Matzah Balls, Four Questions and a Postwar Celebration: Seniors Recall the Passover Seders of Their Childhoods


The matzah ball debate was alive and well at Bill Fox’s childhood seders.

Fred Shapiro and wife Madeline (Courtesy of the Shapiros)

The matzah balls were either called feathers — the light, fluffy kind — or bombs — the chewy, heavy kind. Fox’s mother, Anne, would make both, to accommodate everyone’s personal preference.

“We had great discussions every holiday about whether the bombs were chewy and heavy enough and whether the feathers were light and fluffy enough,” said Fox, 80, of Pikesville.

Family bonding, rituals and songs — for many Jews, some of their fondest childhood memories are of the Passover seder.

“Passover was the best holiday for me as a child, and it is today,” said Fox, an auctioneer, lawyer and former securities firm executive. “We were surrounded not just by our immediate family, but by our uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.”

Fox’s father always led the service and loved to sing, said Fox, who is a past vice chairman of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville and active in pro-Israel organizations.

“There was a favorite cantor who was world-renowned at the time, Moishe Oysher. My dad had an LP, and at Passover time, he played the various Passover songs like ‘Chad Gadya,’” Fox recalled. “The LP was passed down to me, and all my kids grew up with that as well.”

Fred Strober, 74, of Elkins Park, a Philadelphia suburb, remembers how large the seders he grew up with were. His mother and her sister were married to his father and his brother. “Thirty to 40 people would gather at Aunt Betty’s house for Pesach. The two families, the Strobers and the Rivlins, were very close,” Strober said.

Strober, a soon-to-be retiring lawyer who belongs to Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, recalled that he was the youngest boy, so he asked the Four Questions. His mother made him take an afternoon nap because he would be up so late.

“That was the highlight of my year,” said Strober, who grew up attending an Orthodox Hebrew school five days a week at Congregation Shaaray Tefila in Far Rockaway, N.Y. “I would practice and practice as if it were my bar mitzvah to make sure that I did it well in front of my family. I was very nervous, but they were very adoring, and I looked forward to the adoration and being the center of things during their seder.”

The proper consistency of matzah balls was also a lighthearted point of contention between the Rivlins and the Strobers. The Strobers’ hard matzah balls were young Fred Strober’s favorite. “My family members were of all political persuasions that by the end of the seder I thought we’d be throwing the balls at each other,” he quipped. “But I say that somewhat in jest.”

The food his mother prepared “was absolutely unbelievable. Everybody looked forward to the meals. Her fried matzah for breakfast sticks in my mind.”

Fred Shapiro, 90, a retired management consultant, is active in the Jewish community of Leisure World, in Silver Spring outside Washington, D.C. He said he started learning Hebrew when he was a 3-year-old boy in Brooklyn. The first time he asked the Four Questions was at age 4 at his house.

His father was a neighborhood grocer, and when Passover rolled around, he changed over the store to accommodate kosher-for-Passover foods. “I delivered the foods, the matzah, with a wagon, walking around a three- or four-block neighborhood in East New York, Brooklyn,” Shapiro recalled.

Sheldon Goldberg, 84, of Silver Spring, is a Vietnam War veteran. He is also retired from the Air Force and from the CIA. Today, he is active in Jewish War Veterans. A native of South Carolina, Goldberg remembers Passovers at his grandmother’s house, mostly for the mystery of the hidden afikomen. “No matter what I did or my cousins did, we could never find the afikomen,” he said. “Year after year after year, as long as we were there, we would see my grandfather break it and used to watch him like a hawk. We could never find it.”

One memorable Passover for Goldberg occurred in 1969, when Goldberg was stationed at a Georgia Air Force base. “We had a group of Israeli pilots, and the base did everything possible to have a Passover seder. But what happened apparently is they could not find a kosher ladle to dish out the soup. The Israelis got impatient, and pretty soon they were banging on the tables and were singing and yelling. Finally, everything got settled and the ladle came.”

Felicia Graber, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor, wasn’t aware she was Jewish until she was 7 years old. Her parents pretended to be Catholic to escape the Nazis and communists, before fleeing to Western Europe after the war.

Graber, 83, now lives in Park Heights in Baltimore. She is a book author and retired high school teacher, and she belongs to Agudath Israel of Baltimore and Congregation Tiferes Yisroel. She vividly remembers one seder in Germany after the war.

“We had this beautiful apartment where all our friends, who were all Holocaust survivors, were seated at an extended table, and my mother would be going back and forth to the table set up by beautiful dishes — the best linen, china and crystal,” she recalled. “My father sat at the head of the table and had a Haggadah in front of him. He knew the whole book by heart. Other survivors recited from the Haggadah.

“My father sang the traditional tunes and interspersed it all with stories from the ‘old days’ from the days before 1939.

“It was a joyous experience, feeling part of a group, some of it a little bit new to me, but it felt good,” Graber said. “It’s almost like I came back to my roots, getting back to my Jewishness.”

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