Friday, April 02, 2021

The Gefiltefish Chronicles and YOU



I wrote this right before sundown of Passover. It remained unpublished because we lost two people we cared for. The wonderful actress Jessica Walter was a long time friend. She was fun and funny, warm and loving. And we lost my wonderful, zany, talented cousin Marty who was always a constant source of entertainment. He called himself Jordan’s 'Manager,' because he always gave her excellent theater advice. Jordan called me yesterday to say she had a dream about Marty. It was so real and vivid that when she woke she was still thinking about it. She said they met at an airport. He told her he was going away but didn't disclose the destination. He was delighted to see her because he wanted to say Goodbye.  They had a big warm hug and she woke up. It was so real that she woke up smiling.  Maybe it was a dream, and who knows....

Passover has always been my favorite Holiday. It was the one holiday we spent with our whole family— grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and usually strangers who had no place to go. One Passover I invited a woman who I knew was a transsexual, mostly because she was over 6 feet, big hands and her voice was male. When she told me that her parents had thrown her out and she hadn’t had a Seder in years, I invited her to our big family Seder. If you’re not used to family festivities ours is not an easy place to start. There are often 100 people and enough food to feed an army. No one is a guest. You want to eat, you work. She loved every minute of it. Even when we mistakenly served the essence of soup, which was the water in which we boiled the matzah balls.  My grandpa said there’s always room for one more, and we all lived by that.

Anyway, when we were young we were told that Passover was the time to see family but we were kids and what we thought it was about silver dollars. The Uncles would arrive with bags of silver dollars (in the '50s they were much more available)  they would be met by cousins  Stevie and Chuck,  who would guard the Uncles  carrying our precious Passover gelt. It was the money you would get paid for finding the Afikomen so that the Seder could continue and finish. Once we had eaten dinner we would line up and every uncle would give us 10 silver dollars. Then we reached our grandmother who would take a per cent of whatever we were given, and give it to charity.  It was not easy for us,  to part with the loot, but over the years we learned how important “tsedukah” was to keep the community healthy. The story grandpa  told -- in broken English -- was about when it was right before Sabbath in the shtetls, the Rabbi would go house to house and collect money for the poor. If you could afford it, you would put money in the box,  and if you needed to care for your family, you would take the money you needed. No one ever knew who was giving and who was taking.  It was an important lesson that shaped my life.

As we grew up the Seders grew larger. When I was working for the Carter Administration and I couldn’t get home I would have a Seder with Washington friends, some Jewish, some Southern. One of these seders brought David Burnett into my life kicking and screaming.  We met the night of the peace signing at the White House. Our mutual friend, Arthur Grace fixed us up.  “He is funny and world wise and you will love him” Arthur said. I didn’t, and he didn’t.  It was a disaster and when I told Arthur never to do that again, he somehow convinced me to invite David to the Seder.  The detail of how I pursued this guy I didn't even like was painful, but he came bringing with him a case of wine, some Kosher, some drinkable.  The kosher wine tasted like cough syrup. The drinkable wine was excellent.  He came for an evening and stayed a week.

And so began a five year tortured relationship until we finally wed in 1984. The drama produced Jordan Kai Burnett in 1986.  After Jordan was born we went back to my family Seder. Passover was a healing time for me and eventually it was for us. Meeting the whole family could be frightening. But David had been in wars and international crises, so he did Ok.  Mostly he was fascinated by the way my mother and aunts worked to make having 50 to 100 people feel like an intimate matzoh-laden soirĂ©e.  He made a tape of one Seder but my uncle forbid him to shoot the actual Seder.  It is important to mention that even though I didn’t attend family Seders I participated in cooking the fish and preparing the cholesterol.  This is important because the Passover connection always remained in tact. 

In 2004 he asked my Aunt Peppy if he could spend time with them preparing the holiday foood. She agreed and told him he could also shoot the actual Seder.  He was with them for the shopping, the grinding, making the horse radish, putting the cholesterol together, preparing the black radish, the soup, the matzah balls, welcoming the guests and final goodbyes.  It took six weeks.  We decided we should make it a family movie so the children yet to be born would know how we did it in the “old days” - like they'd done it a century before in Brooklyn.  Fast forward to the product. Our eldest first cousin underwrote the edited edition and our dear, talented friend Dick Swanson, took a shot at the first edit. Kay Koplovitz, the CEO of USA Network  thought it was good. And my pal Barry Schumann was at pBS.  They all agreed it could be more than just a home movie.    You can see the film here:

The Seders are getting smaller sometimes we don’t have the service, but we are never alone on the holiday because we have  The Gefilte Fish Chronicles documentary to keep us in touch with all the people we love, here or on the other side.  And if you want to take a perfect present when you visit someone's home, get a DVD or Companion Cookbook (a companion to cholesterol!) at