Three thousand years after the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the Passover Seder meal commemorating that event is still being celebrated in much the original way. Jews still eat the unleavened bread, taste of bitter herbs, ask the four ritual questions, drink four cups of wine and open the door for Elijah the prophet to come in and take part. This year the Seder meal is eaten after sundown on April 23. Passover begins April 24 and lasts eight days.
The way each family observes the Seder reflects a particular background. But until I attended the Seder of my husband's family I did not realize how different those observances could be.
My parents' Seder never began with the meal itself. Cocktails came first (a startling aberration, I learned later, from Jewish tradition), then matzo with herring in cream sauce and chopped liver, and gefilte fish balls. I preferred the herring; the only good thing about the gefilte fish seemed to be the horseradish around it. (Years later when I tasted my mother-in-law's gefilte fish I realized that it could be delicious.)
Haggadah on Each Plate
Finally the Seder began. Our mahogany dining room table was set with symbolic foods placed on a flat cut-glass plate in the center, my father's silver bar mitzvah cup from Germany alongside it for the kiddush (the blessing over the wine) and a copy of the Haggadah, the service book, on each plate. Our Haggadah was invariably a children's Haggadah--short, slightly food-stained from Seders past, and most important, in English.
Our Seder included the immediate family, my brothers Alan and Rick, some students from nearby Brown University and often, Christian friends.
At the table, I sat to my father's left, presumably to help serve while he carved. This position had advantages when it came to filling my own plate, enabling me to slip on an extra potato or a larger slice of cake. My father, also a "nosher," was a fast eater and would spoon more stuffing onto his plate while Mom's head was turned.
Sitting next to my father also had its disadvantages. Even though Dad has been leading a Seder for 45 years, he is not comfortable with this role and takes on an exaggerated seriousness that often provokes my laughter. It seems to me that at least every other Seder I was temporarily excused from the table, overwhelmed by giggles.
Dad did not grow up with a Seder. Grandmother Lina would explain, "My religion is in my heart." Grandpa Rudolph refused even to participate in the ritual. My American-born mother, a woman of Hungarian origin, insisted upon starting married life with a family Seder. A deal was made: If Dad would lead an annual Seder, she would learn how to make Chremslach, a deep-fried fritter filled with raisins and almonds served during Passover at his grandmother's home in Germany. Dad carefully planned the service--straight out of the children's Haggadah, his only model.
For a child, not only the tastes but the rituals make the Seder different from every other meal. One tradition was the beautiful Seder plate my mother prepared. The roasted egg and the shank bone recalled the sacrifices performed in the temple. The chopped apple and nut haroset symbolized the bricks used for the Pharaoh's buildings.
To me the most poignant part of the Passover food ritual was the lifting of the parsley, symbol of spring, and then dipping it into salted water.
My mind would sometimes wander during the stories. Sometimes I imagined swimming across the Red Sea. Once I tried to envision how rushed the Israelites must have been not to have had enough time to make bread with yeast. At other times I pictured myself as the maiden who found the infant Moses.
After drinking the second cup of wine of four required by ritual, we were ready to eat. Our meal was always an abbreviated version of the menu from "The Settlement House Cookbook."
The meal began with clear chicken broth with two light matzo balls and a sprig of parsley. My husband Allan was taken aback by this feature of my family's Seder. Traditionally--and perhaps equally important, his mother's way--the matzo ball soup should have been preceded by hard-cooked eggs in salted water and gefilte fish. For my part, I was shocked when I learned that my in-laws do not consider the kosher Israeli dry Cabernet Sauvignon a substitute for Manischewitz sweet.
Our main course was a crusty leg of lamb with new potatoes, fresh asparagus and green salad.
"How shocking," burst out a Conservative friend once when I described this menu.
"But it's in the Bible," I insisted. " 'And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it.' (Exodus 12:8)."
Meat may not be roasted for Passover until the temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, my friend replied, since roasted meat symbolizes the sacrifices performed in the temple. Moreover, she added, leg of lamb is not a kosher cut and a proper Passover meal requires three kinds of overcooked garlicky meat--a brisket, baked chicken and a chicken-veal meat loaf. My mother's response to such quibbling was firm: If a leg of lamb was good enough for "The Settlement House Cookbook," it was good enough for her.
Dessert was Chremslach and a kiss torte, a meringue shell filled with strawberries and topped with whipped cream. (As far as Mom was concerned, the meringue met the Passover requirement that no flour be used. She was not concerned about the whipped cream--we did not observe the separation of milk and meat.)
Dinner over, we children searched for the afikoman , the dessert matzo that Dad had hidden. Usually it was found in the same front hall drawer each year by Rick, who thereupon received the dollar prize. We rarely finished drinking the third and fourth cups of wine, but Elijah the prophet was ceremoniously welcomed each year. The Seder ended when we began singing Passover songs off-key.
My husband's family Seder, when I encountered it, was a profound shift from the gastrocultural events of my childhood. The story was the same and the matzot were still square, but that about sums up the similarities.
As we entered Allan's parents' apartment, we were welcomed by the aroma of chicken soup and a barrage of introductions to his entire family. The tiny living room was crammed with borrowed tables and chairs to seat about 40. Allan's father, Mottel, conducted the Seder in perfect Hebrew and Yiddish and halting English.
Allan's mother, Peshka, although secretly delighted, moaned over the number of relatives attending, all from the same shtetl in Poland. For weeks she had been preparing the gefilte fish.
Another Flight to Freedom
No one would miss the Seder, even Aunt Chuma and her brother Moshe, who had not spoken to each other for years. (Seating, glances and conversations were arranged accordingly.) Mottel had learned how to conduct a Seder from his father, and Allan has learned by watching and listening to Mottel. Mottel, a Holocaust survivor, makes his annual speech in hesitant English, reminding us of the World War II Warsaw ghetto uprising as an analogy to the flight to freedom long ago in Egypt. He wants his children to remember their Jewish roots and the horrors that befell his family before the Gersons migrated to the United States.
For years Allan and I alternated attending Seders at his parents' and my parents' homes. But this year we are planning our own Seder, as we have since our first child was 3. I used to view a Seder as an event prepared for my enjoyment, a theatrical performance for a spellbound child. In the presence of our daughters, ages 8 and 4, and our son, 9 months, our Seder will have the seriousness of the Jewish tradition, the panache of the contemporary and the lightness of Allan's personality. The food will be a combination of both our culinary backgrounds. The service will be left up to Allan. I'll be trying to make light matzo balls, my mother-in-law's gefilte fish and my mother's Chremslach as delectable as I remember from childhood. MRS. FEINBERG'S VEGETABLE KUGEL
1 cup grated apple
1 cup grated sweet potato
1 cup grated carrots
1 cup matzah cake meal
1/2 cup pareve margarine
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Combine apple, sweet potato, carrots, matzah meal, margarine, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour into greased 10-inch casserole or muffin tins. Cover with foil and bake at 325 degrees 45 minutes. (If using muffin tins, bake 30 minutes.) Increase temperature to 350 degrees. Remove cover and bake 15 minutes longer. Slice and eat hot as a vegetable with meat. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Note: A food processor makes this recipe effortless. Baking soda, a pure product and not a leavening agent, can be used at Passover. MATZAH STUFFING
1 large onion
1 large potato
3 tablespoons matzah meal
2 stalks celery, finely diced
2 tablespoons chicken fat or pareve margarine
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Break matzot in small pieces and soak in hot water. Drain thoroughly and squeeze well. Grate onion and potato. Drain off extra water. Combine matzot, onion, potato and matzah meal. Stir in eggs, celery, chicken fat, parsley and salt, pepper and paprika to taste. Use to stuff desired poultry. Makes 4 cups. CHREMSLACH
3 matzot, soaked and squeezed very dry
2 tablespoons seeded chopped raisins
2 tablespoons chopped almonds
3 eggs, separated
1 tablespoon matzah meal
3/4 cup sugar
Grated peel of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Combine matzot, raisins, almonds, egg yolks, matzah meal, sugar, lemon peel and lemon juice. Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold into matzo mixture.
Heat oil for deep-frying to 375 degrees. Drop mixture by tablespoons into hot oil and brown on both sides. Drain well. Serve warm with stewed prunes flavored with orange juice, if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.