Passover Memories (and a few recipes)
No holiday in the Jewish tradition requires as much preparation or has as many rules and restrictions as Passover. We are supposed to go beyond the standard laws of kashrut, breaking out new sets of meat and dairy dishes and cleansing every inch of our home of chametz. And the list of what we are permitted to eat for eight days is much shorter than what is forbidden.
The extensiveness of ritual and prep work involved mirrors the depth of the Passover story itself —the history of the emergence of an independent Jewish nation. We are commanded to tell the story to our children as though “we ourselves were slaves in Egypt.” But is this collective memory a truth or fiction?
Each year we retell the story of our ancestors’ release from bondage in Egypt as they went forth into the Sinai. Oh yay! No longer slaves, the Israelites instead found themselves wandering around a barren desert with no idea how to get to the promised land. All this makes for a story loaded with symbolism, conflict, and interesting characters… not unlike our annual Seder. Indeed, what other Jewish holiday offers enough pathos and drama to be featured in movies and musicals? Certainly not Rosh Hashanah.
This Shabbat my rabbi recalled the sermon Rabbi David Wolpe gave on Passover in 2001. Wolpe’s comments sparked international controversy when he suggested that the story of Exodus might be fictional. In lieu of a sermon this Shabbat, fellow congregant and archaeological scholar, Ahuva Ho, spoke about the historicity of the Exodus story.
A fascinating topic, but whether or not the Exodus is factual is not that important to me. Either way, it is a story so rich it remains the center of scholarly work. Three thousand years later it still serves as the basis of a major religion, a philosophy of life, and a guide of laws and rituals that informs the lives of the modern Jewish people. The story that we share at Seder each year allows us to revisit our slavery and liberation while creating new family traditions and memories with and for our own children.
The first Seder Scott and I hosted was small. We lived in New Jersey, far from any family, so it was just us and a few friends. Our friend Viktor, a child of Ukranian refuseniks, offered to bring—actually, make, from scratch—gefilte fish. (I guess in Kiev you couldn’t just go down to the market and buy some gefilte fish in a jar.) He said he’d need a big pot and that he would bring the fish, which he purchased in Chinatown on his way to our apartment. The fish made their final Hudson River crossing on the PATH train to New Jersey, still flopping and squirming as Viktor knocked on our apartment door. Twenty years later, it is still the freshest and best gefilte fish that we have ever tasted.
A year later we moved to California and hosted our family Seder. We packed twenty people into a dining room well-suited for eight. That first year in our new home I made a flourless chocolate cake, using for the first time a springform baking pan. I thought the little handle on the pan was meant for a better grip, and I grasped it on the way to the oven. Should have read Baking for Dummies! With batter now all over the floor I quickly commanded our puppy Spenser to sit! and stay! As I wiped up the dog-toxic batter, Spenser couldn’t help but slowly slide backwards on the slick linoleum floor, never once budging from his sitting position. In subsequent years, no matter how craftily I hid the kosher-for-Passover chocolate chips, Spenser still found his way into them, and twice ended up on pre-Seder trips to the vet to have his stomach pumped.
A few years later as a family of four we attended a synagogue retreat at Camp Ramah in Ojai. Each such event featured a scholar-in-residence, and this year it was Noam Tzion, co-author of A Different Night, The Family Participation Haggadah. Noam’s Haggadah would transform our Seder for eternity. We no longer conduct the Seder at the dinner table. Instead we sit comfortably in the family room on the couch surrounding a table of fun Seder-appropriate fun and tasty food. No one is antsy for our Seder to end because there are plenty of appetizers and we have fun retelling the story.
This year I accidentally lit my hair on fire while passing the karpas. Miraculously, though my hair was aflame, it was not consumed. Well, maybe a little bit. In any event, a pretty neat trick but not a tradition I’ll be continuing.
As always, this year’s Seder evoked nostalgia. After the flaming hostess incident, Uncle Ben said the smell of my singed hair reminded him of when his mom and grandmother used to singe the feathers off the chickens while preparing for Shabbat and holidays. We also heard for the first time about Scott’s great-grandpa Jake’s Seders which were conducted entirely in Hebrew, even though none of the children knew Hebrew. Oy! (Fortunately no one recalled the Brussels Sprout Confrontation from the holiday we spent with our Orthodox relatives who do not think small cabbages can be adequately cleaned and are therefore not kosher.)
Passover was the last holiday my mom spent with us before her cancer took control of her destiny. That last Passover she spent with us she was weak and exhausted from chemo and radiation treatments. It was also the last time she visited our house and read to our children. She barely made it upstairs to kiss the kids goodnight. The two full days I spend each year cooking for the Seder allow me many solitary hours to think about my mom.
Last year was the first time in a few years that our good friends Ben and Barbara were not with us for Passover. Ben and Barbara help me cook and Ben always makes the gravy so we really need them to come back. They also brought us the tradition of searching for the chametz with a feather and symbolically burning it. Our daughter really likes that and missed not doing it this year.
By the way, my Seder menu is pretty tasty so I’ll share it below with some recipes. I’d love to hear about your family Seder traditions and recipes so please write back with some comments.
Appetizers: crudite, steamed artichokes with dips, olives, deviled eggs – according to A Different Night, the original Rabbinic custom was to serve substantial appetizers during the Seder. “The stomach which gets its due early in the seder liberates the mind to engage in the main course of the seder; telling the story and discussing freedom and slavery.”
Charoset: Israeli Charoset, Moroccan Charoset, Ashkenazi Charoset – I like to make a variety from different countries representing Jews from all over the world.
At the dinner table: Gefilte fish, Chicken soup with Matzoh Balls – For clear broth, strain soup through sieve while ladling in to bowls.
- Turkey with fruit-nut stuffing
- Bialystok Tzimmes from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America
- Mrs. Feinberg’s Vegetable Kugel – I have never met anyone who does not love this dish! It’s also impossible to ruin no matter how badly you measure any of the ingredients.
- Brussel Sprouts Hash with Caramelized Shallots
- Beet Salad with Orange and Shaved Fennel