Jewish holidays were associated with certain traditions when I was growing up. Horrific traffic was often part of it.
Rosh Hashana was celebrated by going to Aunt Simma’s house in Port Washington for a family dinner. We battled the traffic on the Long Island Expressway. My father never learned to cope with it despite being a life-long resident of Brooklyn – he may have invented road rage. All of us in the car tried to become invisible, silently shrinking into our seats so as not to increase his wrath. We tried to ignore his steady stream of invective. My mother would make excuses for the poor choices of the other drivers. After someone cut us off, she might suggest, ”Maybe his child has a stomach ache and he’s just trying to get home faster.” Somehow this didn’t help.
Traveling ever so slowly to Long Island, I would look out as the houses changed to single family, larger homes with lovely landscaping. Arriving in Port Washington it seemed a different world from my own with its dirty sidewalks, postage stamp-sized lawns and multifamily, attached homes.
Although Rosh Hashana is a high holiday on the Jewish calendar that for many meant hours in synagogue, our celebration was an excuse to gather as a family and have traditional foods like chicken soup, brisket and noodle kugel.
Passover meant dealing with the traffic on the West Side Highway in Manhattan. Aunt Diane’s apartment was on West 104th street between Broadway and West End Avenue. In those days, when New York City was the murder capital of the world, each block was a different neighborhood. 104th west of Broadway was safe, 103rd east of Broadway wasn’t. Gentrification wasn’t even a concept yet. One thing remains the same – looking for parking was, and is, a nightmare.
Their apartment, on the 16th floor, was overheated so the windows were open. I would stand in front of the window in the bathroom and look out at the city – listening to the traffic and sirens, feeling the cool air, looking at the lights, imagining the lives in the apartment buildings across the way – I relished the feeling of being both removed from and in the midst of the energy of the city.
One Passover seder in particular was memorable – not really for the seder itself, but for what my family did afterwards.
The seder was a long, involved affair, filled with ritual and song. Uncle Paul came from a long line of rabbis and his family knew many traditional melodies. It was their custom to discuss the story of the Exodus and its various interpretations. It took a very long time to get to the matzoh ball soup.
This particular year the movie The Godfather had just come out, it had opened a few days earlier and was playing to sold out theaters in the city. My Dad was dying to see the movie. He was not a religious man, dubious about the existence of God and not one to enthusiastically partake of Jewish rituals. Attending the seder at his sister’s house evoked many conflicting emotions for him: his relationship with his sisters and parents was strained at best, he hated the traffic, he didn’t exactly get along with his brother-in-law and though the lesson of Passover, remembering our oppression and valuing freedom, was a core value, he probably could have done without the lengthy service.
Finally, the seder concluded at about 11:00 p.m. When we got to the car, Dad asked my mom, “Feige, what do you think? Can we get in to see ‘The Godfather’ now?”
The movie was playing around the clock in certain Manhattan theaters.
My mother, always ready for a movie, said, “Why not? Let’s try.”
“You kids okay with that,” Dad asked. Mark and I shrugged, okay. (Steven was away working at a hotel in the Poconos.)
We drove to the east side (getting crosstown through Central Park without traffic!) and were relieved to find that there were seats available. We got tickets for the midnight showing. I was 12 years old. My father, who had grown up in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, was fascinated by the mob. I teased him about reading “The Don is Dead” multiple times. He read every book that came out about the Mafia. His parents, who owned a small grocery, had personal experience with mobsters who provided protection in the neighborhood.
I vividly recall certain scenes from the movie – one involving a horse’s head and another Sonny Corleone’s demise. I’m thinking it probably wasn’t a great choice for me at that age and at that hour of the night. But it was memorable.
The movie ended at about 3 in the morning. As he drove us back to Canarsie, Dad expounded on why he thought it was such a great movie. We hit no traffic. A perfect ending to our seder night.