A celebration of family, freedom

The Katz-Smelkinson seder has become `a venerable Baltimore institution'


Jacqueline Smelkinson, the hostess, ordered the tent a month ago. Karl Yatovitz, the gefilte fish specialist, came in from Boca Raton, Fla., this week. Lily Friedman, the granddaughter, was helping to set up the tables yesterday.

With Passover to begin after sundown tonight, preparations for what might be the city's most renowned seder were well under way.

As Jews around the world commemorate the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt and slavery, about 90 guests - family and friends, Jews and non-Jews, arriving from around the country - will gather at the North Baltimore home of Robert and Jacqueline Smelkinson this evening for a celebration that traces its roots back more than 70 years.

In that time, the Katz-Smelkinson seder has taken in as many as 100 guests in a sitting and earned a mention in Joan Nathan's book Jewish Cooking in America.

"It's become very much a venerable Baltimore institution," said retired Court of Special Appeals Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr., a friend of the Smelkinsons who figures this year's seder will be his 43rd or 44th. The grandson of a Methodist minister, Moylan says the event has become "as much a part of my life as Christmas or Thanksgiving."

Seventy-six-year-old Robert Smelkinson, who inherited what was already a medium-sized seder of about 40 guests from his mother some 45 years ago, called the day uplifting.

"Yom Kippur is a major holiday for ridding our sins and hoping God will forgive us. It's a somber holiday," said the retired president of the former Smelkinson Bros. Corp. "Passover - Pesach - is joyous, uplifting, a happy occasion."

But first, there are the preparations. Last week, Jacqueline Smelkinson did the shopping - matzos and brisket, and the ingredients for charoset and tzimmes. On Monday, workers set up the tent in the yard of the Smelkinsons' Georgian home.

Yesterday, Yatovitz, Marcia Moylan and Joey Friedman were preparing gefilte fish. Today, several grandchildren were to finish setting the tables for the celebration tonight.

"We'll work steadily until six o'clock on Wednesday," Jacqueline Smelkinson said.

Then the seder will begin.

The ritual, which dates back thousands of years, was designed to be performed in the home, so that parents may pass the history along to their children. Following a Haggadah, a prayer book that contains the order of the seder, participants will hear the story of Passover, eat symbolic foods, pray and sing in celebration of freedom from slavery.

Focus on freedom

"It's important for the children, because it teaches one of the most important lessons of Judaism," said Neile S. Friedman, the Smelkinsons' daughter. "As Jews, because of the blessings we've been given, we have a responsibility to help others achieve freedom."

That freedom means more than release from physical bondage, Friedman said. An administrative law judge for the state, she chaired the committee at Beth El Congregation that produced a new, contemporary Haggadah two years ago.

"If we are fortunate to live in a land and an era of personal freedom," the Beth El Haggadah reads, "then a large part of the meaning of the Passover is already in our grasp. However, there is a wider message that goes beyond political freedom. Much of the world remains in spiritual bondage. It is a world filled with fanaticism, fear of the stranger, and unease at the presence of people who are different. Until we learn the Oneness of God and the Oneness of Humanity, we will remain spiritually enslaved."

The new Haggadah is gender neutral, and incorporates the Cup of Miriam, a modern addition to the seder that recognizes the contribution of women to Jewish history and tradition.

Family tradition

The use of the new Haggadah is one example of how the Katz-Smelkinson seder has evolved since the 1930s, when a young Bob Smelkinson and his cousins would crowd into the Reisterstown Road rowhouse of his grandparents Nettie and Haymen Katz for the annual celebration.

The seder then was a four-hour marathon, conducted mostly in Hebrew. The highlight for a young boy, as Smelkinson remembers it, was sipping sweet wine and falling asleep.

"It didn't change until my mother took it over," Smelkinson said. "Then my father made it shorter. If it got too long, we would pull on his sleeves."

As the family grew, so did the seder. Robert and Jacqueline took over at some point in the early 1960s, and when the gathering could no longer be contained indoors, they began renting a tent to hold everyone.

"It's very inclusive," Marcia Moylan said. "If you want to bring a friend, you bring a friend."

"There are no restrictions here," Robert Smelkinson said. "Anybody who doesn't have a seder, they're invited."

"I love it," said granddaughter Lily Friedman. "It's the joining of family and friends. You meet new cousins every year."


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