"Why is this night different from all other nights?"
That's a question that will be asked in millions of Jewish homes Monday night during a Passover seder _ or festive meal _ in which the story is told of the exodus of the Jews from bondage in Egypt.
The "why is this night different" question precedes four others chanted by the youngest child capable of doing so.
Since I was the youngest kid in my family, I was the one who usually got to (or, more accurately, had to) recite The Four Questions in sort of a sing-song Hebrew.
Maybe it's a symptom of my advancing age, but this year I find myself _ like Charles Dickens' Scrooge haunted by The Ghost of Christmas Past _ caught up in bittersweet memories of Passovers Past.
Some are sad because I miss a world that no longer exists ... if indeed it ever truly existed in anything but a child's perspective.
My ghosts include loved ones who no longer reside in this world, laughter that bounced off the walls, and the feeling of security I got from being part of a large, boisterous family.
"These are but shadows of things that have been," said The Ghost of Christmas Past.
It's the early 1960s, and my grandparents Hymie and Dora Brodsky's apartment on Van Sicklen Avenue in Brooklyn is teeming with their three adult children who brought along their many offspring.
Grandpa is at the head of the table, with his Yiddish-accented voice mumbling some Hebrew prayers before the seder. Grandma is in the kitchen brewing chicken soup so good that I can still taste it.
My parents and every other adult in the place are talking at the same time, with the volume rising by the minute. Absolutely no one is doing any listening.
As for me, I'm engaged in a never-ending competition of "I got you last" with my cousin Arthur.
I can't imagine Grandpa ever having been young, He's very religious and runs what I feel is way too long of a seder that must be completed before everyone can eat the "festive meal."
The highlight for me is when everyone sings a happy song called "Dienu" (pronounced dye-ain-nu).
The song's grateful theme is that if all the miracles that enabled "us" to escape Egypt and enter the land of Israel had not been done, it still "would have been sufficient."
Arthur's older sisters Linda and Gloria sing it the loudest and have the most fun with it. Many years later, I'll remember them when I watch my three daughters sing the same song with the same gusto and happiness.
After the story of the Exodus is told and everyone has been sumptuously fed and then regaled with still more loud conversation, it's finally time to say goodbye.
Everyone has a coat on and is standing at the door. Everyone, that is, except Arthur and me. Experience has taught us that when our parents start saying goodbye, we've got at least another 20 minutes to hit each other and say "I got you last" before anyone actually leaves the apartment.
Those are the ghosts of my distant past.
My newer ghosts appear decades later. I'm in Oneonta, and I'm the guy at the head of the table conducting a seder for my four children and my amazing wife. She has prepared a festive meal worthy of anything Grandma Dora ever made.
Before the seder begins, the tradition is for a cup of wine to be poured for the prophet Elijah, and a door is left ajar to permit him entry.
We joke about how many cups of wine Elijah must have to drink and envision him lurching drunkenly from house to house. I'm not sure Grampa would have thought that was funny.
My daughters laugh and they sing Dienu, and my son asks the "Four Questions." They all insist that I do it, too, because they like the way I chant it.
Those are the ghosts I miss most of all.
Now, my daughters are grown up and all live thousands of miles away. This Monday night, it will just be my son, my wife and me. We'll try to call each daughter on the phone when we get to "Dienu" so they can sing along.
It's not the same, but I can live with the ghosts of Passover Present. It's another ghost that concerns me.
"Ghost of the Future," said Scrooge, "I fear you more than any Specter I have seen."
I know just how the old boy felt. It's frightening to envision a Passover without any of my children around.
But maybe ... maybe there's no reason to fear the future. Maybe one day that ghost will show me conducting a seder for a whole lot of grandchildren who just can't imagine Grandpa ever being young.
I really hope there's more than a ghost of a chance of that happening, because for me, that would surely be a night different from all other nights.
Sam Pollak is editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.
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