Marni Raitt
Marni Raitt

Each year, it seemed, something memorably off the wall happened that made it into the archives of Raitt family lore.

My mom loved Passover. It was her holiday, and she spent weeks preparing everything from the menu to the service. Most important to Mom, however, was the guest list.

Mine was the house where all the strays came for holidays, and everyone was greeted and treated as family. This was true at gatherings throughout the year, but particularly during Passover when our table grew exponentially. My parents couldn’t bear the thought of anyone being alone for the holidays, so they adhered very closely to the tradition of B’ruchim Haba’im, which loosely translates to “welcome to our congregation.”

Mom proudly shows off her seder table.
Mom proudly shows off her seder table. Marni Raitt | Detroit Jewish News

And what an eclectic congregation it was. There was always the usual family and friends who joined us year after year. But also included were friends from school who couldn’t get home for the holidays; my parents’ work colleagues who had no family in town; non-Jews who loved to experience the traditions of our irreverent seder; the owner of my parents’ favorite local restaurant; and even strangers off the street (seriously, it happened once) — the whole mishpachah, and then some!

With such a wacky cast of characters, our seders were always joyous, if not very traditional, occasions. The word seder means order, but the irony is there was no order during Passover at our house. Certainly, we would start the evening with the best of intentions. Dad would welcome our guests, Mom would light the candles and then we would read from the Maxwell House Haggadah. But in no time at all — generally during my annual rendition of the Four Questions which, as the youngest child of two youngest children, I sang until I was about 30 — the entire thing would dissolve into uproarious chaos. There was schmoozing, singing, eating and a lot of laughter at our festive table, but not a whole lot of order.

Each year, it seemed, something memorably off the wall happened that made it into the archives of Raitt family lore. One year, we spent the evening searching for our dog who snuck out of the front door that was left open for Elijah. Another year, my brother broke out in hives after surreptitiously taking a few sips of the Manischewitz. But, of all the great Passover stories, the one that stands out most was the Great Gefilte Fish Fiasco.

Like all Jewish families, the true star of the seder was the food, and there was no meal my mom enjoyed preparing — or my dad enjoyed eating — more. My dad was a foodie before being a foodie was a thing, so he insisted on helping mom plan the menu. It had to be just right. From chopped liver to matzah ball soup, brisket to turkey, kosher kugel to potatoes of all varieties, it was a veritable feast we all looked forward to every year.

One of Dad’s favorite parts of the meal was homemade gefilte fish. Those perfectly formed, slightly sweet dumplings of deliciousness were a staple at our family seders when I was a small child. That is, until I was about 10 years old, at which point Aunt Rose (of blessed memory), the author and executor of the family’s recipe, passed away. For the next five or six years, we either went without or, heaven forbid, ate our gefilte fish from a jar. That is until dad took it upon himself to replicate Aunt Rose’s revered recipe.

Dad enlisted Mom’s assistance, but this was his project, and he jumped into it with a zeal I had not seen since my brother received his first Lego set and decided to rebuild the entire New York City skyline in our basement. The excitement in the house was palpable.

Mom and Dad woke up early on Sunday morning ready to conquer the kitchen. It was an ambitious undertaking, involving several hundred dollars’ worth of pike and whitefish, days of preparation, hours of cooking time and a pot the size of a small country. All seemed to be going well. Hours later, however, as I sat in my room, I noticed a disconcerting burning smell followed by a shout and a loud clatter. In horror, I ran downstairs to see my father scraping his failed experiment into the garbage can. It was ruined.

Despondent, Dad was ready to cancel Passover. Mom wouldn’t let him, so he vowed to have a terrible time. It was a dark few days.

The night of our seder arrived and, for the first time ever, it began as a somber occasion, with Dad sulking and Mom wondering if she should have canceled it after all. But then, something amazing happened. As we recounted the story, we all began to laugh. And soon enough, dad was laughing at himself, too, and at the sheer silliness of the whole thing. Sitting there in our dining room, surrounded by friends, family and strangers alike, it became clear — to all of us — that the gefilte fish just didn’t matter. What mattered was making memorable moments with our own special congregation. The order was, in fact, in the chaos, and it was beautiful.

The effects of the fiasco faded, but the smell of burning fish permeated the house for weeks. Needless to say, the gefilte fish served during Passover that year, and all the years that followed, came out of a jar.

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Passover.

Previous articleCelebrating Jewish Women Songwriters
Next articleWhat’s New with Andy Levin?