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The Pesach Zoo

My friend once told me about all the fun things her family does at the Seder during the makos.

There are plastic frogs for tzefardeia, animal masks for arov, sunglasses for choshech, and a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t remember.

In our house you don’t need to turn the Seder into a zoo for it to be fun.

It’s already a zoo.

When we moved into this house from our small apartment, I was super excited about having my own bedroom (even if it was the size of a closet).

My mother was super excited about the size of our dining room.

That should have been my warning sign.

We have guests every Shabbos and every Yom Tov, but the Seder – now that’s what my father calls the event of the year.  

It’s what I call a circus.

Last year, the tables stretched from the tippy end of the dining room straight through the living room, all the way to the front door. And there were more people in the kitchen.  Now that my cousins moved next door, my sister Esti had twins, and my two brothers , Ari and Avi, got married (it’s been a busy year, as you can see), we’ll have even more people, and I have no idea where my mother will put everyone.  Maybe we’ll have another table on the roof. Or maybe she’ll seat some people in the bathtub. With my mother, you never know.

If I was grateful for my room before, once Pesach rolls around I am even happier. We have three guest rooms in the basement, and they are all full. My little sister Lila moves in with my big sister Mimi and her bedroom goes to guests, too, but my mother knows how much I need my space and privacy so I get to keep it for myself. Which is amazing, because when the house gets too chaotic, I have a place to escape where I can read or nap or just enjoy the quiet.

When I make a Seder, you can bet it won’t look like the one in this house.

Here’s what’s going on in our house right now: Mimi is peeling a mountain of potatoes. My mother is busy shredding them in a machine. I’m eating a ladyfinger (chametz has been relegated to the basement kitchen) and grumbling to my mother about why the twins have to sleep here when everyone knows they cry all night.

“But Maaaa,” I wail. “They just spent a month here, and no one slept, and we hated it. Why can’t they all just go to Devorah’s in-laws?”

“But Baila,” Mom answers above the whirring of her machine. “What would Pesach be like without Devorah? I’m her mother. And those babies may not sleep, but they sure are delicious!”

My mother is not only hospitable but incessantly cheerful.

It is so annoying.

I grumble my way through the next few days, as our house begins to fill up with my married siblings, the twins, my aunt and uncle from London, and my grandmother. I help my father pull out the extra tables and chairs from the garage and we set them up, packing everything in as tightly as possible for maximum capacity.

“We should have a weight limit in this room,” I say to him as we cover the tables with foil. “The floor may cave in otherwise.”

My father gives me an amused look. “Don’t worry,” he says. “It’s only a week or so and then it’s over.”

“Yeah, by the end of that week I’ll be deaf,” I retort.

As usual, no one else seems to mind the chaos. My parents and siblings are as cheerful as ever as they cook, clean, and prepare for the hordes that will arrive for the Seder – and for all the meals after that. My mother runs her kitchen with army-like efficiency, and the cakes, kugels, meats, and soups appear on her counters with stunning frequency.

She is on her way down to the basement with a pot of soup when we hear a shriek followed by a thud. We all come running.

My mother is sprawled at the bottom of the steps beside the overturned pot of soup. She smiles wanly up at us. “Chaim,” she says. “I think you should call an ambulance.”

It is only hours later – although it feels like a month – when my father updates us. “Mommy’s fine, baruch Hashem,” he says. “She has minor burns….and she broke her leg.”

Broke her leg!

My mother hobbles in – on crutches, no less – quite a while later.  She tries heading to the kitchen, but my father stops her. “Bed,” he orders. “The doctor said bed.”

My mother looks like she’s about to cry. “Erev Yom Tov is in two days,” she says. “I can’t stay in bed!”

“Ma,” I say. “Tati’s right. Go to bed. We can all take care of things here.”

“Yes,” echoes Mimi, “We can handle everything. You don’t need to do a thing.”

I look at the list my mother taped to the refrigerator: grate maror, chop charoses, prepare chocolate mousse cups, buy plastic tablecloths. On and on it goes.


But before I can panic, the phone rings. It is Mrs. May, our neighbor from across the street.

“I heard about all the action,” she says. “I’m going to make all the Seder plates for you. Including the maror and charoses. The whole deal.”

“Wow,” I say. “Are you sure? We’re having a lot of people.”

“Oh, I know.” She chuckles. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered.”

The phone rings again. This time, it’s Aunt Faye. “Baila!” she shouts. “How is she?”

Before I can continue, she says, “Listen, I’m coming a day early so I can set all the tables and do the last minute shopping. I know you all have your hands full, and I want your mother to rest.”

Word of my mother’s fall, it seems, spread fast, mostly thanks to Lila who is the family’s unofficial yenta.

By early the next afternoon – the day before erev Yom Tov – everything is covered. The chametz kitchen is closed up. We’ve got a fridge full of desserts sent by neighbors and friends. We’ve got enough food for several small countries – and this is in addition to all the stuff my mother had already piled in the freezer before she broke her leg.

Before we know it, Seder night has arrived. My mother rests on a big recliner which has taken the place of her armchair for now. The house may be sparkling, but it’s hard to tell. Every single corner is filled with people and noise. A few of my neighbor’s boys run wild in the kitchen, letting out gleeful yelps as they circle the island. The twins howl away as my sister frantically rocks their stroller, adding to the fun.  

It’s even more noisy and crazy then I remember, but this time I’m not grumbling.

Sometimes, it takes a crisis to know what you have. And what we have here in this room is love – lots of it. Maybe I didn’t see it before. But as I look at the table, set by my aunt – who insisted on doing it all on her own –and at the Seder plates, prepared by Mrs. May, and as I smell the delicious aroma of food prepared by neighbors and friends who care about us, it is undeniable.

Now I know why my mother gets such joy from creating this huge, crazy meal.

She’s not just preparing a Seder.

She’s building bonds – connections – that will last way longer than just one night.

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