Bedlam Backwards: My Haggadah
1. Kaddesh: Sanctification (קדש)
Three years ago, my maternal grandmother’s family, the Tepmans, celebrated the hundredth Tepman Passover Seder in America. Yael and Temma Tepman had arrived from Pinsk, through Ellis Island, where their son Allen, a babe-in-arms, died of scarlet fever. My grandmother Elsie, the fifth of six girls, was born in 1913, in Teaneck, New Jersey. Her most endearing phrase, which she used for all sorts of punctuation, was, “Such is life.”
2. Urechatz: Washing (ורחץ)
In 1981, when I was ten, my mother died, a suicide. My sister and I, thanks to the attention of my mother’s two younger siblings, Uncle Carl and Aunt Karen, continue to attend the yearly Seder that gathers more than fifty descendants of Great Grandma Temma.
3. Karpas: Vegetable (כרפס)
In 1989, Uncle Carl’s wife, Aunt Patty, fell off of Magic Mountain, a ski resort in Londonderry, Vermont, and went into a coma for three weeks. She was expected to never walk, talk or live fully again.
4. Yachatz: Breaking (יחץ)
In 1990, Aunt Karen’s husband, Uncle Harris, a Harvard-Princeton-Rhodes Scholar neurologist, whose most public moment came as an expert witness in the Klaus von Bulow murder trial of 1982, drowned in a riptide off Miami Beach.
5. Maggid: The Story (מגיד)
One spring, when I was living in Prague my first year after college, I decided to take a train to Gdansk, on the Baltic, to see the town that provided my mother’s maiden name, Danziger. Somewhere north of Lodz, alone in a compartment of red vinyl seats, crossing the flat farmlands where the occasional oxcart still ploughed, my nose began to run. By the time I arrived in Gdansk, I was deep into a full-blown allergic attack: asthmatic, dehydrated, eyes swollen nearly shut. I took a room from a woman at the station, then staggered to the pharmacist, though I spoke no Polish. I was given an injection and a bottle of pills. When I made it back to the room, I passed out. The next day, fully recovered, I strolled past the earthen bricks of St. Mary’s Church to the waterfront of stepped rooflines and port cranes. I looked around, but could see no one like me, or my grandparents. I went back to the room, checked out, and hitched west across the Vistula to a beachfront campground. There was a woman there wearing the Polish Navy’s blue-and-white striped sweater, with buttons up the shoulder. She was looking out over the waves. I realized, my mother used to wear the same sweater in winter.
6. Rachtzah: Washing (רחצה)
At 16, I chose to study for my bar mitzvah as something my mother would have wanted. My father, who by then had fully given up on religion, did nothing to keep me from completing the ritual. If my mother hadn’t died, I probably would have done it three years earlier, and not understood a thing.
7. Motzi: Blessing over Grain Products (מוציא)
After Grandma Elsie had a stroke, Aunt Karen began to overeat. In therapy, she realized she had decided to carry her dead sister and her dead husband in her own body. “I could just kill Harris for dying like that,” Karen likes to say. Karen came to weigh well over three hundred pounds, then lost it all, then gained it all back. She’s losing it again now.
8. Matzo: Blessing over Matzo (מצה)
Uncle Harris’s published research focused on language and cognition. His five-year East Boston Study on Aging found that Alzheimer’s disease was considerably more prevalent than had previously been thought. Not long after Harris’s death, my Grandpa Lou, Elsie’s husband, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the last lucid conversation I had with Lou, he said, “Great. My own grandchildren are introducing themselves to me.”
9. Maror: Bitter Herbs (מרור)
Against all predictions, Aunt Patty returned to being a trial lawyer only three years after her accident. She investigated personal injury claims for a major insurance company. Having survived personal injury herself, she would sit in deposition rooms and tell the injured, “I know what this is like for you.” She had a preternatural sense for when personal injury claims smelled fishy. She once hired a private eye, she told me, to photograph a claimant playing tennis the day before he appeared in court on crutches.
Despite her incredible recovery, Patty’s playful intellect never fully resurfaced, and this became a tremendous asset to her trial work, where she would chart out bullet points and speak simply to the jury for her own benefit. One thing that did survive the accident is her courageously goofy attitude. She’d begin her opening statement with a heartfelt declaration—”I love the American justice system”—that had opposing lawyers throwing up their hands before the trial had even begun.
10. Korekh: The Sandwich (כירך)
Because my father does not attend the Tepman Seder, when it comes time to do the blessing of the children, Aunt Karen places one hand on her only daughter and the other hand on my sister, and Uncle Carl places one hand on his only son and the other hand on me.
11. Shulchan Orekh: Dinner (שלחן עורך)
Every year, the Tepmans eat:
Matzo ball soup. Cousin Fay, dumping matzo meal into a goo-filled bowl: “The trick is getting the right consistency.”
Gefilte fish. “These come out of a jar,” Cousin Reva says, “but mom used to grind the pike by hand, until we all got sick of mushing through to pick out the bones.”
Linda’s famous carrot ring.
Yellow Jell-O mold with white whipped topping.
Red Jell-O mold with edible objects levitating inside it.
Joanie’s famous brisket.
Mystery meat covered by a thick brownish sauce-type-thingy in a big aluminum-foil pan.
Sautéed green beans with almond slices.
12. Tzafun: The Afikomen (צפון)
Different families have different traditions relating to the afikomen. Some have the children hide it, while the parents have to either find it or ransom it back. Others have the parents hide it.
Growing up, my mother and all her cousins would summer in the Catskills at a house the six Tepman sisters bought together, called “Maldeb,” or bedlam backwards. The parents would have a cow slaughtered and stored in two freezers. The fathers, like Grandpa Lou, worked in Jersey City and New Brunswick and Teaneck and came to Maldeb for the weekends. During the week, the mothers took turns being the mother.
My mother shared a second-floor room with her “friend-cousin” Reva, who had a habit of watching over the dark from the top of the stairs. My mother would see her sitting there when she got up to go the bathroom. One stormy night, the story goes, they came downstairs into a flooded living room. With the men away, the first thing the women did that night, because they couldn’t function otherwise, was wade into the kitchen, ankle-deep, and make coffee.
13. Barekh: Grace after Meals (ברך)
I’ve turned out a lot like my Uncle Carl, except that I’m not wealthy. We both drove BMW motorcycles and studied for second careers at a late age. He is proud of having invented, in the Peace Corps in Samoa, a cement toilet molded out of the hollowed-out trunk of a banana tree.
For a while, I lived in a West Village studio apartment that belonged to a friend of Uncle Carl’s. She was a dancer, and her name was Jane Aire. When Jane had had enough of the city, she retired to the Catskills, and Carl paid her market rates for her rent-controlled studio, doling it out to me and my cousins. Carl has hinted at the kind of relationship he and Jane had by describing Patty’s recovery as too much for him to handle. The hard part had been when it became clear that Patty was going to do more than just survive. “I curled up on the floor in the fetal position,” he told me once, driving in his convertible two-seater, “and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.'”
14. Hallel: Praises (הלל)
Aunt Patty just loves her new custom-fitted earplugs. They have a tiny hole in them and they help her filter background noise from conversation, which is one of the impediments of her brain damage. Before, she couldn’t stand being in a room with more than one conversation at a time, like the Seder.
Aunt Karen, who still lives in Boston, has written a line in to the Tepman haggadah that asks the Lord to bless the Red Sox. The blessing is roundly booed by the Jersey faithful.
15. Nirtzah: Closing (נרצה)
A simple statement that the Seder has been completed. We say, “Next year in Jerusalem,” but we know it means next year in Jersey. This is followed by various hymns and stories. A Tepman favorite is “Diyanu,” which translates to, “It would have been enough.”
Matthew Fishbane writes about foreign affairs, culture and food. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Salon.com, Outside, The Walrus, the Christian Science Monitor and others.