Passover memories

March 25, 1994|By Adine Panitch

WHY is it," my father asks, "that I can picture clearly something I did 75 years ago, and I can't tell you what I had for dinner last night?"

Dad muses aloud as he settles into his favorite recliner. Eighty-eight years have not shrunk his 6-foot frame or narrowed his broad shoulders, and he fills the big chair, now worn to the curves of his body.

I balance a tape recorder on the arm rest, tap the microphone, double check to be sure the volume is turned up.

My father is right about the persistence of childhood memories. Like the first tracks of a rabbit across a field of new snow, they etch the surface of a young mind. With the passage of time, many more tracks are laid down, and few will ever again stand out so sharply. A scene or voice, even a smell or taste from decades earlier, can re-emerge into consciousness with startling intensity.

A few months ago, I noticed some whole apples tucked into the corners of my father's freezer, and I asked why he had put them there.

"It was an experiment," he explained. "When I was little I took walks with my father in the wintertime, and sometimes we'd find an apple still hanging on the tree, frozen there. Pa would reach up and pick it for me. I can't tell you how good it tasted. I wanted to see if I could get that taste back. But it wasn't the same."

I tried to imagine my father as a little boy, skipping along beside his father across an orchard of another world, across the icy winters of a small village in the middle of Ukraine. It struck me that these memories, so vivid and rich for him, were in danger of slipping away forever. I resolved to catch and hold as much as I could. My notebooks and tape recoder were pressed into service for the rescue mission.

On this day I am curious about Passover, and I ask Dad to take me back to a small town near the Dnepr River, in the years before the Russian Revolution. How did the Jews prepare for such an important festival?

A smile that wrinkles the corners of his eyes tells me that the question has caught his interest. He lights a cigarette and pauses, gazes upward and begins to describe a scene as if it were playing out on the whiteness of the living room ceiling. The forgotten cigarette burns down, long before he finishes.

"There was an oven in the village that was set aside strictly for baking the Passover matzot." He begins slowly, glances at the tape recorder. Its presence stiffens the flow of his speech. "Every family brought its own water and specially grown flour and a clean linen sheet and straw basket for wrapping the matzot and carrying them home."

Each detail that he mentions seems to stimulate the next one, and he begins to speak more rapidly.

"The adults measured flour and water into enormous wooden bowls. Then the mad rush was on. They had to finish the whole process in less than 18 minutes so the dough wouldn't rise."

Eighteen, the mystical number that signifies life in Jewish tradition.

"We children had a special job. We ran along the tables that held the raw matzot, and our job was to poke holes in them. We had a tool, like a leather punch. One boy was really artistic. He could make fancy flowers and letters. I couldn't do that. I just made straight lines."

Eighty years after the fact, and the recollection still elicits envy.

Silence.

With time, I am learning to tolerate silences. At first, my recordings were filled with too much of my own distracting chatter, moments when I should have been listening deeply, rather than thinking about what I would say next. For his part, Dad needs the quiet minutes. A tumble of memory fragments, unclear, half-formed, jostle into his consciousness. He waits, in silence, until one fragment -- the one with sharpest lines, with the brightest colors -- breaks free and becomes whole.

"The Jews used to build a big fire at Pesach, like a bonfire. They hung an enormous kettle of boiling water over it . . . This big that kettle was." He stretches his arms wide. "Families would come carrying all their cooking pots and boil them in the water so that the pots would be OK to use for Passover cooking."

I wonder whether my father sees the same crusty black witch's cauldron that has appeared in my mind.

And the geese, has he ever told me about the geese, he asks, about how they were slaughtered months ahead of time so that their fat could be rendered for Passover cooking? But the question is rhetorical. I am not at his side. I haven't been born yet. Dad's inflection is no longer self-conscious with the effort of addressing an audience. In fact, the words nearly fade away. He's been distracted by those ill-fated geese, by their noisy, frantic struggle that ends under the sharp knife held expertly by his father, a ritual slaughterer. Delicate white feathers hang for seconds in the sudden dusty silence, drift downward, catch in the sticky red patches that have formed underfoot.

As chronicler, I sit beside my father and wait for his stories to unfold, aware of how much must be lost in the act of transferring. The taste of a frozen apple, the contours of an orchard in winter, the knowledge of what lay around the corner in a distant village -- all belong to him, and to him alone. At best, I can tend to the tape recoder. And sit back to listen.

Adine Panitch writes from Hunt Valley.

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