A few days ago we found a tape David shot seventeen years ago. It was the original Gefilte Fish Chronicles shoot, but the sound wasn’t great and so we never considered it suitable for public consumption. The idea was just to have a record of how, as a family, we prepared for the Seder.
When we first watched it there were several things surprising and long forgotten. First of all, some of the conversation was almost identical to the dialogue in the new Chronicles, and both were unrehearsed and unscripted. We couldn’t, and still can’t figure out why my Aunt Helene, who was still very much alive seventeen years ago, was nowhere to be found for the preparations or for the Seder – which meant the same three sisters were narrators for the first shoot. The Aunts were in very good health and they schlepped pots, hocked fish, ran up and down the steps, set up the room and did almost all that was needed to be done, everything by themselves --I was there and helping only because David was filming.
As in the latest rendition of the show, there were moments of great hilarity and moments of great poignancy. There have been so many changes over the last decade that it was almost hard to watch without tears.
It was well before Michael had a stroke. He was active, verbose, and in especially good humor . Steven had his first experience with grinding the radish, because Michael had been away, rather than because he was sick. Our beloved Elaine, who we lost when she was far too young, was looking vibrant and gorgeous, was having a great time tasting a little of this and that. At one point Steven tricks her into thinking the radish wasn’t hot, so she tries it to find quite the contrary. She was right there with the best of them trying to breathe and chew at the same time, which is almost impossible if it’s a good year for the radish.. Despite the fact that the Seder was in Aunt Peppy’s house, Aunt Sophie was very much in charge. There is one segment where Aunt Sophie and Aunt Peppy are talking about how our grandparents got married and came to the United States. And, of course, they argue every point. It went something like,
“Grandpa started working when he was nine years old. He supported his whole family, he was a bricklayer.”
“No, Grandpa apprenticed as a butcher that’s why when he was conscripted into the army he was a cook for the Czar.”
“He went into the army when he was nineteen and stayed for seven years, then got out and married grandma.”
“No, He didn’t stay for seven years, he deserted because they wanted him to reinlist, so he married grandma (it was a love match—there was no dowry) and then left for the United States, where he became a butcher.”
The details were not what mattered, the dynamic between them was too wonderful. They were constantly arguing about what was said and done, but the love they shared was still apparent. Happily, David gave them lots of time to talk about family history and my grandparents.
In those days, when Uncle Moishe was still alive, the Seder was a very religious service, so we were all supposed to be quiet—not possible in my family. Additionally, the Seder didn’t start until after Uncle Moishe finished holiday services at the temple. This meant we wouldn’t eat until after 8. Obviously this was too late for the little ones and required too much control for we big ones. Everyone showed up for some fish and soup while Uncle Moishe was out praying. This was a big difference, because now they start the Seder at a reasonable time and we are allowed to have fun; cousins don’t come early to catch up on the past year’s activities.
All of us look older and of course, we all looked just a little different. My mother and Aunt Peppy were pretty heavy. Aunt Sophie was done to the nines (always a fashion plate), and remarked that she wouldn’t make fish without having a manicure—but she would need another one before the week passed because the fish weren’t kind to her. Seth was a hot beautiful teenager, Adam, Joy, Jessie and Jordan were itty, bitty, adorable children. I hadn’t yet started wearing contact lenses and we all were wearing enormous glasses – which must have been the style. Some of us were heavier, some thinner, and of course we all remained loud—very loud. At one point you see Jordan just making sounds to duplicate whatever one else seems to be doing. Pretty funny.
The hardest thing to watch was the loss of those we loved, and almost as hard is the aging process. Honey and Ro are just a few years away from where Mom and Aunt Peppy were in this old film. I am not far behind. It is very hard to look at where you’re going to be. And sometimes I feel like the family is falling apart –too many fights, too many uncomfortable, misunderstood issues, too many items that should be forgiven and are not. I guess these things happen, I just didn’t think it would happen to us so quickly and to so many.
At one point in the first film, Aunt Peppy says, “I hope this continues after we’re gone—but our girls will probably just go to a store and buy all this.” That didn’t happen. This year the Seder moved to NJ and we, the cousins, did everything. Aunt Sophie is gone. Whenever I watch the Chronicles and Aunt Peppy says "But now there are only us two", I cry. Aunts, Betty, Sarah, Fritzie, Helene and so are Uncles Jack, Lou, Joe, Moishe, Milty, and Phil, are alos gone and Elaine and Alan Kaplan joined them when they were much to young. Mom and Aunt Peppy are very frail. They supervised and made comment but they were too tired to get actively involved in the preparations, but at least they were there. Aging is an expected change, we’re all getting on. It was not the change that made me so sad. It was that the cousins (the large group) no longer seem have that much desired pre-Seder connection. Not everyone is able to come and some are even uncomfortable being there – like one female cousin who has been removed from the family for years. So there is no standing around for over an hour gabbing about the past and each other. For me that’s a real tragedy, and I think what I miss most. Sure, our kids will have a tape of what was, but they’ll never know how really terrific it was to be a small part of a family so grand. We’re just sayin...Iris