When I give the woman at the cash register a deposit for my Passover order, she wishes me a zissen Pesach.
This year I will host the seder for the first time. A longtime family friend, whose seders I’ve joined since her daughter and I became high school pals, is not well enough this year to gather us together.
For the past eight years, as everyone took a turn reading from the Haggadah at my friend’s mother’s table, beautifully laid with china and crystal, I thought about my own mother, who was a resident in a unit for dementia patients. She passed away in November, and this year, when I raise my wine glass, it will be to her memory.
My mother loved Passover, the ritual meal, the sweetness of the charoset, the singing of “Chad Gadya.” It pained me all those long years to think of her in a wheelchair, without speech, sequestered in a common room full of patients who also could not communicate. On Passover we celebrate the act of narration, the recounting of the story of our journey from slavery to freedom. “Haggadah” means “telling.” But on Passover, as on all other nights, my mother during those years was silent. On Passover we invite the stranger to our table; we celebrate with family and friends. On Passover my mother was the stranger, alone in her desert of Alzheimer’s.
I don’t remember any seders at my mother’s house. She was a good cook but wasn’t confident in her ability to host. I think we spent Passover at my aunt’s or my father’s friends in Jackson Heights, Queens. I came home from that very first seder at my friend’s mother’s house raving about how gemutlich the gathering was and how my friend’s father, a refugee from Nazi Germany as was my own dad, sang “Chad Gadya” in German. The next year my parents were invited to the seder and both fathers sang the ditty about the “one kid” in German, with a minor disagreement over one word — after all, it was more than 30 years since German had been their first language in daily life.
I think about the desserts at my friend’s mother’s seders. There was a veritable Viennese table of cakes: marble sponge, jelly roll, honey nut, chocolate layer, apricot macaroon. There was even a homemade torte layered with matzah soaked in strong, cold coffee. At the local diner, the Passover flyer lists over 20 types of cakes and cookies. Is this where the expression “a zissen Pesach” comes from?
A brief Internet search led me to an article in the Forward. According to Ruth Wisse, a Harvard professor of Jewish and Yiddish literature, the adjective “zis,” or sweet, was usually reserved for Rosh HaShanah. She added, “To me the most familiar Yiddish Passover greeting is a koshern [kosher] Pesach, while a freylakhn [happy] Pesach is also something I’ve heard most of my life. But who knows? Maybe the greetings for one holiday passed into another.”
My mother was the queen of desserts. She was known in her circle for traveling the back roads of Bergen and Rockland counties to find the tastiest rugelach, the moistest sponge cakes. If you came to her house for coffee and cake you would find at least three to choose from, not to mention a plate artfully arranged with lemon squares, brownies, and raspberry bars cunningly cut into bite-sized morsels. For her 80th birthday — the last one she celebrated at home — we took her to a restaurant near her house for a celebratory dinner. I had called in advance to ask if she could bring a birthday cake for dessert, and they agreed. When I came to pick her up, she showed me four different cakes from four different bakeries, to which she was driven by her caregiver. “Mom,” I said. “We can’t bring four cakes to the restaurant. We’re only seven people. Choose one.” My heart breaks just thinking about what I demanded from a woman with dementia.
On Passover we remember the bitter with the sweet. The maror, bitter herbs, remind us not only of the bitterness of slavery but also the presence of violence in the struggle for freedom: the terror of the 10th plague, the killing by Moses of an Egyptian overseer. Life makes harsh demands; none of us is completely innocent.
This has been a year of illness and loss. But along with the bitter comes the sweet. When I look at friends and family gathered at my seder table, set with artificial “china” (you know, the plastic kind) and catered foods — Passover my way — I will feast on the sweetness of their faces and the richness of my memories.