The Play’s The Thing

Monday Morning Musings

“The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

–William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Matzah is probably the most recognized symbol of Passover. Before commercialized matzah became available, members of Jewish communities sometimes baked it themselves—under close supervision, of course.

In Colonial America, congregations often had to produce their own matzah, although not all colonies grew wheat or had adequate supplies, so the grain sometimes had to be imported. Matzah, and other Jewish/kosher food items, were also imported. It was helpful that many prominent Jewish families were merchants with contacts throughout the transatlantic mercantile community. Here is the board used for preparing matzah at the eighteenth-century Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island.

In the nineteenth-century, machines became available to make matzah. There was some controversy, however, over baking commercially baked matzah and matzah machines and whether the matzah produced by them was kosher for Passover. Something I had never before thought about–most of the hand-produced matzah was round, but the matzah produced by Manischewitz  and other mass-producers was square, and of course, each piece was the same.  In 1942, however, the company produced V-shaped matzah as part of the WWII war effort, “V for Victory.”

Aron Steits founded a matzah bakery in 1915. This matzah factory, the last major one that is still family-owned in the US, is set to close.

 “Though matzo is a simple mixture of wheat flour and water, producing it is an intricate affair. During Passover, observant Jews are forbidden to eat grain products that have been allowed to leaven, or ferment and rise, so the flour and water must be placed in an oven within 18 minutes after they are mixed. The entire process is supervised by what are known as mashgichim — Orthodox people trained in the fine points of kosher law. Streit’s employs seven of them.”

–Joseph Berger, New York Times, January 6, 2015

In some places kosher for Passover matzah is still handmade. Joan Nathan describes one such bakery in Brooklyn, where the men and women work quickly to produce the matzah within eighteen minutes. Under Jewish law, it must be mixed, rolled, pricked, and baked in that time—from when water first touches the flour–so that there is no danger it will sprout. If the work is not finished within eighteen minutes, the matzah is not considered kosher for Passover. The flour is carefully produced and ground under supervision, as well, and even the water used in the baking is examined. Nathan mentions one of the workers, Reuven Sirota, who baked matzah in secret in Uzbekistan because celebrating Passover was forbidden there. (Joan Nathan, Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook (New York: Knopf, 2004), 339.)

On Saturday night, we celebrated Passover at my house with a dinner and a modified Seder—and commercially made Streit’s matzah. There were seventeen people around our table–tables, actually—the dining room table, the kitchen table, and a card table all placed in one long line with three separate tablecloths. Our group included family and friends, and my older daughter and her wife joined us by SKYPE.

A few years ago, I created a sort of family Haggadah, cobbled together from various sources, and including family jokes, such as a line about celebrating “the spirit of roast beef.” Seder means order, and there are fourteen steps to the Seder. We never get through the whole thing. In true scholarly fashion, however, the Haggadah I put together has appendices with further reading and lists the sources and documentation I used—you know, just in case anyone has additional questions. I always think we might debate and discuss, but we never do. This year, we totally forgot to open the door for Elijah. Ooops. Once we get to the eating part, the Seder pretty much disappears. This year, my niece’s children were not even interested in hiding and finding the Affikomen, the middle piece of matzah broken and wrapped in a napkin during the Seder. There will have to be a new twist on that tradition next year.

Our Seder always includes a play. My husband and I recently saw a production of Hamlet in Philadelphia. During the play, there is a play within the play. Hamlet wants a group of traveling players to perform a show with a storyline that is similar to how he believes his uncle, now the king of Denmark, murdered his father. He thinks that when his uncle sees the play, his reaction to it will reveal his guilt. In a soliloquy in which he describes the plan, Hamlet says, “the play’s the thing.”  During our Passover Seder, the play is also “the thing.” We’re not out to catch murderers though. The play began as a fun way to tell—or reveal–the Passover story. Telling the story is one of the steps of the Seder.  Over the years, it has become THE highlight of our Seder, our family’s thing. Our daughters have written it for the past few years. They have given notice that they will write it for two more years, and then they will hand-off the play-writing torch.

Well, it will be difficult to top this year’s play. It was an interactive experience called “Whose Passover Is It Anyway?” based on Drew Carey’s comedy show. There were different scenes, in which we were assigned parts and told to improvise using props on the table or by acting out in the emotions called out by one of our daughters. In other scenes there were scripted lines, but the scenes had to be acted out in a particular way—using only three words, as an action movie, etc. I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed it, and everyone had a chance to participate.

I suppose the only thing that might have topped the play was the food—because everyone was VERY hungry by the time we were finally ready to eat.

Chicken Soup simmering on the stove.

Chicken Soup simmering on the stove.

Did I also mention that we went through many bottles of wine? We had red and white, including a tasty, Australian shiraz, and wines from Spain and the United States, too.  I know I didn’t drink the four glasses required by the Seder, but others may have. I’m not naming names. We had all the standard food—chicken soup (and vegetarian)–both with knaidlach, or matzah balls, gefilte fish, hard-boiled eggs, brisket, turkey breast, roasted sweet potatoes, and some delicious roasted carrots brought by guests. By the time we got to dessert, my sister literally groaned while tasting the flourless chocolate cake (my brilliant idea was to top it with a chocolate drizzle and sea salt)—“Oh my god! This is so good.” The cake also conveniently doubled as a birthday cake for my brother, whose birthday is today.

After dessert, our guests, bellies full, slowly crawled out the door. The cats wandered back downstairs. Time to cleanup.

The empty tables seem lonely.

The empty tables seem lonely.

Hope all of you had a pleasant weekend, whether you celebrated a holiday or not!

18 thoughts on “The Play’s The Thing

  1. I read your post with interest and clicked on the link too, impressed with your being able to muse on a Monday after such festivities. Like the Mennonite, the Jewish culture has much order (expressed in Seder) and restriction (18 minutes or you’re done!)

    Our version of your “Whose Passover Is It Anyway?” was the Passion Play at our church in Jacksonville, a huge production of actors with choir and orchestra, colored lighting and sound effects depicting the events in Jerusalem from Palm Sunday through to the resurrection.

    The table after the guests have left is a tribute to everyone’s enjoyment. I hope you had help with the cleanup. Whew!

  2. Thanks, Marian. Your production was much more elaborate than ours. 🙂 No colored lights or sound effects here. We do sometimes have music and sound effects, but the computer placement hindered that this year.

    My husband did much of the cleaning before and after the meal. He stayed up late to finish much of it, as well! We make a good team!

  3. I loved this Merril thank you! I also clicked on the 18th Century matzo board. Like Marian I’m wondering how you could possibly have managed to write a post today! I was salivating at all those lovely foods. Happy Birthday to your brother. And mazeltov to your husband in cleaning up. Is he still in bed? Lovely celebrations!

    • Thank you, Susan. You and Marian are both so sweet–especially the way you both post so regularly!
      My husband IS actually napping right now. He is a champion napper! 🙂 He was off from school on Friday and today, so fortunately he was around to help.

  4. Thanks Merril. Marion is VERY good about regular posts always so delightful. I’m posting daily only because of the April 2015 A-Z blog challenge. How many more days to go now? Oy!

  5. Now that I again read about your flourless chocolate cake…. Oh my! Your family traditions sound fabulous. I hope you continue to enjoy them and make them yours and share them with us. And happy belated birthday to your brother.

  6. Cheers to your Passover gathering. Love the way you’ve morphed a version into a family tradition. After all, that’s very important.

  7. The food sounds fab. I know nothing about Jewish traditions (except that I once found a Jewish restaurant near my office and went there regularly once I’d tasted the salt beef sandwiches and potato cakes, and they explained very kindly why I couldn’t have milk in my tea). So, are matzah those big thin white crackers, that you get in the blue and white packets? And what do you eat them with?

  8. Thanks, Elaine. Yes, matzah are the big thin crackers. I don’t know about the blue and white packets. I suppose it depends on the brand. Here’s a link with some photos:
    They’re eaten in place of bread during Passover–so plain–or with butter and/or jam. You can make sandwiches with peanut butter, or cream cheese,meat, fish, egg salad, etc. Some people make matzah pizza or dishes like that. Last night my daughter sauteed spinach and had that on top of matzah with avocado and hard cooked egg. Matzah meal is used to make matzah balls or for breading instead of bread crumbs. I don’t keep kosher, so there’s no problem for me with mixing dairy and meat at the table (except that I don’t actually eat meat). 🙂

    The potato cakes you had might have been latkes–traditional at Hanukkah, although they can be eaten any time.

  9. WOW! Your play sounds like it was so much fun! Your girls definitely got their Mama’s creative mind! I’m a little surprised you don’t make your own Matzah… you’re always so talented in the kitchen, I thought for sure you’d do that as well. I’ve only ever had the commercial made stuff. So how was the flourless cake? 🙂

    • Thanks, Rachel.I think making my own matzah for a big dinner and a week of eating would be WAY too much work! I’m looking forward to NOT eating matzah–homemade pizza for dinner tonight! Woo hoo! The flourless chocolate cake was super delicious. I made two–so there was enough to eat it during the week. 🙂

  10. Merril … Thank you for sharing your traditions and family celebrations of Passover. That flourless chocolate cake sounds incredible. (I had potato pancakes with apple sauce and sour cream on Saturday, April 4th – yummy!)

    Leading up to Good Friday, we also had a “play” enacted by our priests and others from our church. On Easter, we went to sunrise service. Afterwards, our eldest daughter helped prepare dinner. Our youngest daughter and husband brought our favorite salad with apples, gorgonzola and candied pecans. Wonderful.

    • Potato pancakes should always be eaten with applesauce and sour cream–in my opinion!

      It sounds like you had a wonderful Easter celebration. I’m sure the church play provided an interesting contrast to the typical service, and your family meal with your daughters’ contributions sounds wonderful. I love salads with fruit, nuts, and cheese!

      The flourless chocolate cake was great! 🙂

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