In the mid afternoon on Passover eve, a special guest would come to my parents home. Martzi Baci. Uncle Martin, my great uncle. I don’t recall him visiting us at any other time, only on Erev Pesach and for the Seders.
His routine was as follows; he’d come in, take off his coat, light up another cigarette,one always seemed to be dangling from his mouth, and head straight the the kitchen which my mother, a wonderful cook herself gladly ceded to him.
An apron tied round his waist, Martzi got to work preparing the ceremonial foods for the Seder meal, hard labor in those pre food processor days, but . Martzi.was up for the challenge Before retiring, Martzi had been a chef running the kitchen at a posh Arizona resort where the guests were millionaires, movie stars and politicians. But even as he worked, he always seemed to have time to chat with a little girl.
“Oh how are you doing with school,” he’d ask.
“Not so good” , I mumbled. I was in third grade at the time, and struggling with arithmetic and hopeless at sports.
“Oh I didn’t like school either. Was no good at it.. You know I was so bad that I flunked the second and fourth grade.”
That story blew me away. Never had I encountered an adult who willingly confessed to struggling with school.
Years later, I discovered that it was a myth, a fabrication, that Martzi had gotten though school just fine and even spent several years at a Yeshiva in his native Hungary.
He left the heim sometime around the first world war. The stories about that are fuzzy. I once heard cousins say that he went pink and found his way into Bela Kuns revolutionary army for a time. Sometime in the early 20s after the Johnson act curtailed European immigration he made it to America illegally, taking a job on a ship and slipping into New York City after the boat docked.
It was in New York that he met his wife, Esti Neni, a good looking divorcee with a child. and papers, the term they used back then for a green card. For reasons that are not known to me, Esther was allergic to religion. In her home, there was no Passover, no Seder, no Rosh hashana , no Yom kippur.
For a long time Martzi went along with it. That was his family, his life. Europe seemed very distant and he went along with the amnesia of assimilated Jewish culture but then one year my mother invited him to join our family and he said. yes. I don’t know what caused him to agree, good manners, nostalgia, or a respect for my mother who lived out the war in Europe and spent a year in Aushwitz but after that he came each year, until his death, when I was eight.
On Seder night Martzi was different, morphed into his childhood persona Mordche, the bochur from Tur Terebes. He spent the entire time immersed in ritual tasks. After he finished preparing the kaira, the Seder plate, he changed his clothing, went to shul and the took my father’s seat at the head of our mahagony dining room table to conduct the Seder. His Seder wasn’t just a prelude to the meal. It was a real Seder, run exactly as his pious father had run it in Europehe Hagaddah straight through without skipping anything.
Looking back on it all, I don’t know how he managed to live inside the paradox, conducting a strictly orthodox Seder and then going back home on the subway a wife who was making sandwiches. He never spoke about it. People back then were reticent, un-analytic, very much in the moment.
I suppose there are those who would call Martzi a sinner, the bad son of the Hagaddah, but they couldn’t have met him, seen him chopping and grinding with the seriousness of a priest in the Holy Temple. I prefer to see him as another kind of son, not included in the Hagaddah’s four categories, but very much present among us, the son who has gone some distance but is trying to find a way back home.
First Published April 2010
This is a very deep story.
Along the lines of what Judy wrote about memories of Seders, a few years ago myself, my wife and parents as well as guests, began telling stories of Seder memories at the Seder, usually during the meal. It really helps give our children and ourselves a sense of family history. Along with contributions from other relatives, this year we published a hard-cover book including photos to preserve these memories and to use at the Seders.
Beautiful story, thank you for sharing. Brings tears to my eyes & some food for thought.
The Passover Seder resonates very strongly in the soul of every Jew, even someone who otherwise is quite assimilated. Chalk it up to the genius of the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah, who created the unusual format of the Haggadah and ruled that the ceremony be held at home, directly involving the young children of the family and teaching them about Yetzias Mitzrayim and the origin of the Jewish people. Early and indelible memories are created within young people of their families’ Passover Seders that last for many years into adulthood. I can personally remember Passover seders held by my parents in the mid-sixties, more than forty years ago. My uncle Murray, my mother’s only sibling, would come over our house to preside over our Seders. Uncle Murray was totally assimilated (even married to a non-Jewish woman after his first wife had died) yet he connected to the Haggadah and the Passover Seder and wanted me and my sister to also connect to it.
I’m sure that running a seder like his father’s was a way for your uncle to connect with religion and his past. It is often easier for us to find the differences that set us apart from our not-yet-observant relatives than it is to the common ground.
Passing on memories like this one is important.
Great post with a great insight. Thanks!