A Passover Legacy

Monday Morning Musings

Passover begins next weekend. I like to imagine people all over the world gathering together over tables filled with food and wine to share the story of how the ancient Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt. In the United States, “the peculiar institution” of slavery threatened our nation and nearly destroyed it during the Civil War. Its legacy still affects our laws and culture. In the twenty-first century, slavery and human trafficking still exist throughout the world. So the Passover story about escaping oppression is still relevant today.

My grandparents were immigrants to the United States. They all sought a better life here than they had in Tsarist Russia, just before WWI. I don’t know if they thought about this when they celebrated Passover. Both of my grandmothers died when I was only a toddler. I never thought to ask my grandfathers when they were alive.

I am not religious, but I love the traditions of Passover. I “keep Passover” to an extant—not eating bread or leavened products during the period and even foregoing my usual morning oatmeal—but there are “forbidden” foods in my house that my husband eats. For me, the keeping of Passover is an homage to those throughout history who have not been able to celebrate the holiday. For those who strictly observe Passover, forbidden foods must be removed from the house (or at least the kitchen) before Passover. Referred to as chametz, the forbidden items include grains and grain products made from wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt. Leavening products, such as yeast, are also prohibited. In essence, anything that might sprout is not allowed. (Matzah is generally made from wheat, but its preparation is closely supervised and must be done within 18 minutes.) Since even a trace of these grains are not supposed to touch other foods and mistakenly ingested, the kitchen, dishes, utensils, and pots and pans are supposed to be thoroughly cleaned and scoured.

Nineteenth-century cookbook author Esther Levy briefly explained the preparation for Passover in her 1871 cookbook, Jewish Cookery Book. Esther Jacobs Levy was an English woman who lived in Philadelphia at the time she published this book. It was the first Jewish cookbook published in the United States. In the introduction, she wrote:

            In preparing for the Passover, which generally commences in the middle of spring and lasts eight days, every particle of leaven must be out of the house by ten o’clock of the preceding morning. On the same day, 14th of Nisan, or on the previous eve, the house must be thoroughly cleaned from dirt, and everything must be in perfect order.

With what pleasurable emotions a Jewish woman must anticipate the time when she will see everything looking so brilliantly clean, and mostly new. Indeed, we should all be delighted, when we reflect that so much cleanliness is a preparation for becomingly celebrating our wonderful deliverance from bondage.

–Esther Levy, Jewish Cookery Book (Philadelphia: W.S. Turner, 1871): 8-9.

Levy goes on to describe the traditional Seder foods that are set before “the master of the house.” (This is the nineteenth-century, after all. Levy also assumes her readers have servants.) After Passover is over, she cautions that all crockery, utensils, and pans have to be scoured and put away to be used the next Passover.

Levy’s book does not contain too many specific Passover recipes. There is “Matzo Cleis Soup” (For Passover). The recipe describes how to make balls from matzo that is softened and mixed with fried onions, eggs, parsley, and dropped into soup. The soup is not specified. She also included a recipe for “Matzas Charlotte”, a type of matzah pudding type dish that is said to be for “supper.” It includes raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, and custard made from a quart of milk and seven eggs. Sounds good to me!

Passover has been celebrated all over the world in all types of conditions: in war and peace, in cities and on farms, in prisons and in ghettoes. Recently, I came across this article on how US troops celebrating Passover during WWII. Take a look—it includes photos and menus.

I don’t remember much about Passover from my childhood. I recall some long and boring Seders with relatives droning on in Hebrew, which I could not understand, and probably most of the people there could not actually translate. There was no discussion, no jokes, and no singing. I did not understand the significance of the celebration. My mom’s chicken soup and knaidlach (matzah balls) were always spectacular. I think that’s why I never cared about the rest of the meal. I could simply eat the soup. The meal always ended with a dried fruit “compote,” bland sponge or angel food cakes, and canned macaroons. Oh yes, there was also the horrible Manischewitz wine. For the longest time, I thought all wine was like that, and I couldn’t imagine why anyone liked wine.

How things change! And not just the wine, which I’m sure will be delicious, although I don’t know yet what we will be drinking.

When I became a mom and we began to host Passover dinners, I wanted our daughters to understand what we were celebrating and why. When they were young, my daughters and their friends put on puppet shows during the Seder to explain the Passover story. As they got older, the children’s puppet shows were replaced with a Passover play with everyone sitting around the table and reading their lines. There’s a new play every year with sometimes crazy themes or settings and lots of bad puns.

My family loves our traditions–so I’ll be making brisket (now called “roast beet” from my young grandniece’s pronunciation several years ago) in the same way I’ve made it for years. I’ll cook chicken soup with knaidlach the way my mom always made them. (The secret to light, floating matzah balls is to separate the eggs and not to add fat to the mixture. I believe my mother learned this from her mother-in-law, my grandmother.) I drop the balls in boiling water and then add them to the soup–because in addition to chicken soup, I also have a pot of vegetarian broth. I’ve already made that and frozen it. My house may not be scoured and spotless, but I’m top of the food preparation.

Simmering Vegetable Broth

Simmering Vegetable Broth

What has changed over the years at our family Seders are the actual Seders, which have become more elaborate in a crazy, totally irreverent way. True believers would not approve, but we enjoy our crazy Passover play. I used to write the plays, but now our daughters write them. I have no idea what they’re planning for this year, but I do appreciate that they agreed to write it again. Shout out to you, girls! One daughter and her fiancé will be at dinner. I hope our other daughter and wife will join us for the play via SKYPE. Oh, the wonders of modern technology!

Another change over the years is our desserts. In the past I tried cakes made with matzah meal (sorry, they always taste like matzah to me) or potato starch, but now there are truly wonderful dessert recipes—cakes and cookies you would eat the rest of the year. So I’ve been testing some. You know, in the interest of our Passover guests. My husband has reluctantly agreed to taste them. “If I must,” he says, as he takes another cookie.

I could eat flourless chocolate cake anytime. OK. I have. Don’t judge me. What’s wrong with breakfast chocolate?

This is my go-to recipe. I bake it at 325 degrees.

I also tried this one. Instead of cayenne pepper, I used ginger (not that I mind cayenne pepper, but chocolate and ginger is amazing). I garnished it with a chocolate glaze made by melting dark chocolate chips and studded it with candied ginger. YUM!

I tried these cookies from Jew Wanna Eat. I added ½ a bag of mini-chocolate chips, which I highly recommend you do, as well. Chocolate and coffee. Do I have to explain?

Coffee Meringues with Chocolate Chips

Coffee Meringues with Chocolate Chips

On Saturday night, technically the second Seder, I’ll sit at my table with my family and friends. We’ll be a group of old and young, gay and straight, Jews and non-Jews. The food will be important, of course. We’ll eat matzah, the unleavened bread, symbolic of the hurried flight of the Jews from Egypt. We’ll eat the matzah balls, the recipe a legacy from my grandmother. We will be following ancient rituals of dipping greens in salt water and of saying “Dayenu” as we recall the plagues. We will drink wine–4 cups are supposed to be consumed during the Seder.  We will be connected to the ghosts of our ancestors, and I will remember those who are no longer at our Passover table. More importantly, we’ll combine old traditions with new twists and combine ancient rituals with new innovations. I hope my daughters will remember these dinners. I hope my young great niece and nephews will, too. In time, I hope they will create their own traditions. This is the true legacy of Passover–friends and family gathering to break bread (which we do quite literally at the Seder), to share stories, to remember the past, and to create new memories.