleared away, there would be no hot water for the cleaning or kitchen range for the tzimmes. Then spring cleaning really got going. Every cupboard, drawer and shelf turned out, every inch of paint washed with water in which laundry soda was dissolved, every cover, blanket and rug out on the clothes line beaten to within an inch of its life and every tablecloth and tea towel washed to be freed of chametz starch in which it basked for the rest of the year.

The week before Pesach, the kitchen became the battleground. Surfaces spread with powdered bleach and scrubbed with hard brushes, gas and coal ovens dismantled and reassembled, the latter carefully blackleaded. And the linoleum on the kitchen floor — there was even a legend that Grandpa’s beloved cat Rachmones (yes, that was his name!) was forced to wear socks for the duration in case Heaven forbid, he should bring a crumb in on his paws.

The week before Pesach, the kitchen became the battleground. Surfaces spread with powdered bleach and scrubbed with hard brushes, gas and coal ovens dismantled and reassembled, the latter carefully blackleaded. And the linoleum on the kitchen floor — there was even a legend that Grandpa’s beloved cat Rachmones (yes, that was his name!) was forced to wear socks for the duration in case Heaven forbid, he should bring a crumb in on his paws.

The shopping was only done about three days before Erev Pesach. New sacks of sugar, tea, salt, coconut, almonds and potato flour at the little Jewish corner grocery shop, cinnamon and ginger if we were lucky and unpleasant cooking oil. The basic veggies came from the greengrocery next door, sacks of potatoes, onions and carrots straight from the farm. No variety of fruit in war time; apples, apples… and apples. My father’s medical connections with the outlying farms provided the vital eggs and also tomatoes. My great uncle Abraham, the respected shochet who lived next door brought home the chickens and quantities of liver to chop, and fresh brisket for the tzimmes. The whole fish came on a cart from the nearby fishing town. And what about the matzah? In our town, it was a privilege to get your matzah from the last baking before Yomtov. You had to be in the top drawer of the community to be so favoured. Ours always arrived when the table was already set, too hot to handle.

eglected. Bedikat chametz was a rigorous ritual. It was my responsibility to hide the pieces of bread. We all, even Rachmones the cat, toured the whole of the two houses with candle and feather till not a crumb would have dared to show its face — and the next morning, the little funeral pyre of chametz was lit by the back gate.

Nowadays my granddaughters prepare divrei torah and complicated questions for the seder, just as their brothers do. I was subjected to a more musical discipline. Every part of our sedarim was set to music, often scored by my paternal grandfather, the chazan of one of the several cathedral shuls in our town, so from a very early age I had to be prepared to sing at a moment’s notice.

Thirty-six hours before the seder would begin, the great cook-in would begin. Coconut pyramids and almond macaroons, potato flour sponge cakes and eingemachts, fish filleted and chopped by hand, dozens of gefilte fish balls in a catering size fish kettle, fish fried in big square roasting tins, chickens cleaned and koshered and deposited in a cauldron holding six of them, chopped liver, lots of eggs, potato grated by hand for the kugels, enough for an extended family and many waifs and strays for two days Yomtov.

The last jobs were to mix the charoset as a reminder of the labour of the Hebrew slaves and to grate the horseradish sticks by hand to remember the bitterness suffered by our ancestors. The table was set, often for up to forty people and the seder plate was assembled by studying the relevant sources to be sure every item was in its right place. Vases were filled with the golden trumpets of daffodils.

After shul, we assembled, me always at the top next to my father, in his white kittel, reclining in a big chair covered with a white sheet and a pillow, and my mother and grandmother at the bottom to be near the kitchen. I thought this arrangement showed whose was really responsible for making Pesach. What a motley crew we were. My Irish grandfather whose own father had been the fiercely Litvak Rabbi of Limerick and my very English grandmother, a true Victorian lady already second generation born in England of solid German stock; my parents, pillars of the lay leadership; Renee, our nineteen-year-old German friend, whose parents had had the foresight to send her to us before the worst happened; my mother’s brother in his air force uniform home on leave; my father’s medical colleagues who, but for his persuasion probably wouldn’t have bothered with a seder at all; and of course those on whom the tragedies of war had fallen and who although they needed the physical comfort, more than anything needed to feel that they belonged

The singing went on far into the night. In our house, nobody dared to even think of leaving before the last verse of Chad Gadya.

And what did all this teach a very privileged little English schoolgirl? That Jews are like links in two great chains. One stretches back in time to the days of the Exodus from Egypt and the other encircles the world linking all the lands of our dispersion. Is it not the duty of all of us to try to keep the chains intact? May the spirit of Pesach Present remain with us all!

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