Last night Angie and I hosted our first Passover seder. We combined elements of Easter (namely, the search for and eating of dyed eggs) as well. In attendance were our friends Will and Natalie and their eight-month-old Mattyewill; our friends Ann and J. R. and their beautiful young daughter Della; my brother-in-law James and nephew Solomon (“Solo”), and our friend Rhonda. Not too shabby a turnout for what had only been haphazardly planned a week earlier!
I made the short haggadah—the pamphlet guide to the seder—myself, looking up various components online and abridging (or commenting) as needed. I looked up most of the recipes in a cookbook published by Ten Speed when I still worked there, Arthur Scwhartz’s Jewish Home Cooking. I made gefilte fish from scratch, using wild Alaskan Cod and fresh Halibut. I combined Schwartz’s recipe for brisket with the one dictated over the phone by my mom, and ended up with the most succulent roast ever tasted. The kugel and the desert (Angie’s vanilla cake with lime curd and coconut frosting) were gluten-free for Ann and Della, and were delicious by any standard. Maybe that’s immodest to say, but I’m proud of it.
It was a joy to cook this meal. I have never cooked a Passover dinner before, and it’s been years since I’ve had one with family. I tried to buy local ingredients, and in the spirit of the holiday, only wild caught, fair trade, and free range wherever possible. It struck me, preparing this seder dinner for the first time, how modest our cuisine is. It’s the food of Eastern Europe, of hard winters and poor villages. Maybe that’s why God invented schmaltz, which in Yiddish means excessive sentimentality, and which is also the word for rendered chicken fat, which I produced in abundance for this meal, in both respects.
When I was growing up, we either had Passover at Rabbi Goldstein’s house, or at home. I love Baruch and the Goldsteins dearly, and I so it is with great love and affection that I say with these seders were, for six-year-old me, as good as exile in Siberia—a long winter of mournful discontent. As Baruch spoke earnestly about life in a concentration camp, us kids wriggled and squirmed in our seats and kicked each other under the tablecloth, straining the limits of good behavior. When we finally got to eat, it was an offense to my sugar-addicted senses: dry matzah; congealed gefilte fish from a jar; for dessert, crumbly cakes made of matzah-meal and smeared with a miserly layer of bittersweet chocolate. They say it’s a holiday for kids, but it seemed more of a holiday to teach you how to suffer—while teaching you the tools to kvetch about your suffering passive-aggressively. (This saltwater represents my tears … of boredom! This parsely is a symbol … that your breath stinks!)
My mom’s seders were infrequent and less elaborate. She used matzah ball mix from Manischewitz (the ubiquitous brand of the households of all American Jews), a brisket simmered in an electric roaster using Lipton Onion Soup mix, and the traditional Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish charoset with apples, raisins, cinnamon, and wine. Sliced beets occasionally made it onto the table, and likewise left it, untouched. Always present was the bottle of sickeningly sweet Manischewitz Concord grape wine and accompanying grape juice. The matzah we smeared with butter, lots of butter.
And when my family moved to California, we become more lax with the rules—growing up, ham and cheese omelletes and bacon cheeseburgers were common, and distinctly remember one year my mom picking me up from Hebrew school one Passover day to take me and my sister Jessy for a special treat, donuts—leavened bread, on Passover, right after coming from a class where we were taught that this was a sin. Or as much of a sin as can be conjured in the minds of young, secular, liberal Jews in Southern California who had no concept of Hell and whose primary authority on Earth was right here condoning the act. I remember mounting a half-hearted objection, and my mom solemnly placing her hand over the box of donuts and saying, “Baruch a’tah Adonai, elohainu Melekh ha-olam, donuts.” (SIDE NOTE: She did the same thing when we had pet ducks, by the way: when they became to big and too messy to take care of, we “freed” them to the pond at the local golf course. Her parting words to our pets: “Baruch a’tah Adonai, elohainu Melekh ha-olam, ducks.”)
There was also singing, something I’d mostly left out of this seder since no one but me knows the songs and I can only half-remember them anyway. Besides, I generally only sing in private, in the car or shower, and my only permitted audience is Angie. Passover is not as jolly a holiday as Hannukah or Purim (or any of the Christian holidays), but it does have a number of required songs, the most jolly of which—Daiyenu—I proceeded to mangle until our goyishe guests thankfully joined in as best they could. It was great. I’ve been to a lot of seders and Passover services where we sing songs the traditional way: in a minor key, like bearded old men with cataracts and gout.
At home, I’d bring back from Hebrew my newly learned and far more upbeat melodies. Still, I’d always get shy about my singing around the seder table, and still do. I posit that there are many Jewish cultural sub-types, and one of them is the singer-songwriter. In college I knew many Jewish gals with guitars, sassy voices and brio, always quick to sing. These are the ones who should lead people in song at seders. That’s why you need to have a big Jewish family, so that by pure odds you might end up with a cousin or sister or daughter who can capably and confidently carry a tune. My mom is the closest we have to that type—she has an excellent voice, and is always quick to sing, though she didn’t always know the songs we were being taught at our Jewish private day school in Orange County. Nevertheless, she knows a number of the songs, as much as the next Jew anyway.
That’s one great thing about our tribe. You can go anywhere in the world, and the food may be different, the cultures foreign, and the observance more strict (or more secular), but the language and prayers are the same. There’s also a common thread in personality, I find: in Judasim we have no hell nor afterlife to speak of, so we’re all just hanging around, making the best of life while we wait for the Messiah to get here. Whether you’re a secular, skeptical Jew like me, or an observant Orthodox Jew in Israel, there’s this common humanitarian tendency and will toward enjoyment that I am proud of in my culture.
Putting together this meal and acting out its customs reminded me of this. B’khol dor-vador, they say: “in each generation” we are responsible for taking the traditions to heart, casting ourselves in the ancient roles, and making them new. So last night we did this, in our way, adopting the customs and adapting them to our family’s needs—and by doing so, empathizing with our ancestors and seeding some new traditions.
Anyway, thanks for reading my rambling doggerel. And thanks to those of you who came last night, for sharing with me this oft-hidden part of my life. It’s a culture of talkers, that’s for sure. You ever wonder where my storyteller gene comes from, this is it.