We never did the entire book, and I was happy to be spared a two-hour prayer dinner so I could instead focus on what was really important – my cousin's fantastic matzo ball soup and to-die-for brisket. I was raised as a happy little heathen, so when the haggadah asked, "Why is this night different from all other nights," I would think, Because I get to eat gefilte fish. We eventually stopped reading on Passover, and instead started with the most important element: food. I'm told the haggadah is still in the room, but we leave each other be.
This year, there was a fantastic addition to the festivities – family from my mother’s side that I had never met. I learned something this weekend: I do not have a small family. Finding this out made me happy. I always envied family reunions where all seven aunts and uncles, 22 first cousins, 13 second cousins, their kids, and various family friends crowded into one house for a lobster boil, sack races and in-fighting. Doesn’t that sound marvelous?
My mother had conveniently omitted (or, more likely, I hadn’t paid attention to the fact) that she has a bunch of first cousins, four of whom I had never met. They were invited to the picnic, and I was slated to be introduced to a few of her first and second cousins and their wives and children.
I was so excited that I started using exclamation points after everything:
“Here are the platters!”
“I’m taking a shower!”
“Did you clean the tables and chairs!”
Not grammatically correct, but I was a little emotional.
With all of these extra people we needed a venue bigger than my cousin's house, where it's normally held. Thus, my secular family ended up hosting their First Inaugural Rosh Hashanah Picnic. It had all the traditional food, including brisket, matzo balls, chicken with brie, spinach and pears, noodle kugel, kasha varnishkes and tandoori chicken. For dessert: cakes from a Lithuanian bakery, fruit salad, gulab jamun and Chocorooms.
Take notes, non-Jews. I will teach you the right way to throw a religious Jewish holiday party.
My long-lost relatives turned out to be lovely and, thankfully, talkative. I learned that I had a great-grandmother named Ethel. She was highly beloved, and after she died, my grandmother’s generation followed the tradition of naming their children after this respected relative. Therefore, my mother has three first cousins named Ethel. My grandmother didn’t like the name, and chose to use only the letter “E” and pick the name Ellen. Smart lady – none of the Ethels like their name. (Even though they did love their namesake.)
There’s New York Ethel. She uses her name, but thinks it’s ugly. There’s Boston Ethel, who goes by “Saf,” an abbreviation of her maiden name. And there’s Florida Ethel, who is referred to alternately as “Big Ethel” and “Tall Ethel.” It wasn’t clear whether she objects to her nicknames or her actual name. I’d understand either way. (On a side note, I find it telling that at 5-foot-7-inches, she is considered the tall one in our family. We are a short people.)
Disappointingly, my dreams of a crazy family reunion were dashed. Not one of my new relatives showed up drunk. No one appeared bitter about their portion of a long-forgotten will or wanted to continue arguments begun in 1968. And all of the children were adorable, well-behaved and friendly.
However, I still have high hopes. You never know who’ll show up next year!