Pesach en Provence
by Gina Roitman

In 1989, I was in a business meeting with some French-Canadians in Montreal. As the meeting wrapped up, someone made a comment that could be misconstrued as unkind to English speakers. This was at the peak of the sovereignty debate. Everyone laughed and then, they remembered me. All eyes turned my way. The man who had commented gave a Gallic shrug of the shoulders and said he was sorry, he had meant no offence. I assured him none was taken but he continued nonetheless, saying I couldn't possibly understand what it is like to be afraid that the language you speak will be lost to your children and that your culture will one day disappear. In fact, I said, I understood perfectly. My mother tongue was Yiddish and it had already been designated a dead language. More to the point, as my parents were Holocaust survivors, I had been raised with the values and mores of a culture that was gone before I was born, leaving me nostalgic and hungering for something I never had. What I couldn't say was that wherever I am, a part of me is longing for 'home' somewhere else.

In the Alpes-Martimes, the mountain range behind the Riviera, I rent a cozy and uncluttered apartment from a Danish couple I have never met. I have been coming to Grasse since 1997, at first because I have a second cousin living here but now mostly because it is a place where, with a cliff wall rising at my back and a panoramic view plunging to the sea, I can effectively empty myself to make room for the stories I want to write. I come in spring when the air is redolent with thyme, jasmine, and wisteria, Grasse being world famous for its perfumes.

My mother wears Evening in Paris but only on special occasions like Pesach. The midnight blue bottle is the one bright spot on her otherwise drab dresser.

The idea of making a Passover Seder first comes to me soon after I arrive in Grasse. I am going through the kitchen cupboards, taking inventory when I suddenly come across a box of matzo. Two years earlier I had left a half empty box. I know it's not the same package but I wonder whether the Danish couple discovered and somehow grew fond of this tasteless, constipating cracker all because of me.

I am not thinking about a real Seder, that would be impossible, just something to help me through the holiday period, to keep me connected to Montreal despite all the trouble I have gone to in removing myself from there. So I will plan a faux Seder. But for whom? My cousin and her husband will be away, visiting their children in California. Undaunted, I invite my friend Julie, a woman raised by nuns in a Montreal convent and the widow of a real Cossack. The irony is not lost on me. I imagine my mother's distress over sharing a Seder with her enemy. My life is like that, a constant sliding back in time along some slippery groove carved out long before I got here.

What I know of Seders does not come so much from religious teachings as it does from the force of family dynamics, the tailoring of the event to various players. That is what remains of this holiday for me. Before I was even born, World War II consumed most of my relatives, leaving my brother and me suffering from a deficit of relatives. The few we did have were far-flung, vaguely familiar faces in photographs that arrived in a letter once a year. This deficit was never more obvious than during the holidays, especially Passover. It was just the four of us, five if you count the ghost of the Prophet Elijah.

The kitchen table is moved into the living room because you don't eat dinner in the kitchen on 'yontif.' We are all dressed in our finest and, despite the lack of company, the table is set with linen, china and a silver candelabrum.

"Bennick," my mother says to my father who is revelling in recounting the Passover story, "do we have to do the whole Hagaddah? The children are hungry."

Because it is a holiday and my mother exhausted from the effort of preparation, my father is able to negotiate for the recounting of one more story. This is the part he is good at, reading out loud to us the account of how we came out of bondage.

My mother was a woman of enormous energy. A week before Passover, there was a frenzy of activity as she scrubbed the kitchen cupboards to make way for the Passover things. The frenzy always caused her to become even more highly-strung than usual, more likely to snap at my father or brother or me. I remember offering to help her once but she took it as an opportunity to remind me what a talent I had for breaking things. Not that we had anything precious, no heirlooms salvaged from previous generations, no treasured pieces passed on with interesting family histories. Our Passover dishes were purchased second hand in a refugee camp in Germany. And like our family, the set was incomplete.

When I am 12, I return home from a friend's house to see my mother preparing to store the non-Passover foodstuffs in our apartment locker.

"Bella's mother says we are supposed to throw out the chometz," I say innocently.

"Bella's mother never buried a child who died from hunger," my mother replies, sharply. "Bella's mother was born here in Canada and never had a hungry day in her life. It's a sin against God to throw away food," she says in that tone that suggests the discussion is over.

Some innovation is required for my faux Seder. To make matzo meal, I crush the boxed matzo in the coffee grinder and get the Manischewitz recipe for matzo balls on the Internet. I think about my mother as I make charoses using Canada apples grown in France, although I've never seen them at home. I guess if we did grow them in Canada, they'd be called something else, the way French fries are just frites in France. In Grasse, I am a Canada apple but I'm not so sure what I am back in Montreal.

"Bring me the copper Passover plate," my mother calls from the kitchen. "I will give you a job, if you want to help." I am to grate apples for the charoses while my mother cracks and empties walnuts shells. "You are doing Baileh's job. I always cracked the nuts, Malka mixed it all together with the honey, Ruchmeh would be helping der Mameh and Shaindel would be singing." With a few words, my mother conjures up the one-room 'shteibel' in Chrzanow where she lived with her parents and four sisters before the War.

During the holidays, I am much loved in my family for my turkey and matzo ball soup. It's a recipe my mother gave me while she was in the hospital with the cancer that would kill her at the age of 63. I make the soup every holiday for family gatherings, my family, for the most part, being the one I married into. At twenty, I acquired a pair of sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, numerous nieces and nephews, three sets of aunts and uncles, and a bonanza of first cousins. When I left the marriage, I kept my dowry of relatives and my position as the best maker of matzo ball soup.

The Seders were invariably held at the home of my wealthy brother- and sister-in-law because they had the room. The table set for as many as fourteen, all of them immediate family, filled me with happy anticipation. Not having children of my own, the only thing I brought to the evening was the soup. These Seders were family gatherings but without any of the decipherable traditions from my childhood, only a few grudging prayers, laboriously squeaked out by my brother-in-law once the grandfathers had died. I missed my father's storytelling although I had complained about it so bitterly as a young girl. As much as I treasured the coming together of family, these Seders, stripped of ceremony, were often laced with a bittersweet loneliness.

For my faux Seder in Provence, I roast a whole chicken stuffed with vegetables and smothered in garlic, a recipe I also find on the Internet. It's too much food and though Julie asks for seconds, I can see I'll have enough for at least three more meals. Too much food is a Passover tradition, I tell her. My mother lade the table as if all her sisters were coming to dine. It's as if having survived hunger, she had to find ways to reassure herself that we had more than we needed. As a result, I have inherited an abhorrence of half-filled fridges and sparse meals. I wonder if it's because I am Jewish or because I was raised with a refugee's mentality, or both.

At supper, Julie asks me if I consider myself a Canadian or a Jew and I tell her that my nationality is Canadian but my soul is Jewish. That satisfies her but leaves me uneasy, knowing I have not really answered the question.

"When we're gone," my mother repeats like a daily prayer, "you and Marvin will only have each other. You are the only ones left of all our family. Remember that. Remember."

In my sleep, sodden with too much food and rosé, I discern a jangling sound. With a start, I identify it as the telephone. I run down the darkened hall.


It's Nancy, my brother's wife calling from Toronto where it is only a quarter to six. They're waiting for their Seder guests to arrive and I am instantly nostalgic, regretful of being here and not there, in that foreign land called Toronto where Marvin, Nancy and the boys shower me with love when I visit.

Nancy, so full of the same kind of energy my mother had but without the angst and anguish, gives me a rundown of her menu. My mother would have loved her (although I am convinced she would have nagged Nancy into converting to Judaism). Nancy speaks of having prepared the charoses and having the hard-boiled eggs standing by with the pitcher of salted water, "…the salted tears of the Israelites," she reminds me, jokingly. I had forgotten about that.

Nancy is a wonder with her love of puns and loopy lyrics that she makes up, and an ability to invent new traditions when she cannot draw on the old. One Seder when the boys were young, she held a matzo board to her face and created Matzo Man. She sang it to the tune of the Village Peoples' Macho Man. It became a tradition for a while.

Now I crawl back into my narrow Provençal bed, groggy with half formed thoughts and the weight of too much food and drink. Throughout the day, my mother had been shadowing me as I washed the floors of the apartment and prepared the faux Seder. She is back now, hovering on the edge of my consciousness, intruding on my attempts to retrieve sleep. I wonder what she's trying to tell me. What I was thinking to have made so much food? Why was I compelled to cook all day for just Julie and me? I could easily have done something simple. But then, I think while drifting off, it would not have been a Passover Seder; it would have just been a friend coming over for dinner. Where's the memory in that?

As the daughter Holocaust survivors, Gina Roitman was designated a Displaced Person at birth but luckily lives in Montreal where DPs from everywhere have taken refuge. Her work has aired on CBC Radio and has appeared in The Gazette, the Literary Supplement of the Canadian Jewish News and Quills Poetry Magazine. She is currently avoiding work on her first novel by editing her collection of short stories.