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Voices Fall-Winter 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “A Method to Our Madness” by Miriam L. Wallach here.
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Volume 31

A Method to our Madness by Miriam L. Wallach

As a child, I spent the holidays with my cousins who lived in Manhattan. Passover, eight days long coupled with weeks of intense holiday preparation, was always the biggest “to do.” The two seder meals, on the first two nights of the holiday, each present the opportunity for a family and friends to partake in a lavish meal, retell the story of the Jews in Egypt, and enjoy each other’s company.

Miriam Wallach using a kugel pan to prepare the seder meal.
Author using the kugel pan to prepare the seder meal, April 2005. Photo courtesy of Stephen Wallach.

In accordance with Jewish dietary law, meat and milk are not eaten together, so meals are therefore meat or dairy, but not both. Traditionally, the seder meals are filled with meat dishes. Chicken soup, veal, roasts, and the like all adorn the beautifully set table. With no expense spared—as Jews on these nights are supposed to fancy themselves kings—course after course of various delicacies is served.

In my family, though, that’s not how it happened. While the first seder was certainly a meat meal, it was the second night that to many seemed quite unusual. To me, it was perfectly normal. We bucked tradition. We were rebels without a cause.

Deviating from the expected Passover fare, our second seder was filled with dairy delights. Instead of chicken soup with matzo balls, we had cream of potato and leek soup. The main dish was poached salmon with a sour cream sauce, roasted new potatoes, and other trimmings. For most of the year, my mother was and remains best known for talents outside the kitchen, but come Passover, her cheesecake and strawberry shortcake were anticipated by every member of the family.

To outsiders, it was a very strange family tradition—even sacrilegious. I would explain that once we removed the seder plate with its shank bone from the table and changed the tablecloth, we were free to eat all the milk, cheese, and matzo pizza we wanted. People didn’t accept the argument as valid: after all, it was a break with tradition, and it is tradition that has kept the Jewish people going for centuries. This, however, was our tradition, I explained, and it—like the story that accompanies it—is rooted in our family’s history.

My great-grandfather, Rabbi Aaron Charney, a learned and well-respected man who was affectionately known as Papa Charney to his children and grandchildren, was a pulpit rabbi in Bayonne, New Jersey, from the 1920s to the 1960s. Although the town is bereft of Jews today, it once had a thriving Jewish community, including many kosher butchers, a Jewish day school, and nine Orthodox synagogues. One of those Orthodox synagogues, Beth Abraham—long since demolished—was where Papa was rabbi. He was also the chaplain of the Shomrim Society, an association of Jewish firefighters and police officers with a membership of about seventy-five men, all of whom were invited to my great-grandparents’ home for lunch on the first day of Passover.

Rabbi Aaron Charney
Rabbi Aaron Charney. Photo courtesy of Barry Eisenberg.

Every year, this great group of burly men would descend on the Charney home for lunch. According to Jewish law, a day really begins the night before and then ends at sundown. While the midday meal took place on the first day of Passover, the first seder had happened the night before. Consequently, the second seder was the meal served right after the lunch for which the firemen had joined my family.

Grandma Miriam, Papa’s wife and my namesake, was the quintessential Jewish mother and homemaker. Catering this large meal, even if it had been an option, would not have been acceptable. In order to serve such a large number of men, she decided that the menu must be meat. She prepared huge quantities of meat and potato kugel, cooking the meat to make it tender enough to eat with a spoon, since the only utensil that Grandma and Papa had enough of for such a grand group were spoons. This meal was part of the Charney Passover tradition every year that my great-grandparents lived in Bayonne, until the end of their lives when Grandma was too frail to grate potatoes for the kugel. The large oval, green metal kugel pan that she used for this meal became an heirloom that my mother received when Grandma Miriam died and that she has since passed on to me. It is weathered and faded, but still strong.

The rationale for the dairy seder should be obvious to those who have eaten a good potato kugel that has been baked in a pot of oil and rendered chicken fat for hours. Simply, it became an issue of digestion. My ancestors could not fathom eating another heavy meal just a few hours after the kugel lunch. A dairy seder seemed like the perfect solution: a delicious meal filled with culinary favorites, but ones that were easier on the system. For decades, the dairy seder made its way into the homes of the children and grandchildren of the Charneys. While it might not have been the way it was meant to be done, it became the way we Charneys did it. Although we do not have a dairy seder anymore—all of us for various and valid reasons, having nothing to do with the invention of Tums—my cousins, siblings, and I all remember fondly those years we spent together at our dairy seder, drinking four cups of wine, asking the four questions, and shmearing our matzo with butter.


Miriam L. Wallach lives with her husband and three children on Long Island. She is a middle school language arts teacher with a master’s degree in early adolescent education. She is currently working toward a second master’s degree in English.

To outsiders, it was a very strange family tradition—even sacrilegious...This, however, was our tradition, I explained, and it—like the story that accompanies it—is rooted in our family’s history.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Fall-Winter 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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