The seder I keep thinking about is the one my mother insisted on holding a couple of months after she received a diagnosis of late-stage, terminal cancer.
She was never religious but was very culturally Jewish, especially in her cooking. Her holiday meals were absolutely legendary, and I have vivid childhood memories of her staying up till all hours, filling the house with rich cooking smells for a week or two before Passover. She really owned the holiday. It was absolutely her time to dig into old recipes and cook up dishes that left the entire family talking about her skill in the kitchen. Back in the day, we had huge family seders with about 22 relatives, three generations, on both nights. And she did all the cooking herself, from scratch: amber chicken broth made from whole kosher chickens (she insisted that non-kosher chickens did not taste as good, even though we did not keep kosher), kneidlach (spiked with vodka to make them fluffy), gefilte fish, brisket and chicken, elaborate vegetable dishes, and meringues with macerated berries for dessert. My sisters and I had all gone through Jewish day school for elementary school, so we knew the songs and sang them lustily, laughing at the end as we rushed through the verses of “Who Knows One?” and “Had Gadya.”
But by the time my mother was diagnosed with cancer at age 65, the elaborate family seders were two decades behind us. My mother was long divorced, had moved across the country and rarely saw the extended family. My sisters and I lived in three different countries and we hadn’t all been in the same room for over a decade. But my mother, in a sort of Jane Austen moment, summoned us all home for the last family seder. It was typically dramatic of her, and very sad. I never married but both my sisters had married non-Jews and their children had almost no Jewish education, so they didn’t have the model seders at school or the memories of big family seders.
My mother could barely stand up, but she insisted on making her perfectly clear, richly amber chicken soup. Then she had me and my sister cook the rest of the meal, while she lay exhausted on a couch calling out detailed instructions in a wan voice. (“Use the elephant garlic for the brisket!”)
Finally, we sat down, but even with the grandchildren, my mother’s estranged brother and his wife, there were “only” 10 of us. The table was set with the same gold rimmed china and engraved silver-plated cutlery I remembered from earliest childhood (it was part of my mother’s wedding trousseau). The chicken soup with fluffy kneidlach was as perfect as ever, but there was no lusty singing in Hebrew and Aramaic—just halting reading of the Hagaddah in English and one truncated attempt at singing the Four Questions. The grandchildren were restless, the husbands were polite but clueless, and my mother was perspiring with the effort of sitting up. Afterward my brother-in-law, a photographer, used my SLR camera—the one I used to photograph violent demonstrations in the West Bank—to take a picture of me, my sisters, and my mother sitting with the squirming grandchildren, all of us crammed onto one couch and smiling sadly. It was the first and last family seder of my adult life. And even though my mother was not religious and hadn’t attended synagogue for years, she chose the role of matriarch at a seder as her parting ceremony.
She died just over a year later.
Lisa Goldman is a contributing editor at +972 Magazine and a policy analyst at New America’s National Security Studies Program. Born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, she lived for over a decade in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and now resides in Brooklyn.