Friday, April 22, 2016

A Passover Story, as Told By Pete The Clown

The more I think about it, the bigger this coincidence gets.

Just moments ago, I was talking on Facebook with a young woman who I met in person just once before in my life—more than 30 years have passed. And the circumstances of that last meeting are so close to the situation we're in this minute, it's almost mystical. This story begs to be told.

Her name? Adrienne Ziegler-Shulman.

I met her back in the last century, when I was in university, after a sunny mid-April Friday afternoon like today at her family home in Thornhill, ON., when I showed up by surprise, with her older brother Stuart.

Stuart was one of my housemates in Ottawa, and earlier that Friday, I was taking in the Spring sun on the front porch when he emerged carrying a small satchel. He was, he told me, heading home for Passover.

I’d known Stuart mostly as a quiet very funny smart guy and one of the reasons I thought he was so cool was that his soft-spoken nature  cloaked a surprising anarchistic streak; something that said “I’m up for anything, at least once.” Seconds after he told me where he was going, he added, “Wanna come?”

Passover. That was sure something I had absolutely zero experience with.

I said “yeah!” And not packing much more than maybe a pair of socks, we headed to the Greyhound Station for a long’s evening ride to North York, just outside Toronto. 

From there, we went to what I thought was an extremely swanky family home in Thornhill and a mom--who despite neither having met me nor been warned of my arrival--greeted me like a loving aunt; with open arms and a late-night snack.  I immediately felt at home. 

The next 24 hours was life-changing and I am not exaggerating.

Up to that point in my life, I knew precious little about The Holocaust. Or Jewish history.  True fact.

But after Passover at Stuart’s? Phew!

We arrived late Friday and woke up early Saturday. And all day long, it seemed people kept showing up from who knew where. The house got very noisy.  Uncles –I remember one gentle man who ran a souvenir shop in Niagara Falls—aunts, and cousins seemed to invade and they each of them talked to me as if I were a welcome in-law or something.

Several of the older folks bore concentration-camp tattoos. And despite having to catch up with relatives and help with chores, each took time to patiently explain to me how lives had been devastated by the war; about how other people suffered, and—this part is key-- how families, faith and strength helped them through.

Years earlier, I had read Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning”, a holocaust-based story about the triumph of the human spirit under horrifying adversity, but until my weekend at Stuart's it remained pretty academic. 

At the Ziegler home, I could put real human faces to such heroism.

I once heard a management consultant –or maybe it was a Facebook Post—that was like, “People might forget what you say to them but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

The Ziegler family made me feel like I was a visiting dignitary. I left their home stronger; with even more faith in the human spirit.     

And while it’s not my job to share the Ziegler family stories, you can read one of them here. It’s an amazing story about Stu and Adrienne's mom Miriam’s historic return to Auschwitz on the 70th anniversary of liberation.  

Also very important to this blog: I recall laughing as much as not laughing that weekend.  

The Zieglers clearly believe laughter is as essential for life as water.

 Also, I’d come from Ottawa in jeans and a t-shirt. Passover Seder is something you dress up for.

So the morning of the feast, I went downtown to borrow dress clothes off some hippie friends and I wound up in a yellowish plaid suit belonging  to a guy who, although generous, was shorter and wider than me. I looked like a cartoonist’s version of a used-car-selling clown.  Plus I had long greasy hair and the kippah (the little hat) kept slipping off.

Adrienne just told me via Facebook, that she remembers the suit, too. But she was raised polite. She said, “you felt a bit awkward.”

 “You were also,” she reminded me, “a bit blown away at how many leftovers my mom insisted on sending you back to Ottawa with.”

Of course there was lots of food. That's why they call it a feast.  And most of it consisted of delights I’d never eaten before, like gefilte fish and little sandwiches full of horseradish.

Finally, Adrienne informed me today, as I type this blog, her heroic (my adjective) mom Miriam is “cooking up a storm and her food is still delicious.”

My thoughts will be with them as they sit down for Passover this weekend.

Being in that family’s presence was a privilege I’ll boast about until I’m too old to blog.


  1. You seem to have such a child's eyes and wonder when you look at any circumstance and perspective.
    I wish we were all as open to experience new things so openly and honestly as you've been able to. Don't grow up Peter.

  2. Great post. There's much to commend Passover, and it's considered a mitzvah - a blessing - to welcome a stranger to the family seder. Adrienne's is clearly a family full of menschlichkeit (you'll have to ask her).

    “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” - Maya Angelou (

  3. You read her right Peter, you've got that wide innocent persona when you put these thoughts on paper. Don't change
    BTW your personal writing style defines lots of your spirit