The Family Who Came To Dinner …

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At the Liebmans’ there is no question why this holiday is different from all others.

Ceil Liebman watches her husband, Jerry, founder of Specs Howard School of Media Arts in Southfield, slice the first of many briskets. (photo by Jerry Zolynsky)
Ceil Liebman watches her husband, Jerry, founder of Specs Howard School of Media Arts in Southfield, slice the first of many briskets. (photo by Jerry Zolynsky)

The typical Passover seder guest may show up with a matzah meal broccoli casserole or a box of kosher-for-Pesach matzah covered in chocolate.

At my parents’ Southfield home, about half of the nearly 40 guests arrive with suitcases, garment bags and maybe a hat box, and some with sleeping bags, air mattresses or Pack ’n Plays.

Since 1967, my parents, Ceil and Jerry Liebman, have hosted a Passover experience that only begins with a seder and continues throughout the eight-day holiday. Some guests come to stay for the days surrounding the seders; others don’t leave until the holiday ends.

The annual family “happening” includes arrivals by plane, train, car and bus. In addition to those who, through the years, have traveled from Israel, Boston, West Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Florida and Toronto are the locals who load up their vans in West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills with plans for a close-to-home sleepover. Well organized in advance, they all arrive with instructions on where to locate their bed, couch, crib or corner to set up camp. This is the group my mom calls “the live-ins.”

Tables for the seders — and day-after post-synagogue lunches — are set up in the large family room. That room’s usual furniture of couches, chairs and various coffee, end and game tables spends Passover in the garage — practically the only space where no one sleeps! The furniture is joined by neatly organized tables covered with boxes and bins of grocery items.

One piece of the leather sectional couch ends up in the dining room as a place of slumber for one adult or two small children. The large stuffed couches in the den provide space to become the overnight home to a couple more. The four upstairs bedrooms are filled as is the entire basement, from the bedroom to the sitting room to the area that surrounds the pool table.

Opening their doors and sofa beds is natural to my parents, who, in addition to family, always also include friends, not just for the seders — led by my dad and brother, Marty — but for meals throughout the eight-day holiday.

When Does She Cook?

The Liebmans’ seder table in 2005
The Liebmans’ seder table in 2005

The mystery is that no one knows when my mom actually goes into her basement Passover kitchen and does the cooking. Her day-to-day activities seem not to change in the weeks leading up to the holiday, except for one major out-of-the-house schedule addition. A block of her pre-Passover time is spent at model seders and holiday school programs involving grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She has attended at least 100 through the years, sometimes two on the same day!

Insisting that she be in charge of the cooking, one of the very few chores my mom actually delegates is some of the shopping, but only on her terms.

She never merely says please get salad greens or ingredients for a cake. She will say, “Go to Kroger where 10 dozen eggs are on sale for $10” or to One Stop in Oak Park for a specific romaine lettuce in a specific-sized container.

My assignment has long been to purchase the soft drinks, although most years the request will come with the tagline, “But it was on sale at Meijer, so I already bought a couple of dozen bottles.”

Invariably, each time I shop, other customers will stare into my carts filled with several hundred liters of Coke and ask, “Oh, is it on sale?” or say, “You must really like pop” or the most common question that comes with a silly laugh: “Where’s the party?”

Most years, we revisit the story of how my car broke down on Northwestern while transporting the drinks to my parents’ home and how the tow truck driver helped catch the bottles that rolled onto the road while we transferred them into my daughter’s car.

No One Goes Hungry
A traditional pre-Passover sight at my parents’ home is my dad at the kitchen table, slicing roast beef or rolling meatballs — this year there are 134 — and placing them on tray after tray after tray.

And my mother is no ordinary cook, with her multitude of stored recipes accumulated from cooking classes, cookbooks and those shared by others, most of which have her added personal touch. The typical Passover meal includes an appetizer like beef-stuffed onions, one of various homemade soups, often two entrees with sides, and desserts like a family favorite, a mousse-filled chocolate delicacy called “Elegant Passover Dessert.”

Everything is created with peerless quality, but also in unnatural quantity. This year’s holiday preparations included the purchase of 20 dozen eggs and the cooking of six gallons of chicken soup and nearly 100 popovers, with more food cooked as the holiday progresses.

Passover at my parents’ home is really just an elaborate, chametz-free extension of their year-round hospitality. The usual Passover crowd is four generations and extends to siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and in-laws. The seders are the one time each year when everyone is together; no “other sides.”

Ceil Liebman mixes matzah meal for popovers for a 1986 Passover meal.
Ceil Liebman mixes matzah meal for popovers for a 1986 Passover meal.

No one seems to care that this is the holiday of little sleep, with seders that end near 1 a.m., the sounds of the women meeting for cake and tea at 3 in the morning, the early rising of eight young children and the fact that all the Passover Coke is caffeinated.

It’s hectic, continual and seemingly never-ending, but even when it is finally over we all meet again, in my parents’ kitchen. We help pack up the Passover dishes, my dad sorts the silverware into its divided organizers, and everything is transported to the basement and garage, and the year-round replacements return to their normal posts.

After our “jobs” are done, we all gather for our final family Passover tradition: the post-holiday meal. At a table highlighted by a late-night Jerusalem Pizza dinner, we review our week, laugh at remembered stories and make a Diet Coke toast of gratitude, love and appreciation to the planner, preparer, organizer.

Hiding what must be utter exhaustion, my mom always says she’s sorry it’s over, calls the months of preparation a “labor of love” and sincerely invites us all to come back again next year. Although sometimes she uses a line from the Haggadah and suggests, with a smile, maybe it would be a lot easier if we met, “Next year in Jerusalem.” 

Shelli Liebman Dorfman| Contributing Writer

 Click here for some of Ceil Liebman’s recipes.

Leon Tachauer
Leon Tachauer 03.22.2013

This is a great story. Now it makes sense why Ricky D loves his home town so much. I hope you all get to enjoy many more Passovers together.

Lynn Miller
Lynn Miller 03.23.2013

What a truly lovely story about a great family... nurtured by a wonderful woman. Love it!

Uncle Ron
Uncle Ron 03.26.2013

Great article !