Remembering the Passover Fish in the Bathtub
PassoverShaindle's Shpiel

Remembering the Passover Fish in the Bathtub

Let's spring back to a simpler time when nine people could share one Bronx bathroom.

Shaindle Schmuckler

Shaindle Schmuckler spreads her energy and humor as a regular contributor to the Atlanta Jewish Times.

Back in the day, you didn't get your gefilte fish on a store shelf. (State Library and Archives of Florida)
Back in the day, you didn't get your gefilte fish on a store shelf. (State Library and Archives of Florida)

Let’s go back.

Back when “be safe” meant looking both ways before crossing the street.

Back when my grandparents (Mama and Papa) lived on Elsmere Place in the Bronx.

For many years, this second-story walk-up with three designated bedrooms, two front rooms (one used as a bedroom) and a small bathroom, all off the long, dark hallway, was home. This hallway was the bane of my childhood life. It was dark enough to cajole my imagination into keeping me terrorized. Of what? I have no clue.

The apartment at 790 Elsmere Place was the first home in the United States of my grandparents and their four children, who stayed they after they married until they could afford a place of their own. At one time this apartment was filled with two married daughters and their spouses, one grandchild, one unmarried daughter and one unmarried son.

Can you imagine they shared one bathroom? I see chaos in the mornings when all occupants had to ready themselves for work and my cousin had to get ready for school.

Did law-abiding people actually live this way? Yup, and no one left for lack of bathrooms.

There we held our seders, the meals celebrating our freedom from slavery.

Preparing the seder meant ridding the apartment of all chametz, preparing a mountain of food, unpacking special Passover dishes, cleaning, shouting, rearranging furniture, schlepping the chair, and, most important, keeping a fish in the bathtub, which completely freaked me out.

I had no clue where the fish came from or where it went after lounging in the bathtub. I sort of remember looking at it and hoping it would escape with a quick swim down the drain.

I was a child with a vivid imagination. I could not, however, imagine the fish becoming gefilte fish. No way would I accept such barbaric actions by my own family.

Pesach arrives in the spring, the time of the year for new clothes. Some years I would wear a hand-me-down (HMD) from my cousin.

My love of the HMD label began with my cousin’s clothes. I thought she was fabulous. Truth be known, I still prefer the HMD line.

One year when I was 5 or 6 years old, I wore what I believed was the most beautiful new dress. I felt like a princess. The plaid, flared skirt was a soft, quilted fabric. When I would spin, the skirt would fly around me.

My Mama and Papa (z”l) had a tufted, velveteen Victorian chair that sat in one of the back corners of the front room (magically turned into a Passover dining room), to the left of the tall grandfather clock.

I thought this chair was for a queen or a princess. This particular Passover, with this particular dress, this particular chair helped me pretend I lived in a castle.

The prayer books were long, with not a word in English. We children were trained to remain quiet while the grown-ups read the haggadah to us.

Finally, it was time to open the door for Elijah. We could not endure another minute of keeping our own counsel. Our collective voices screamed, “My turn! My turn to open Elijah’s door!”

But being chosen made me almost mute with terror. The front door was at the end of that long, dark hallway.

I held the door open until I heard someone yelling the words I longed to hear: Farmach de tear (shut the door).

Before the grown-ups got to the part where they told us we could look for the afikomen, I would slide under the big table so I could witness who hid the matzah and where. We kids would run around like little chickens without heads in the search, with a prize (usually money) going to the winner.

Until it was discovered that little Shaindle was hiding under the table, under cover of her new flared dress, I had the advantage. After all, a girl must do what a girl must do.

I think back to those seders with warm and loving memories. I felt safe and connected to something big. I still imagine that I can hear the grown-ups singing and that I can smell the delicious food.

Believe me when I say that I am not referring to the fish in the bathtub.

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