I Have Lived Through Many Passovers


Perched upon the stationary bicycle in the local health club, peddling away, I am bored. I create mental lists of tasks that lie ahead of me. It is the only way I can spend much time on the bike. Because it is the beginning of April, I think of Passover, a big to-do in my household. The seder is one of the few occasions of the year at which my entire family will gather at my table. There will also be friends, dressed in their finest, all looking resplendent. We will pray, sing, laugh, and eat.

To reach that stage, however, I will need to make many trips to the basement to put away our regular dishes and bring up the Passover dishes. I will need to clean the house, superclean the kitchen, dispose of all leavened foods, and buy special unleavened food. I will complain about my aching back and sore hands. I will be kept very busy.

Irene Frisch and her husband.

I have lived through many Passovers and my earliest memories are only now coming back. I see myself as a little girl in Poland, very excited about the coming Passover. At that time, my entire participation consisted of being given new dresses and new shoes. It was customary in our little town to outfit children from head to toe. So every year I went with my mother first to the dressmaker and then to the shoe store.

It was always the same ritual. I would try the first pair of shoes and immediately claim that they fit perfectly. I would refuse to try another pair. The shoes were usually too small, so by the first day of Passover I was already limping in my new shoes and would have to return home to change into my old shoes. It was the same every year: I was already a person of strong habits. The new shoes would subsequently be given to a less well-off family.

In my defense I will add that at that time I was still very young. The comfortable, untroubled life I had known would come to an abrupt end when World War II began. I was eight years old. After being expelled from our town, I ended up in hiding, first alone, and then joined by my mother and sister.

The kind and brave woman who offered us shelter was illiterate; we did not have access to a newspaper or a calendar. We honestly did not know what month it was, or even what time of year it was. Today it is inconceivable, even to me, how primitively we lived.

One day my mother announced that the next day was the start of Passover. I have no idea how she invented that date. I was still at the age when I accepted my mother's statements at face value. So we celebrated Passover. At that time we had almost no money and lived entirely on bread and potatoes. For the next eight days we ate potatoes three times a day, never touching bread.

After the liberation, it took some time until we returned to a normal life. Some ten years later, my mother had passed away, and I was living in western Europe. At an international book fair I met a Prince Charming -- a young man with the bluest eyes in the world, tall and handsome, with impeccable manners. The man was of a different faith from my own, yet I was young and in love, and did not think much about the consequences. On my birthday, he sent me beautiful roses. His calling card was imprinted with his family crest. He was of some European nobility. Even my father was impressed.

After some courting, the young man proposed. I was ready to accept. His mother wrote me a letter, inviting me to spend the Easter holiday with her in the family's villa in Nice, France, to get acquainted. I was young and very excited about the prospect. I accepted the invitation and started to pack for the holiday. Since I wanted to impress the mother, a very elegant lady, I asked my best friend, an Italian girl, Vittoria, to help me pack.

After filling the suitcase with my most precious outfits, I packed a box of matzohs. That year Easter and Passover fell at the same time. Vittoria, who was not Jewish, asked with surprise, "What is that for?" "I never ate bread during Passover before and I do not intend to do so now," I answered. Vittoria was appalled. "If you intend to spend your life with that fancy family eating matzoh during Easter it will never work."

At that moment I remembered my late mother and her invented date of Passover. I realized that my roots were very strong, stronger even than my romantic desires. I did not go to Nice.

Very soon afterward I left Europe for America, where I met a Jewish prince. A young man with the bluest eyes in the world, tall and handsome, with impeccable manners. We celebrate Passover in our household and to this day, I have never eaten bread during the holiday.