First Person

Jewish World Review April 1, 2002 / 20 Nisan, 5762

Men in Black: A Passover tale of fish and family

By Helen Teitelbaum | It was the second day of Passover in 1983 and I had just brought my boyfriend, who lived a few blocks north of my grandparents' apartment on upper Broadway, to meet the family.

"Sit down, try some veesh," coaxed Bubba in her heavy Polish accent. On everyone's plate was a piece of gefilte fish sent by my grandfather's aunt, the Satmar Rebbetzin.

My father looked at it askance. "I don't eat fish," he said.

At her urging, he tried a bite and looked up, pleased.

"This isn't fish," he said. "It's chicken."

Bubba shook her head. "No, no, it's veesh. The rebbetzin told me it's veesh."

Dad replied, "If it were fish, I wouldn't eat it. I don't like fish. This is chicken."

Other family members weighed in on whether it was chicken or fish. My normally non-confrontational father kept insisting that the simple fact that he was eating the item in question determined its status as a non-fish. The banter that becomes life-and-death argumentatively in Jewish families went on for half an hour. My boyfriend, as would anyone, looked simply amused. I felt mortified.

"They're not always like that over silly things," I murmured to him.

But the Satmar connection wasn't so fishy. My Zayde's mother, who died in the Holocaust, was the sister of the Satmar Rebbe, who was rescued from Bergen Belsen and died in 1979 in his early nineties. He and his second wife, Faige, maintained close relations with my grandparents -- who had turned Zionist as teenagers but remained Orthodox -- and on occasion even with my parents, sister and me, although we were not.

I never met the rebbe, but we were at his funeral, along with more than 100,000 others. We would visit the rebbetzin once in a blue moon, the last time was two years ago, when she was entirely incapacitated from a stroke. My father, called "Chananya," his Hebrew name, by family members, still gets regular mailings for Satmar events addressed to "Reb Ch. Teitelbaum." "Reb," being an honorific.

My memory of the chicken-fish debate came up again last summer, when the rebbetzin died. Her death signaled the end of a connection between a cosmopolitan, Zionist, Jewishly engaged but non-Orthodox side of the family and an insular, militantly anti-Zionist one at the end of the Orthodox spectrum.

It's yichus I've always had mixed feelings about: On the one hand, this incredible religious and historical heritage has significance for me, especially in maintaining my Jewish identity and passing it on to my daughter. And the late Satmar Rebbe, whether or not one agreed with him, was considered across the board to be a great leader and wise man.

On the other hand, if I weren't related to him, I would just be another misguided Zionist and a lesser Jew. Interestingly, since the death of the rebbetzin, talk has surfaced in the Satmar community that the late rebbe had only one nephew, the current one. The other one, my grandfather, has been, intentionally or not, forgotten, something especially ironic considering they shared the same name, Joel Teitelbaum, and looked quite alike.

My grandfather died in 1988. The tiny rebbetzin, at his funeral, stared down the disapproving glances from the mass of Hasidic men, and walked right up to his grave to say goodbye.

That second Seder in 1983, was the first I had spent with my paternal grandparents. I was sixteen. Up til then I'd never had one with them because we didn't want to spend the night there, or have two days of being fully observant at their place or ours.

My grandparents, for their part, didn't want us to violate the injunction against driving on the holy day and so we had never had a Seder with them.

The religious conflicts between my Orthodox grandparents and my non-observant father and uncle were not spoken about in front of the grandchildren. One of the few manifestations I was aware of, was that we didn't have Seders with them. That year my grandparents agreed to us driving to them the second day of Passover so we could spend the holiday with them. And although I understand why they did not want us to violate the injunction against driving, I am eternally grateful that we had that Seder with them.

Within the confines of family, I cannot help but feel we are one. During that Seder, I heard my Bubbe sing a Passover niggun from her father, who, before World War II, was the Novominsker rebbe. My father, fortunately, learned it well from her and sings it every Passover, already 13 years after her death. We ate Satmar fish (it was indeed fish, as confirmed by a Satmar vendor at Kosherfest a few years ago).

Regardless of the differences, sometimes animosities, among the sects and denominations, every taste of our Hasidic past holds meaning for me. I hope it will hold meaning for my daughter, who will know of my grandparents and our history only through me and my parents.

Helen Teitelbaum is Middlesex bureau chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Comment by clicking here.


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