BY CHANA SHAPIRO / AJT //
Most people consider matzah to be the main symbol of Passover. For some, though, it’s the four cups of wine (and the inevitable wine stains), the charred shank bone or the heated bartering over the afikomen at the end of the seder. Still others deem the Cup of Elijah to be the most significant sign that this holiday is different from all others.
For me, however, the central symbol of Passover is the bathtub.
The Passover bathtub goes way back in our family. The story began because each year during the Festival of Freedom, my father was liberated from his own bed and assigned to the family’s cast-iron tub.
My paternal grandparents hosted large family seders, and when they did their three-bedroom apartment became a makeshift hotel in which every bed, pallet, sofa and comforter were given to relatives who came to the city from the small towns in which they lived.
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In the immediate family, there were five siblings, and my father, being the middle child as well as the most accommodating and easy-going of the lot, was from the age of three assigned to sleep in the bathtub while Passover guests were present.
Thus it became his annual Pesach bed for many years.
My father told us that he didn’t mind sleeping in the tub. To make room for their guests, his younger siblings had to share one crib, and the older ones slept on the fire escape. He was thrilled that he didn’t have to wrestle with squirrels and birds for space.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the family, my mother’s parents put their bathtub to use as a fish pond. Believing (as did her contemporaries) that “fresher is better,” my grandmother never bought dead poultry or fish; no, Grandma bought only live chickens, which she brought to the shochet.
And just before Pesach, the family bathtub was the temporary home of a huge live carp, which she single-handedly slaughtered in her own kitchen.
I’m glad I wasn’t there to see the violent side of her. On the other hand, I regret that I never personally witnessed a live fish blithely swimming in that large, porcelain oval.
But my mother, aunt and uncles told us about their initial childhood revulsion, gradual affection, sad farewell and subsequent consumption of the finned captive. The siblings couldn’t bear to witness its demise, but they did manage to devour all the gefilte fish of which the carp was the main ingredient.
From One Generation to the Next
When I was a kid, Pesach was a time of self-control and advance planning, so my brother and I learned to take our own pesadik food with us whenever we were away from home. Portable meals came in two varieties: Our mother sent us off with brown paper sacks containing a matzah-salami sandwich and an apple, or we were given two hard-boiled eggs and matzah slathered with butter and sugar.
As you might gather from this, many families had more relaxed culinary standards than ours; therefore, for eight days, there were only a few houses in which we would even drink a glass of milk. But one of these safe residences was the apartment of our eccentric great-uncle, Morris.
Thus, once on a Sunday during Pesach my brother Aaron and I decided to visit Uncle Morris –his wife made delicious Pesach cookies. Aaron asked to use the bathroom, and when he came out, he grabbed me and insisted that I go in to see for myself.
We knew this couple always brought along several bottles of sweet wine for the seders, but we were still shocked when we saw in the bathtub gigantic hunks of melting ice surrounding floating, mismatched bottles of wine.
Naturally, we asked Uncle Morris about the wine, and that’s how Aaron and I learned that Morris – who always seemed a little loopy – had his own mini-winery in the basement. It reached capacity just in time for Pesach, and he carefully collected and counted all the bottles after the seders in order to start again.
Morris offered to take us down to the cellar to show us his set-up, but we were frightened. If you’d have known Morris, you’d have been frightened, too.
The Tradition on Hold…For Now
When we married, Zvi and I started hosting our own seders. Short on cash and unable to buy new tableware for Passover, we went to our rabbi, from whom we learned that anything made of glass could be koshered by immersion for three days as long as the water in which everything soaked was changed daily.
Of course, the only place big enough to accommodate our glass plates, pitchers, tumblers and wine goblets was our bathtub. To bathe or to eat, that was the question; for three days, we labored, on the fourth day we showered, and that night, we ate.
This three-day soaking ritual was part of our Passover preparation for years. When we moved into an apartment with two bathrooms, we felt like royalty; we could kosher glassware and bathe on the same days!
Eventually, though, we were able to buy new Pesach-specific dinnerware. Like the carp in the bathtub, another ritual bit the dust.
Now, I know every Jew knows what I mean when I say that I can’t wait for the cleaning and cooking to end and the seders to begin. As we read the Haggadah, we experience a “Jewish spring,” an opportunity to join our Biblical forbearers.
We think about our personal Egypts and pray that we can get through our own deserts. Is there any wonder that people all over the world have adopted and adapted our liberation story?
But I bet none of their sagas contain a single bathtub tale.
Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines.