Way down the hall in the front bedroom, Grandpa (Hyman Finkelman) grated the horseradish and mixed in just the right amount of fresh-squeezed lemon juice and bit of sugar. He offered everyone a taste, to get our opinions about adjusting the amounts. “Here,” he would say, “this will open your passageways.”
He also prepared the charoset.
Meanwhile, in the narrow kitchen, Grandma (Rose Finkelman) produced a feast for 15 or 20 for each seder night. No one else was welcome in the kitchen.
And then one year, Grandma was ready for some help. Miriam Greene, my sister, remembers getting invited into that kitchen before Passover, more than 60 years ago.
“Grandma did all the cooking,” she recalls. “I turned 11 at about the time grandma got older or weaker and needed assistance. By that time, her daughters and in-laws already had their own methods and, because grandma was particular, she could not count on them to do things her way. I was just right to be trained. I loved it.
“What did I learn? I was sort of a sous chef. I could prepare vegetables and fruits and could grate items for inclusion in kugels — and watch everything and learn. I could make snow from egg whites. It was an honor.
“I guess I learned about respect for guests and the integrity of the process,” Greene says. “I also learned recipes I continue to use, and I remember working alongside Grandma as I do so to this day.”
Mintzi Schramm of Southfield had a different kitchen experience in her childhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as her mother, Chana (Anna) Schnaidman, prepared the seder meals.
“I came from a background where we had no processed food,” Schramm says. “We ground our own pepper using an old-fashioned pepper mill. We did not use oil or sugar or dairy, or chocolate from Barton’s. A guest once brought chocolate from Barton’s and my father put it away for after the holiday.
“My mother cooked everything with schmaltz [chicken fat]. We had fleishigs [meaty foods] for eight days.
“My mother worked hard,” Schramm recalls. “She did all the cleaning the week before Pesach, and all the cooking on the last day. And I didn’t do anything. I was a princess. Pesach was my favorite holiday because I didn’t do any of the work.”
So, did Schramm learn anything about cooking for Pesach from her mother?
“My mother wrote out the recipes for all my favorite Pesach foods,” Schramm says. “I still have those eight or nine recipes in my mother’s handwriting. You can get through any Pesach on those.”
Nehama Stampfer Glogower of Ann Arbor inherited a recipe for sponge cake from her mother, a recipe that calls for extensive use of fresh eggs. This recipe led Glogower to a memorable childhood pre-seder kitchen experience.
“My mom used to make sponge cakes, which called for 10-12 eggs each,” Glogower says. “In those days, we would have our eggs and milk delivered from Alpenrose Dairy in Portland. Mom asked me to leave a note for the milkman, confirming that he leave her order of 12 dozen eggs.
“I thought that was crazy and left a note confirming her order of 12 eggs. Mom practically had a heart attack when she opened the milk box and found one dozen eggs. Lesson learned.”
Sharon Krasner of Oak Park recalls that her grandmother, like Miriam Greene’s grandmother and Mintzi Schramm’s mother, kept strict ownership of the cooking.
“Who prepared the seder feast? Definitely, my bubbie,” she says. “We were allowed to do the charoset. Otherwise, we weren’t allowed in the kitchen.”
Micki Grossman of Farmington Hills has a similar memory from her childhood in Detroit.
“My mother did all the cooking. She chopped the fish for gefilte fish in a wooden bowl. She grated horseradish. I remember going to Gruny’s grocery store for a pint jar of beet russel [fermented beets], which she used to make the grated horseradish less strong and red. I make gefilte fish and use the food processor, and I buy ready-made horseradish.”
Retired principal Donald Vineburg has just moved from Green Bay, Wis., to Michigan, home of his son Rabbi Sidney Vineburg and some of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Donald’s mother, Mildred Vineburg, grew up in a Manhattan household without much Jewish ritual. In fact, Mildred remembered that her whole synagogue experience happened on Yom Kippur, when her mother would take her to the sidewalk outside the famous Temple Emanu-El. They would mingle with the crowd and perhaps hear some of the service or the sermon.
From childhood, Mildred worked in her mother’s dry goods store; she did not get much formal Jewish education nor much experience learning how to cook.
When Mildred married, she joined her husband’s family, which had somewhat more active Jewish practices. She felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of putting together a meal for her new family’s seder. The maid, Marie Johnson, told the young bride not to worry, that she, though an African American and devout Catholic, would have the food for the seder totally under control. And, indeed, for the next 40 years or so, Marie Johnson took care of providing the seder feast for the Vineburg family.
The seder developed more elements of a traditional seder after one of Donald Vineburg’s brothers married his Aunt Charlotte. Donald recalls “it was not until Aunt Charlotte married into the family that I discovered there was anything
after the meal at a seder.”
Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer