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Haggadah covers tell family’s Passover saga

For decades, Helen Zegerman Schwimmer has recorded Seder menus, guests and more inside the covers of her family’s Haggadot.

As night falls and we begin to recount the story of our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt another more personal story unfolds between the covers of my Passover Haggadah. Some years ago I purchased a dozen copies of the KTAV edition so that we would all be on the same page. That was back in 1982, April 7 to be exact. I know because I wrote down the date and the names of our guests on the inside cover of my copy. I also added a brief note that our son, Josh, 9 1/2, conducted the Seder and “we were all proud of him,” adding, “Sara, 5 1/2, and nephew Eric, 3 1/2, sang the Frog song.” And so a tradition began that has spanned almost three decades.

Haggadah means “telling” and just as the core of the Haggadah, which can be traced to circa 200 C.E., grew and expanded over the centuries, so has our family narrative. Along with the list of guests and the menu, my recorded entries have become more descriptive as our family has grown. A niece is born and so on April 19, 1989 I wrote, “This year Andy and Eric led the Seder with their usual enthusiasm and Rebecca, age 2, joined in.”

What compelled me to start this tradition? A bittersweet memory slowly surfaces when I recall the Seders of my childhood. As we sat down at the table, set with white Passover dishes and Haggadot courtesy of Manishewitz and Maxwell House, there were only the four of us, my mother, father, brother and myself. Absent were the grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles and cousins. Our little post-Holocaust family had experienced our own exodus, from a displaced persons camp in Munich, Germany to a tenement in Brooklyn, N.Y., where my parents’ families existed only in painful memories, their shadows hovering sadly over our lives.

My children were fortunate to grow up with the loving extended family I never had, with not one but both sets of grandparents seated alongside them at the Seder table. “The only thing missing,” I wrote on April 23, 2005, “were some young children to lead us.” Shortly thereafter we were blessed with the birth of our first grandchild.

As each of my three children married we welcomed their husbands and wives and in-laws and grandparents to join us, and their names were duly entered on the back of any available blank cover. During one Seder my daughter read aloud the date and comments she found between the covers of her copy. Almost on cue everyone seated around the table eagerly checked to see what had been notated in their Haggadot. That was when I realized how important my entries had become as a historical family legacy.

As the years passed the red and yellow paperback covers of the Hagaddot became stained with wine and frayed with use and so I bound each copy with a wide swath of tape to hold the spines together and preserve them for future generations. And just as the Haggadot had begun to age, so too family members became elderly. This year the grandfather who sang Had Gadya on his 100th birthday is no longer with us but the tradition will continue with his newborn great-grandson whose name will be entered between the covers as the telling continues.

Helen Zegerman Schwimmer is the author of the anthology, “Like The Stars of The Heavens.” She blogs at Helenschwimmer.com.

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