Passover Memories

Haggadah

My mother always kept a kosher home, which meant that we had two sets of dishes and two sets of flatware.  By the time my sisters and I were seven or eight years old, we knew the difference between the milkhig (dairy) patterns and the fleishig (meat) ones.  We never mixed dairy and meat at the same meal; the food that was served dictated which dishes and utensils were used to set the table.

This division between dairy and meat may seem way too complicated, but when you’ve been doing it all your life, it becomes second nature.  In truth, we had it easy.  I knew some kids who had two dishwashers at home.  And rumor had it that there were some people who actually had two separate kitchens.

When Passover rolled around, we upped the ante.  Instead of using the “everyday” dishes and flatware, we’d bring out the beautiful glass Passover dishes and the fancy drinking glasses.  The week before Passover, my mother would polish her silver in anticipation of setting the Seder table.

In observant Jewish households, it is standard to have a dairy set of Passover dishes and a meat set of Passover dishes.  These two sets are used only during the eight days of the holiday, and then put away for an entire year until they are needed for the next Seder night.  In our house, however, we had only one set of Passover dishes, and they were used for meat meals.  Passover dairy meals were eaten on paper plates with plastic utensils.

The idea of using two sets of dishes is a product of rabbinic law and custom surrounding the Old Testament prohibition against boiling a calf in its mother’s milk.  On Passover, however, we have the additional obligation to ensure that the dishes on wish we eat have never been used with any of the leavened foods and legumes (hametz) prohibited during the festival.

My earliest memories of our family Passover Seder are from when I was six years old and we were living in a fourth floor walkup apartment in New York City.  Instead of eating at our little kitchen table, we dragged folding tables into the living room, pushing them together and covering them with a single white tablecloth.  The larger area would be needed to accommodate the Seder plate, the wine and water glasses and the array of delicacies that would grace the table.

When we finished recounting the Haggadah’s lengthy story of our enslavement in Egypt and subsequent emancipation, the shulkhan arukh (festive meal) would begin.  In our family tradition, the dishes were served in a particular order.  First, we would pass around a platter of whole hard boiled eggs; each of us would take one and dip it into the zaltz wasser (salt water).  The salt water is a custom that is said to refer to the tears shed by the Jews in Egypt due to the backbreaking labor forced upon us by cruel taskmasters as well as the mandatory separation of husbands and wives.  Next would come the gefilte fish, wonderful little fish patties out of a jar.  They would be served cold with a bit of jellied broth on a lettuce leaf with a slice of tomato.  The hot horseradish from the Seder plate would be our seasoning, the crunchy matzo our side dish.  Then came my mother’s matzo ball soup, which typically contained a slice of carrot and more than a few pieces of chicken.  Only then were we ready for the entrées, generally two of them.  Although they varied from year to year, one would be beef, the other chicken.  We would help ourselves from platters of vegetables, usually broccoli, carrots and boiled potatoes.

As a kid, my favorite part of the Seder meal was always dessert.  Among the “four questions” asked from the Hagaddah earlier in the evening is “Why is this night different than all other nights?”  For me, the answer was:  “On all other nights, we do not always have even one dessert, but on this night we have many!”  Cups of steaming hot tea with lemon slices would be served and we’d start the dessert off with fresh fruit salad or peaches or apricots stewed by my mother.  Then we’d open the packages of Passover sweets for which we’d waited all year.  There would be a sponge cake and a honey cake with slivered almonds on top.  There would be coconut macaroons and sometimes chocolate ones.  Treats might include coconut covered marshmallows, chocolate covered raspberry jellies or jellied candy “fruit slices” in a rainbow of orange, red, yellow and green.

By the time we were ready to sing the traditional Hebrew and Aramaic songs ending the Seder, the hour would be late.  I would be stuffed, happy and falling asleep.

That Seder when I was six years old was the first without my grandmother, who had passed away that January.  My grandfather led the Seder on the first night, but the second Seder belonged to me.  Grandpa had to be somewhere else and my parents didn’t read enough Hebrew to recite the service from our paperbound Haggadahs, free of charge courtesy of Maxwell House coffee.  Having been thoroughly versed in the ins and outs of the Seder in my first grade class, I felt up to the task.  It made me feel so grown up!

That summer, my parents bought a house in the suburbs and by September we had moved in.  The next Passover, I was seven years old and we held our Seder and our new oval dining room table.  Both leaves had to be inserted to lengthen the table sufficiently to accommodate our embarrassment of culinary riches.  As for me, I looked forward to presiding over the ceremony once again.  My grandfather was still back in the city he so loved.

In my Orthodox Hebrew school, nothing but the Seder, and Passover generally, had been discussed by my classmates for weeks.  We spent much time in class reviewing the parts of the Seder, the meaning of the prayers and verses recited, and the traditions passed down l’dor va’dor, from one generation to the next.

A few days before Passover, the rabbi who was my teacher phoned my mother at home.  “Why don’t you make your son a Seder?” he asked reprovingly.  Mom was taken aback by the question and assured him in no uncertain terms that we had a full Seder every single year on both the first and second nights of Passover.

My mother couldn’t imagine why he would even think such a thing.  Soon enough, the situation became clear.

In class, the rabbi had asked his young students “Who makes the Seder in your house?”  Everyone answered that their fathers did.  But I answered “I do!”  What I meant was that, because my parents couldn’t recite the Hebrew, that I led the ceremony.

It never occurred to me to mention that my mother spent days of planning and shopping and cooking and preparing for the very elaborate family event of the year.  So it’s no surprise that my teacher imagined me facing the sad anticlimax of the season by sitting in a corner with a Haggadah and a piece of matzah, singing to myself.

Ah, to be seven years old.

 

Passover Pity Party

chocolate silk pie

Take my advice:  Don’t — I repeat, do not — attend a party during Passover.  Not if you’re the least bit observant, anyway.

And I mean any kind of party — a 5-year old’s birthday, a retirement shindig or even a humble pot luck in the break room at work.  I know you have good intentions and the reason you’re there is to support the honoree or the spirit of the occasion.  But face it:  You are not going to be able to eat the cake (not even the fashionable sliver so coveted by dieters), you are not going to be able to drink the champagne and you are most certainly not going to be able to eat any of that lovely food so colorfully taunting you from the buffet table.

What you will do is bring a piece of matzah in a baggie.  And cry.

For observant Jews, our Passover food restrictions are quite severe.  If it contains an ingredient that came in a bag, a box or a can, it is likely off-limits due to the presence of corn syrup or soy products.  Explaining this to anyone who did not grow up with it is futile.  They will look at you as if you hail from the lower depths, then smile wanly and slowly back away.

I am reminded of the way I occasionally explain the challenges of starch limitation that is the life of a Type 2 diabetic.  “What do you mean, starch?” they will ask.  “Think about any kind of food you really enjoy, without which your life would be greatly diminished,”  I reply.  “That food is starch.”

Passover is kind of like that.  If you like it, forget it.  Better start crossing the days off your calendar now.  And there are eight of those days, bucko.  Eight looooong days until you can have pizza and beer again.  Eight looooong days until you can have tacos and quesadillas again.  Eight looooong days until you have donuts and ice cream again.

You can quit your whining now.  Shut up and eat your matzah.

Oh, and by the way, I don’t eat meat.  And just what do we eat during Passover?  Besides matzah, I mean.

Meat.

Lots of meat, lots of fish.  Eggs in the morning, eggs in the evening, eggs at suppertime, tra la.  Being a semi-vegetarian, my staples include tofu, veggie burgers, veggie dogs, veggie sausages and fake lunch meat made of textured vegetable protein (TVP).  In other words, soy, soy and more soy.  None of that may be eaten during Passover.

Fortunately for me, I have been conducting a long-running, lurid love affair with the tuber they call the potato.  I would go so far as to say that, during the eight days of Passover, the potato is my savior.  Baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, potatoes fried in olive oil, garlic potatoes roasted in the oven.  Between the potatoes and the matzah, suffice it to say that I will not be checking my A1C glucose level any time soon.  If my doctor complains, I’ll shove a piece of matzah down his throat.

Well, today I broke what I thought was my hard and fast rule.  I attended a party on the second day of Passover.  That’s right, it’s only the second day!  Six more days of this!  Ugh.

I daintily picked at the fruit bowl.  I ate a carrot stick, but couldn’t dip it in the ranch dressing.  And I swear, the tortilla chips and guacamole were mocking me.  The cute little rounds of French bread surrounding the spinach dip were jeering at me.  And I’m pretty sure that sound I heard was the plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies giving me the raspberry.

As if that weren’t enough, a pie was brought out and placed in the center of the table to be the star of the show.  A pie with lovely little tufts of whipped cream fluted around the edges.  Oh no, not any pie.  After all, it’s Passover!  We wouldn’t want to serve a plebeian apple or cherry pie, now would we?  Some kind of plain Jane everyday pie at which I could smile wanly and slowly back away?  That would never do.  No siree, Bob.

Someone had to bring a… chocolate… silk… pie.  From Claim Jumper.  Aggghhhh!

I guess it could have been worse.  It could have been a chocolate mountain cake with Neapolitan ice cream.

Excuse me, I’m going to eat a piece of matzah now.

 

Matzo Man

matzah
Matz-o, matz-o man, I want to be a matzo man . . .

I remember my mother dancing in the kitchen while we sang Passover lyrics of our own invention to the tune of the Village People’s “Macho Man.”

Matzah, the crunchy, unleavened cracker that we eat during Passover, gets a bad rap. We make fun of “Pesakh bread,” we gripe and moan about having to eat it for eight days, about it causing us to gain weight, about ending up constipated.

But when it counts, matzah does get the respect that it deserves. The English word “Passover” refers to the tenth and final plague that the Lord visited upon Pharaoh, king of Egypt, when he repeatedly reneged on his promise to emancipate the Jewish people from slavery. While every Egyptian household had its dead, we were spared when the plague “passed over” Jewish homes. In Hebrew, however, the word for Passover is Pesakh, which actually refers to the Paschal lamb that we were commanded to prepare and eat the night before our great escape from Egypt. But in the liturgy, the holiday is referred to as hag ha’matzot hazeh, “the festival of matzah that we now celebrate.” Thus, matzah is the very definition of the holiday.

When setting the Seder table on the first night of Passover in my parents’ home, the place of honor in the center of the table was always occupied by my grandmother’s matzah tash. This was a white cloth matzah cover, composed of three compartments to contain the three sheets of matzah used during the service. The outside of the matzah tash featured some of the most beautiful embroidery I have ever seen. Bordered in purple grapes and green grape leaves, a large orange circle contained the Hebrew words, also rendered in orange, for each of the items on the ceremonial Seder plate. Right next to Grandma’s matzah tash would be the Seder plate itself, featuring the symbolic burnt bone and burnt egg, as well as the crunchy celery, hot horseradish, Romaine lettuce and sweet haroseth that we eat during the Seder service.

Not only does the matzah tash protect the matzahs and prevent them from breaking into pieces and crumbs, but the white covering is a sign of purity and respect. When the matzahs are removed from the tash during the Seder, it is something of a grand reveal, the centerpiece of the festival officially presented to our family and friends in attendance. Then, of course, we get to eat the matzahs in all their crunchy glory.

Early in the ceremony, we break the middle matzah in two and, traditionally, the children at the table hide one half of it. Later, when it is time to eat the missing piece of matzah, the adults pretend to search high and low for it, without trying too hard. Shrieking with laughter at the adults’ “ineptitude,” the kids “ransom” the matzah for gifts or money. In some families, considerable negotiation ensues. This is followed by the second reveal of the evening, in which the kids remove the half matzah from its hiding place and the adults praise them for concealing it so well.

The combination of the respect we accord to matzah and the merriment we derive from it is nothing short of amazing. It teaches us to place things in perspective, that it is possible for us to appropriately appreciate the gifts in our lives without taking ourselves too seriously.

It makes me proud to be a matz-o man.

Cup of Elijah

Elijah

Of the many cherished rituals of the Passover Seder, one of my favorites is the setting out of the Kos Eliyahu, the Cup of Elijah.

Many families set an extra glass of wine in the center of the table, and some have an entire extra place setting before an empty chair.  At a particular point during the service, we open the door to invite the prophet Elijah to come in and join us at the festive table.

The Bible tells us that Elijah was ferried up to heaven in a chariot of fire.  Many of our faith believe that he is the Messiah and eagerly await his return.  On that day, it is said, the dead will rise and the Diaspora will end, with the Jewish people gathered up al arbah kanfot ha’aretz (from the four corners of the earth) to return to the Land of Israel where the Holy Temple will be rebuilt and we will again offer the Biblically prescribed sacrifices as in the days of old.  “Next year in Jerusalem!” we sing at the Seder table.

There is deep, multilayered symbolism in setting a place for Elijah at table and opening the door to invite him to enter.  The empty place at table is an obvious reminder of those no longer among us:  Members of our own families who have passed on, those who have given their lives for our country and even those who live on, but from whom we are separated by miles and circumstances.

“Come, all ye who are hungry” and celebrate the Passover with us, we recite in the liturgy.  Passover is a celebration of freedom from the shackles of bondage, but we are reminded that there are still multitudes of our fellow humans who are not free.  In many parts of the world, people remain enslaved by ideologies, cultural restraints and draconian laws.  Here at our very doorstep are the hungry and homeless; we are reminded that it is our duty to ease their suffering and to tend to their needs just as God tended to ours so many centuries ago in Egypt.  And, of course, let us not forget the many among us who are imprisoned within their own souls, victims of mental illness, addiction and despair that rob them of the opportunity to fulfill what might have been.

Opening the door is a symbol of our obligation to open our hearts to those less fortunate than ourselves.  We speak in poetic terms of caring for the widow and the orphan, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.  There is never a shortage of people in need within our own communities, and we are reminded at this time of year that we must not harden our hearts and shut them out, regardless of how distasteful we may personally find the task.  Seeing the homeless on the street may offend our senses and the idea of giving up some of our hard-earned money as charitable donations may offend our sensibilities. But we must never forget that there, but for the grace of God, go we.  For so many of us, the distance between here and there is little more than a paycheck or two, just one illness of a child or automotive breakdown away.

There are some who compare leaving a glass of wine for Elijah on the night of Passover to leaving milk and cookies out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.  In the case of dear old Saint Nick, however, this classic childhood gesture is primarily one of thanks for the gifts.  In the case of Elijah, our gesture is infused with a profound sense of hope.  As we pray for our own redemption, we are called upon to recognize that a better future for us and for our children is only possible when we open our doors, our hearts and our wallets to the disenfranchised who would love nothing better than to sit down at our table and be counted as valued members of our families.

 

An Unexpected Kindness

hamantaschen
Passover may be nearly upon us, but I must tell a story about the wonderful gift I received for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which we celebrated last month.

Don’t feel badly if you’re unfamiliar with Purim. It is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that falls in the late winter or early spring in the lunar calendar month of Adar. Purim is the day we commemorate the historical events described in the Biblical Book of Esther. Specifically, we celebrate the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation by the decree of Haman during the reign of King Xerxes I of Persia in the 5th century B.C.

There are many customs and traditions associated with Purim, including the public reading of the Book of Esther, making charitable donations to the poor and exchanging mishloakh manot (gifts of food) among friends and neighbors.

Although Purim is traditionally a festive and merry holiday, this year, the week of Purim was not a happy occasion at all for me. For it was then that my wife’s grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, met her final decline and passed away. Grandma’s funeral was a very difficult time for all of us.

My elderly parents were unable to make the trip north to Olivehurst, but I spoke with them on the phone several times. When they related how they had attended synagogue on Purim, exchanged gifts of food and tasted the traditional hamantaschen, I felt a pang of yearning for days gone by. The closest synagogue to our remote desert community is one hundred miles away. Some years we drive out to Phoenix to attend a Purim service, but not this time.

I particularly missed the hamanthaschen.

Hamantaschen (literally “Haman’s hats” in Yiddish) are three-cornered pastries (generally made from cookie dough, although I’ve seen them in a flaky, Danish style as well) in which the center is filled with jam. The jam flavors vary (prune, apricot and raspberry are popular), but the traditional filling is preserves made from sweetened poppy seeds (which we called by its Yiddish name, mohn, when I was a kid).

In the suburbs of New York City, I remember how all of the local bakeries displayed hamantaschen in a variety of flavors for many weeks. My mouth watered. I could just taste them! If only I could get some now, I lamented.

The day after the funeral, we made the eleven-hour drive south to our home and my job in the desert.

I cannot describe my shock when, on my first day back at work, I walked into the break room and found, sitting prettily on our table, a plastic tub filled with hamantaschen. The Lord answers prayer!

How was this possible? I was sure that no one at work had ever heard of hamantashen, much less tasted one. I waited not a moment to indulge in the pastry treat I had been longing for. It was just as good as I remembered.

Of course, I had to find out whom to thank. Upon making inquiries, I learned that a retired employee, one whom I had met only two or three times, had stopped by and brought the treats while I was away.

I obtained the retiree’s phone number and texted her to express my appreciation for fulfilling my Purim wish. She texted back that it wasn’t she who brought them.

I made further inquiries. My coworkers insisted that yes, she was definitely the generous party, but perhaps she had forgottten. I texted her again. It turned out that she had visited twice and had indeed forgotten that she had brought the pastries on her first visit. She told me that she picked them up at Costco during a shopping trip to the Coachella Valley.

“I almost bought biscotti instead!” she exclaimed. She had no idea that the pastries she had purchased were called hamantacshen, nor that they are traditional for the holiday of Purim. I don’t think she had ever even heard of Purim.

And as amazed as I was to receive the very thing I had wished for, she was just as surprised to learn what her gift meant to me and how she had performed an unexpected kindness.

Passover Prep

matzo balls

 

PALM DESERT

For those of us who follow the Passover dietary rules, the eight-day holiday (which begins next week on Monday at sunset) requires more than a bit of preparation.  With the extremely limited selection of Passover goods available in our little town, this is the season for making the hundred-mile trip to the Coachella Valley to locate food items that we purchase only once a year.

One could say that I practice a middle-of-the-road variety of Judaism.  In my elementary school years, my parents sent me to an Orthodox school known as a yeshiva, even though my mother is a Conservative Jew and my father is what he refers to as a “cultural Jew.”  Today, the Judaism that I practice reflects all of these influences.  On one hand, I don’t pray three times a day, but I do pray and I do believe in the power of prayer.  I am not fanatical about the rituals, but they do still mean something to me.

Do I “keep kosher?”  Sort of.  I have been unaffected by the virtually unavailability of kosher meat in our remote desert area, as I sloughed off my meat-eating habits more than twenty years ago.  Am I a vegetarian?  Not even close.  One could say that I am a devoted pescatarian.

The Passover dietary rules are even more complicated than the regular kosher rules.  For one thing, we eat nothing leavened, which means no bread, bagels, muffins or donuts.  Instead, we eat unleavened bread, called matzah.  And although I no longer search for hametz (bread crumbs) in corners with a wooden spoon, a feather and a candle, I do stick to my hard, crunchy matzah boards throughout the holiday.

Passover is a festival of freedom, a yearly reminder of how our people were enslaved and mistreated by the Egyptian Pharaohs many centuries ago.  The Biblical book of Exodus describes how, when we were finally freed, we had to leave without a moment’s notice, with the result that the dough placed out on the hot rocks of Egypt to bake had  not the time to rise.  Hence, the unleavened flatbread cracker that we eat for eight days.

We were able to pick up a pack of five boxes for $2.99 at Von’s in Palm Desert.

Although there is no synagogue in this area and we are too far away from family to share the traditional Seder dinner, I still make it a point to obtain some of the traditional Passover foods that I grew up with.  Chief among these is matzo ball soup.  The little round dumplings are a delicacy that I look forward to all year.  Although it bears no resemblance to the lovely soup my mother makes, the “matzo balls in broth” that comes in a jar is really not half bad.  It’s a quick meal that I can heat up in the microwave.  Matzo balls are traditionally served in chicken soup, but some brands of the jar soup are meatless, which is perfect for me. (For those who cook, I noticed a yummy-looking vegetarian matzo ball soup recipe on Momtastic.)

The only problem is that, at the one large supermarket in our little town, a single jar of matzo ball soup goes for $8.99.  Yikes!

At Von’s in Palm Desert?  (Drum roll, please…) $4.39 per jar!  Hallelujah!  I laid in a supply of a half-dozen jars.

We also don’t eat legumes on Passover, which includes corn, beans, peas and peanuts.  This excludes almost everything that comes in a can or a box, as it is difficult to find anything these days that is not made with soy or corn products.

Even canned tuna is an issue.  The water-packed tuna sitting in your cupboard probably contains such ingredients as soy, corn oil or polypropylene.  For the Passover-observant, the trick is to find canned tuna that contains only two ingredients:  tuna and water.

Trader Joe’s to the rescue!  Fortunately for me, TJ’s in La Quinta carries exactly the type of tuna I need, albeit at the steep price of $1.69 a can.  But it is what it is.  Passover comes but once a year, and now I can carry matzah and tuna to work for lunch.

Finally, there is the matter of Passover deserts.  I’ve seen many mouth-watering delicacies pictured in Passover cookbooks, but the sad fact is that I don’t cook.  Lucky for me that Von’s carries numerous varieties of canned macaroons, made with coconut instead of wheat flour.

So I think I’m all set!  Now, if only I could get hold of a few boxes of those Pechter’s Passover chocolate fudge brownies that I remember so fondly from New York . . .

To my Jewish friends around the world, a zissin, kosher Pesakh!