In the mid afternoon on Passover eve, a special guest would come to my parents home. Martzi Baci. Uncle Martin, my great uncle. I don’t recall him visiting us at any other time, only on Erev Pesach and for the Seders.
His routine was as follows; he’d come in, take off his coat, light up another cigarette,one always seemed to be dangling from his mouth, and head straight the the kitchen which my mother, a wonderful cook herself gladly ceded to him.
An apron tied round his waist, Martzi got to work preparing the ceremonial foods for the Seder meal, hard labor in those pre food processor days, but . Martzi.was up for the challenge Before retiring, Martzi had been a chef running the kitchen at a posh Arizona resort where the guests were millionaires, movie stars and politicians. But even as he worked, he always seemed to have time to chat with a little girl.
“Oh how are you doing with school,” he’d ask.
“Not so good” , I mumbled. I was in third grade at the time, and struggling with arithmetic and hopeless at sports.
“Oh I didn’t like school either. Was no good at it.. You know I was so bad that I flunked the second and fourth grade.”
That story blew me away. Never had I encountered an adult who willingly confessed to struggling with school.
Years later, I discovered that it was a myth, a fabrication, that Martzi had gotten though school just fine and even spent several years at a Yeshiva in his native Hungary.
He left the heim sometime around the first world war. The stories about that are fuzzy. I once heard cousins say that he went pink and found his way into Bela Kuns revolutionary army for a time. Sometime in the early 20s after the Johnson act curtailed European immigration he made it to America illegally, taking a job on a ship and slipping into New York City after the boat docked.
It was in New York that he met his wife, Esti Neni, a good looking divorcee with a child. and papers, the term they used back then for a green card. For reasons that are not known to me, Esther was allergic to religion. In her home, there was no Passover, no Seder, no Rosh hashana , no Yom kippur.
For a long time Martzi went along with it. That was his family, his life. Europe seemed very distant and he went along with the amnesia of assimilated Jewish culture but then one year my mother invited him to join our family and he said. yes. I don’t know what caused him to agree, good manners, nostalgia, or a respect for my mother who lived out the war in Europe and spent a year in Aushwitz but after that he came each year, until his death, when I was eight.
On Seder night Martzi was different, morphed into his childhood persona Mordche, the bochur from Tur Terebes. He spent the entire time immersed in ritual tasks. After he finished preparing the kaira, the Seder plate, he changed his clothing, went to shul and the took my father’s seat at the head of our mahagony dining room table to conduct the Seder. His Seder wasn’t just a prelude to the meal. It was a real Seder, run exactly as his pious father had run it in Europehe Hagaddah straight through without skipping anything.
Looking back on it all, I don’t know how he managed to live inside the paradox, conducting a strictly orthodox Seder and then going back home on the subway a wife who was making sandwiches. He never spoke about it. People back then were reticent, un-analytic, very much in the moment.
I suppose there are those who would call Martzi a sinner, the bad son of the Hagaddah, but they couldn’t have met him, seen him chopping and grinding with the seriousness of a priest in the Holy Temple. I prefer to see him as another kind of son, not included in the Hagaddah’s four categories, but very much present among us, the son who has gone some distance but is trying to find a way back home.
First Published April 2010