At my family’s Passover seder this year, we celebrated the survival of the Jewish people-my grandmother in particular. At the age of 98, she entered New York Hospital on Feb. 11 in severe pain. Her small intestine had become blocked. The doctor in the emergency room gave us two options-either operate and she’d probably die, or don’t operate and she definitely would.
The line on my grandmother, who came from Russia, is that she was lucky to have married my grandfather, a successful businessman. Her friends and relatives confidently attributed her longevity to a stress-free life-much of it spent in her chaise longue overlooking Central Park, reading magazines and biting her fingernails, her only vice.
But in the last several years, she had had a succession of small strokes. She couldn’t walk unassisted anymore or even remember whether she’d visited Strawberry Fields in Central Park, where she went for her daily outing, an hour earlier. In short, her luck seemed to have run out.
A few months ago, her 96-year-old brother-in-law, Fritz, suffered a fall and was taken to the hospital for the last time-blind and more incoherent with each passing day. The next time I visited my grandmother, I told her nurse, Tanya, that Fritz had said he wanted to die. My grandmother, with whom I assumed our conversation wasn’t even registering, suddenly turned to me.
“Nobody wants to die,” she stated flatly.
What I’ve discovered from spending time with her and with others as they’ve gotten old is that when everything else starts deserting you-your body, pieces of mind-the one thing that remains intact is your character. If anything, it becomes magnified. The mean get even nastier. The selfish more self-absorbed. My grandmother became uncomplaining.
It turned out that her sunny disposition was more than the result of the Givenchy dresses that my grandfather, who died in 1975, bought for her. Whenever you ask her how she feels, the answer is always the same: “Fine.” She’s not looking for anybody’s sympathy. She has no use for it. In fact, she denied she needed help walking even after she was in a wheelchair, and sometimes even claimed not to know who you were talking about when you mentioned Tanya, her devoted nurse. She even had a smile on her face as she was wheeled into the operating room.
Shortly after the operation was successfully completed, her surgeon revealed that her chances of survival going into the procedure had been around 20 percent and that the doctor remained pessimistic that she’d pull through. The following day, my grandmother opened her eyes in the intensive care unit, recognized me, gave me a warm smile and tried to say a few words through her oxygen mask. A week and a half later, she was back home. Passover doubled as her coming-out party.
Since I’ve never been to anybody else’s seder, I don’t know how they’re supposed to operate, though I’ve received indications that ours falls somewhat short of the traditional. When I was growing up, our seder used to be held at the apartment of my uncle Simon, my grandfather’s brother and business partner, who lived several doors south on Central Park West.
The part of the evening all the children waited for was to steal the afikomen, the Passover matzoh without which the service couldn’t be completed, and then to sell it back to my uncle. This involved protracted negotiations that concluded when he magically produced, from his inside jacket pocket, envelopes with our names written on them containing $20 bills.
One year, Simon’s son, the movie director Henry Jaglom, brought an actress named Sandra Smith to the seder. The following night, she appeared on the Tonight Show , where she announced that she’d attended her first seder the previous evening. Johnny Carson asked her exactly what happens at a seder.
“You and your brothers were crawling under the table trying to steal the matzoh from my father,” Henry remembered. “She described the process,” including the horse trading and the magic, money-filled envelopes. Simon’s wife, Marie, had even employed Sandra to distract her husband as the kids swiped the afikomen-all of which she dutifully reported to Johnny.
“We heard there were over 400 protests from rabbis and rabbinical groups-’This is not what Passover is all about,’” Henry recalled recently. “Johnny Carson had to go on the air and do an apology for Sandy Smith. He said, ‘Apparently, she went to an eccentric seder at the Jaglom family. We have been instructed what Passover is …’” Then, Henry said, Johnny went into the exodus from Egypt.
The following year, Henry considered bringing Natalie Wood to Passover. “My mother said, ‘I’ll have to check with your father,’” he remembered. “‘Ever since Sandy went on TV, he’s concerned about whom you bring.’”
After Simon’s death in 1992, the seder switched to my grandmother’s apartment, though the rituals remained the same. There was still the hunt for the afikomen, the negotiating-now with our own children, who aren’t half the deal makers we were-the money envelopes and Henry’s celebrity girlfriends. The singer Andrea Marcovicci showed up with him a few seasons ago, straight from her gig at the Algonquin. Unfortunately, she was observing a “vocal rest,” as Henry described the situation, and could only communicate with us through notes. However, that didn’t dissuade my grandmother and several other knowledgeable relatives from trying to convince Andrea, a Catholic, that she was Jewish. Apparently, they knew lots of Jewish Marcoviccis in Romania, where they moved when they left Russia after the 1917 revolution.
There were no celebrities at our seder this year-unless you include my grandmother. Fully recovered and resplendent in one of her designer dresses, she sat through the entire three-hour ritual repeating the Hebrew prayers, sipping wine, singing “Dayenu,” the traditional seder song and, frankly, eating like a horse. She polished off her gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, roast chicken and more than her fair share of sorbet.
As the meal wore down, I took a seat beside her and asked her how she felt. “I’m glad I was here again,” she said softly-a classic bit of understatement.
When somebody shouted the traditional closing Passover salute, “Next year in Jerusalem!” another family member, in deference to my grandmother, who no longer travels as well as she once did, amended that to “Next year here again.”
My grandmother, nodding vigorously, thanked everyone for coming, boarded her wheelchair and vanished into her bedroom for the rest of the night-to everybody’s relief. In years past, she took it as a personal slight if you left before midnight.