Our Big Basement Seder

April 09, 2019

“Seder will be small this year,” Bubby said. “The Israelis can’t make it so we will only be 45 or so.”

My father and his brothers grew up in a barn, literally. Their parents, my Bubby and Zeda, paid the local handyman/architect in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, to transform the giant structure into a home where the Solomons could “spread out and be comfortable.” From my perspective as the oldest grandchild, the Jewish community of Phoenixville was organized in an orbit around that house, where my Bubby hosted children, grandchildren, in-laws, exchange students, distant cousins, visiting cantors, and neighborhood folks who had hit hard times and could use a place to stay for a few nights or a few months, give or take. The sides of her tent were always open to guests, and there was no time she observed the commandment of hachnasat orchim (hospitality) more fervently than for Seder.

The basement of the barn was a scary place to be alone—I avoided it well into my teenage years. It was partially finished at best, with its rough stucco walls, barn doors, and gray terrazzo floor. Light switches did little to illuminate the seemingly impenetrable dark. The cavernous room ran the length of the house and had space for a small sitting area, a full bar and kitchen, a pool table, and Seder seating for 50 comfortably and 60 with a little good-natured crowding.

In the days before each Seder, spring itself seeped into the basement and the entire room grew lovely and light. Great-Aunt Birdie ordered heaps of beautiful flowers that adorned the table and brightened the room. Aunt Judy and cousin Gretchen spent hours strategizing over the seating arrangement—inevitably changed by the guests themselves once they arrived—and writing “place cards” on whatever bits of old stationary they found around the house. Folding chairs, kitchen chairs, stools, and card tables were hauled out of the attic and kitchen and storage closets, and each one was lovingly covered with a pillowcase (or, sometimes, 70s prints that grandchildren had just slept on) so each guest could dine while mesubin (reclining). Thanks to one of the house’s many MDs, a surgical light was procured (seriously, like the huge silver ones you see in 70s movies) and voila, va-yehi or (and there was light) throughout the basement. Through Bubby's abundance of spirit, and great communal effort, all that was needed to sustain our big "extended" family was delivered.

Every conceivable variety of white tablecloth—all cloth, no paper—covered the assortment of tables, and then the setting began. Each place was set properly with silverware, two plates, and a soup bowl for after the meal: Just in case the Moshiach arrived while we were eating, no one would have to make the journey to olam ha-ba, the world to come, on an empty stomach. Grandchildren fought over the old, harp-like hard-boiled egg slicers (because, in Phoenixville, it is also a commandment to dip egg slices in salt water). At least four Seder plates studded the never-ending table, bringing each and every one of the guests together for the rituals of the night.

Though Bubby's brisket is unparalleled, no one came to the Solomon Seder for the food. And while there is a certain charm to corralling 50-odd Jews (100+ opinions) through a Hebrew/Aramaic seder, no one even came for the telling of the story. We came because this is how our family did Seder. For as long as I had known the Seder, the people who came—extended cousins, life-long neighbors, college roommates, Israeli kind-of-relatives—became family themselves through the act of showing up every year, year after year, and telling the same old story, together, again. As individuals, we grew, and as a family, we grew larger.

My Bubby died a little more than two years ago and this is our third Seder without her, our second since we sold her beloved Barn.

There is a story that gets a lot of press in Jewish circles around this time of year: It’s the one about how the Baal Shem Tov used to go to a certain place in the woods, perform a particular ceremony, say special words, and in this way, know G-d. Eventually, his descendants forget the place, they forget the ceremony, they even forget the words. But they can still tell the story and in that way, know G-d.

When we sold the Barn, we lost our place. But last year—and, b’h (G-d willing), again in this one—every one of the 55 or so Seder regulars, and guests, showed up to the poker room in Uncle Hal’s apartment complex, ready to tell the story of how our family tells the story of our people. Who better to host than my Bubby's friend, neighbor, and almost-machatunim (her son's uncle-in-law)? And for that, at least till the Moshiach actually shows up when we open the door, Estelle Solomon’s granddaughter says Dayenu.

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