Day and Night, Hope 2017: NaPoWriMo

Monday Morning Musings:

“They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,

Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;

Taught in the school of patience to endure

The life of anguish and the death of fire.

 

All their lives long, with the unleavened bread

And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,

The wasting famine of the heart they fed,

And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.”

From, “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, full text with annotations here.

 

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world.

–from “Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

April came in with showers, dreary and cold

seemingly, spring was stopped, would not unfold

with flowers and green

then, suddenly, it took hold.

 

We took my mother out to lunch

sat on the porch to enjoy the air

watched dogs pull the owners, sniff,

noses in the air, aware

of scents in the air, of food, and treats

of magic there

 

It was a day she thanked us for

to enjoy the sights

(what she can still see)

to have the food

(not her typical fare)

to feel the air

and hear the ducks quack

and the geese honk,

in her ninety-fourth spring,

another voyage around the sun.

 

 

Passover began that night

but in our crazy way,

the family celebration,

(our celebration of family)

was not until five nights later.

Was it just me thinking about freedom

and how Passover seems more relevant this year?

 

My family arrived,

we missed a few,

sisters, a daughter and her wife,

we hug and kissed,

poured the wine, and began,

taking turns reading from a Haggadah

I put together several years ago,

it probably needs to be updated,

but still, one grand-nephew laughed at the jokes,

“Tonight we drink of four glasses of wine—unless you’re driving”

and all took part in the reading of the Passover Play,

 

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rewritten every Passover,

one daughter’s work this year,

with Trump jokes, Hamilton references, and lines about family quirks and neuroses,

 

 

We said,“Dayenu,” and attempted to sing “Go Down Moses”

(not very successfully)

then we ate,

and ate,

and ate some more,

 

 

my great-niece, played her ukulele,

and my daughter sang

(I miss hearing that voice)

and then it was time for dessert,

we took pictures,

 

wrapped up leftovers,

and forgot the Afikomen,

after everyone left,

the cats came out to sniff

noses in the air,

aware of scents in the air,

on the tables

and through the windows,

Was Elijah there?

 

The next morning,

I saw the moon,

her dark half

not quite hidden

darkness and light

opposites,

black and white

good and evil,

April’s changeable moods

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Moon at dawn

In the newspaper,

I read about the new Museum of the American Revolution

to open on April 19th,

the anniversary of the Battles at Lexington and Concord

the shots heard round the world,

it’s the anniversary, too, of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising,

1943,

lasting for almost a month

captive Jews,

desperate,

fighting for their lives

fighting for freedom

 

The first American president,

a slaveholder,

led an army,

fighting for freedom,

he met with the enslaved poet

while he was still a general,

after she had written poetry in his honor,

as president, he met with leaders of the Touro synagogue

in Rhode Island, championing the Bill of Rights

and freedom of religion

 

Another poet would visit that same synagogue in the next century,

he’d write strangely prescient lines of ghettos, starving, and fire,

would write of the Passover meal with its bitter herbs and salty tears

in the twenty-first century,

we would still think of that time,

of all those times,

we thought war would be over

dip spring greens into salty water,

oh brave, new world—

 

We laugh, eat, drink, and sing at Passover,

holding evil at bay,

the table,

charmed circle,

is filled with more non-Jews than Jews,

and more non-believers

than believers,

 

Around us

(Do you hear them?

Do you see them in the shadows?)

ghosts from the past,

echoes,

ghosts of memories,

memories held like ghosts,

flitting at the edge of consciousness

dancing in a ring,

(they all fall down)

ancestors, known and unknown,

the blood of slaves,

the blood of the lamb,

the blood of men, women, and children who cry

who die,

even now

 

My family,

crazy like the April weather,

how I love you,

and love is love is love is love is love

and so, we love,

even as the ghosts hover,

just beyond us

hidden,

the dark side of the moon,

and we laugh,

and we eat,

and we hope

 

 

This is Day 17 of NaPoWriMo. Today’s prompt is to write a nocturne. Perhaps I’ve written half a nocturne.

I am honored to be today’s featured poet for the poem I posted yesterday, “If Only.”

 

 

Flowers and Cries: NaPoWriMo

I can’t ask where have all the flowers gone,

they’re here for now,

waiting patiently through April showers,

lifting their faces to the sun

like baby chicks in the nest

trusting their parents to feed them,

trusting there is food,

we open the windows to spring breezes,

to birdsong

but the wind sighs

carries the cries,

the children who have died

 

We watch the rain fall,

(blood in the puddles)

the angel of death does not pass over,

but stops, rests awhile,

heedless of petty differences,

all are mortal,

we open our windows

no birdsong,

only twittering and tweets,

as the rooster puffs his chest,

 

it is spring,

but winter darkness falls,

the air carries a foul odor,

gas and genocide,

and the wind sighs

carries the cries

the children who have died

 

My friend says it’s a good day to cook

and so, I make some soup

bake some bread,

chop and stir and knead,

there is food for us,

outside, there are flowers still,

but then I sigh

I hear the cries,

the children who have died

 

 

 

NaPoWriMo, Day 7.  I’m off prompt today.

 

 

 

 

A Holiday Dinner

Monday Morning Musings:

I often wonder what I would do to survive, to escape

it’s the story of Passover, after all.

the story of a group of enslaved people who escape

(with the help of a few miracles)

and of people all over the world in the past and present.

My grandparents left a repressive land,

pogroms and restrictions,

coming here where they could prosper

they met and married.

Both sets of grandparents—love matches.

They worked hard through the Great Depression

and WWII

making certain that their children were educated.

Some people don’t want to think about

slavery in this country.

They want to visit historic sites

without a reminder that slave labor kept the homes and farms running.

But we can acknowledge the achievements

and the faults of historic figures.

I listen to Annette Gordon-Reed and

Peter S. Onuf discuss Jefferson’s complicated

moral geography—

people and situations are seldom simple

black or white–

and still the world has slavery,

people forced to work with little sleep or food,

beaten if they disobey,

women kept as sex slaves,

a young woman, now a college student here,

who escaped from the

Boko Haram:

“And I say to one of my friends that I’m going to jump out of the truck. I would rather die and my parents will see my body and bury it than to go with the Boko Haram.”

I wonder if I would have had the courage to jump from a truck and run.

I read Those Who Save Us, a novel by Jenna Blum,

and I wonder—

what I would do in war time to survive?

It’s easy to judge others.

And so on Passover,

I think about slavery and escape,

of generations of people celebrating this story with words and foods,

celebrating in basements,

in wealthy homes,

in concentration camps,

We sit around the table(s)—reading from our homemade “Haggadah,”

going through some of the Seder steps, mixed with family lore,

“the spirit of roast beef.”

We read our parts in our Passover play,

and laugh,

this year, the play includes “Pharaoh Trump,

and rap songs.

We eat the food that I spent days cooking–

chicken soup, vegetable broth, knaidlach made the way my mom taught me

with separated eggs,

no recipe of course,

done by feel,

done with love,

but they are light. No sinkers here!

Matzo balls that float,

and don’t land with a heavy thud in your stomach.

Gefilte fish with horseradish

to clear away those spring allergy symptoms

Oh—that’s not what it symbolizes?

We eat my sister’s charoset,

the mixture of fruit and nuts that symbolizes the mortar or mud used to make the bricks in

the Exodus story.

The meat eaters consume brisket and turkey breast with delight.

Those who don’t eat meat, enjoy the roasted sweet potatoes and salad of spring greens.

Many glasses of wine. No Manischewitz!

For dessert, flourless chocolate cake,

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And my daughter’s cheesecake, made with a crust of chocolate almond macaroons.

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And coffee meringues with chocolate chips

And lemon-almond macaroons

My daughter, believing she is addressing a lack in my education,

brings Fireball whiskey for me to do my first shot ever-

It’s a group activity—with dancing.

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I really do dance in my kitchen.

 

I realize suddenly that this is the first holiday in years

where all of my siblings

are here together,

and both of my daughters with their spouses.

My mom is still here, too.

I feel love.

I feel content.

OK. I feel a bit tired

by the time it ends.

But happiness, too.

And love.

 

Recipes for the Flourless Chocolate Cake (to which I add 1 Tbsp. espresso powder and 1 tsp. vanilla, and bake for one hour at 325 degrees) and the recipe for the coffee meringues were in this post from last year. https://merrildsmith.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/a-passover-legacy/

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!

Just Deserts?

The phrase “just deserts,” is used to describe when someone gets what he or she deserves. It is pronounced just desserts. That is, deserts is spelled like a dry, arid region, but pronounced like the tasty treat. Some people would be happy to eat only desserts, so to them, the phrase should probably be “just desserts,” the way it is commonly misspelled. After family meals—and stressful situations—many in my family believe we deserve a dessert, along with a bottle, glass of wine. So perhaps again, the phrase should be “just desserts.” Also, the first word my younger daughter learned to spell, when she was about three years old was dessert. She would ask if she could have a “d-e-s-s-e-r-t” with a big smile on her adorable, often food-streaked face. True story.

Here’s a link if want more information on the phrase “just deserts.” Meanwhile, I’m going to continue with the main point of this post, which is desserts, specifically the desserts we had at my house after our huge Passover meal. Apparently, I thought we were having fifty people at our table, instead of eleven (plus our older daughter and her fiancée SKYPED in for our traditional, hilarious Passover play.)

 

Passover Chicken Soup

Do you think I made enough chicken soup? And, I made vegetarian broth, too.

On Passover, when we pass over all flour products, it is often difficult to find great desserts. Well, it used to be difficult. When I was a child we only had awful sponge cakes and canned macaroons. This year especially I saw many suitable for Passover desserts–that sounded delicious–but for our big family dinner, we stuck with the two desserts that have been winners for the past couple of years. Because seriously, why wouldn’t we? We also had the traditional stewed dried fruit that my mom made. It is delicious. There is no recipe because the recipe is pretty much, get some dried fruit, or in the case of my almost 92-year-old mother, have someone buy the fruit and bring it to you–then cook it with some water, sugar, and lemon until it’s done. I’ve made it with honey or brown sugar. Actually, I don’t know what she used this time. So never mind. Can you see where my cooking technique comes from?

So I made a flourless chocolate cake and my younger daughter of d-e-s-s-e-r-t fame made a cheesecake with a macaroon crust. Neither dessert is an original recipe, but I’ve adapted them slightly.

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Flourless Chocolate Cake

I have to tell you that my niece said this was the best chocolate cake she has ever had, and she’s had a few. . .because we like chocolate cake. Also, this cake is really great with red wine. Really great. Like I want some now great.

Here’s the original recipe below.

****I added some vanilla extract—about a teaspoon, and poured in some brewed coffee because the pot was sitting there while I was whisking. Yes, that’s the way I cook. Um. . .probably a tablespoon or two. I baked the cake at 325 for an hour, and it was done. So you might want to try that. You really do NOT want to overbake this. I haven’t refrigerated it, and it’s still great, but if your house is warm, you will probably want to put it in the refrigerator.****

Chocolate Idiot Cake via DavidLebovitz.com adapted from Ready for Dessert (Ten Speed Press)

Makes one 9-inch cake

  • 10 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 7 ounces butter, salted or unsalted, cut into pieces
  • 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350F (175C). Butter a 9-inch springform pan and dust it with cocoa powder, tapping out any excess. If you suspect your springform pan isn’t 100 percent water-tight, wrap the outside with aluminum foil, making sure it goes all the way up to the outer rim.

2. Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler (or microwave), stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove from heat.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar, then whisk in the melted chocolate mixture until smooth.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan and cover the top of the pan snugly with a sheet of foil. Put the springform pan into a larger baking pan, such as a roasting pan, and add enough hot water to the baking pan to come about halfway up to the outside of the cake pan.

5. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes. You’ll know the cake is done when it feels just set, like quivering chocolate pudding. If you gently touch the center, your finger should come away clean.

5. Lift the cake pan from the water bath and remove the foil. Let cake cool completely on a cooling rack.

Serve thin wedges of this very rich cake at room temperature, with creme anglaise, ice cream, or whipped cream.

Storage: This Chocolate Idiot Cake can be wrapped and chilled in the refrigerator for 3-5 days.

Cheesecake

This is my mother-in-law’s recipe, adapted for Passover. It is a basic cheesecake, but it is my husband’s favorite, and sometimes you just shouldn’t tamper with perfection.

***However. . .I lowered the temperature to 325 and baked the cheesecake in a water bath. After the topping cooks for about 5 minutes, I turned off the heat and let the cheesecake sit in the oven for another 30 minutes. Then I let it cool in the water bath. Slide a knife around the edge, cover, and refrigerate. We also added some fresh lemon juice to the topping.***

Sandy’s Cheesecake

Crust: 1 ¾ graham cracker crumbs

         4 Tbsp. melted butter

Place on bottom of greased spring form pan. (I wrap the bottom of mine in foil.)

Passover Crust: Replace graham cracker crumbs with macaroon crumbs. We used a combination of coconut and almond, and only two tablespoons of butter. (I think.) We used the canned Passover macaroons. If you want to make your own, go for it. We made this after making three batches of knaidlach.

2 8 oz. packages of cream cheese and ½ of another (so 20 ounces total)

4 Eggs

¾ cup Sugar

2 tsp. vanilla

1 tsp. lemon juice

Pour over crust and bake in oven at 350 (or 325, if you’re following my changes) for 35 minutes. Remove from oven and pour on topping :

1 Pint Sour Cream

½ cup sugar

2 Tsp. vanilla

1-2 tsp. lemon juice, optional

Bake at 450 for 5-7 minutes. (Or leave at 325, if following my changes.)

Baking at the reduced temperature and in a water bath seems to eliminate the cracking. However, it is delicious when made either way!

Hope you enjoy these. Thanks for reading.

–Merril

 

 

Daffodils and the Rebirth of Spring

“But as we went along there were more and yet more [daffodils] and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.”

–Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere Journal, April 15, 1802

Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth: The Alfoxden Journal 1798, The Grasmere Journals 1800-1803, ed. Mary Moorman (New York: Oxford UP, 1971), 109-110.

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I think winter has finally been banished from South Jersey. The snow and the sleet and the grey skies are gone. Just before dawn each day, I now hear a choir of birds. I don’t know what type of birds they are, but I know I did not hear them during the winter months, which seemed this year to last forever. But now daffodils are blooming everywhere. I love daffodils. At the start of spring, just after the shy crocuses and snowbells peek out from the still frost-tipped ground, the daffodils appear, beautiful and confident. They do seem to exude joy and laughter, or perhaps seeing them simply makes me happy. Dorothy Wordsworth’s wonderfully evocative passage above describes the “host” of “golden daffodils” that her more famous brother William later wrote of in his famous poem, “Daffodils.” She describes the daffodils as dancing; he expresses the pleasure of thinking about them later, a thought that makes his heart “dance”:

“And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”

But Dorothy and William both express the way I feel: the daffodils dance, and they make my heart dance.

Tulips will begin to bloom soon. They were exotic flowers to the Europeans who encountered them in the sixteenth century. The Turks cultivated tulips as early as 1000 CE, but tulips spread throughout the Ottoman Empire over the centuries. As Europeans traveled and explored more widely in the sixteenth-century in the search for gold, knowledge, and adventure, they came across the exotic blooms. This period of European exploration also coincided with an interest in botany (and other sciences). Botanical drawings of tulips spread throughout Europe and sparked great interest. In Holland, Carolus Clusius, the head of the first botanical garden there, obtained some tulip bulbs from a connection to the Ottoman Empire. By 1594, he had tulips blooming in the Netherlands. Tulips began to be cultivated elsewhere in Holland, but they were still rare and exotic. Before long, they were being traded, and a financial tulip-trading market appeared. Traders and speculators went crazy. In 1624, one type of rare tulip bulb was selling for what would now be over $1000; some went for even more. The financial bubble became known as “Tulipomania,” and eventually the bubble burst in 1637.

            Tulips, though undeniably beautiful, seem a bit haughty to me. If tulips and daffodils were Downton Abbey characters, tulips would have the personality of Maggie Smith’s character, Violet Crawley the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Daffodils are more like the free-spirited Lady Sybil, who is also beautiful, kind, and loved by all.

Spring is the season of rebirth. Both Passover and Easter celebrate this theme. Birth and death; the cycles of nature, the cycles of life. The spring flowers that appear in bright shades of yellow, pink, blue, and red, chase the gray of winter cold and gloom away, and we can rejoice. And dance– especially after all that Passover Seder wine. By the time, my family gathers for our Passover Seder, the daffodils at our house probably will have faded and their blooms vanished. But that’s OK. Because I know that next year, along with the birds of spring, the daffodils will return to brighten my thoughts and my days after the long, cold winter.

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Passover: The Next Generation, or Why I Cook for Over a Week for a Night of Celebration

Yesterday morning, my husband and I drove a through pouring rain on flooded highways to get to a grocery store that sells Passover supplies. Our local ShopRite’s supply of Passover stocks consists of one baker’s rack tucked in a corner—like a shy and unwanted guest at a party. Over its sparsely stocked shelves there hangs a banner proudly declaring “Passover Foods.”

         I do not come from a religious family. When I was in elementary school, my mom would say, “You can stay home today—it’s a Jewish holiday.” True story. That was the entire explanation. On Hanukkah, we would light the candles and get presents. I had no idea why, but I certainly didn’t question getting presents. On Passover, my mom made her wonderful chicken soup with her amazing, feather-light knaidlach (matzah balls). We ate matzah at that meal, but I seriously did not know that during Passover—for the entire week–we are not supposed to eat any products with leavening. As a teen, we sometimes celebrated Passover with our relatives. The food was great—my mom and my aunts were all great cooks. These were my father’s sisters, who despite my parents’ divorce, were still my mom’s friends. But the Seder part with my uncles droning on and on endlessly in Hebrew and English, following the standard Conservative Jewish Haggadah that everyone used in those days, was one big snoozeville. My younger sister and I had no idea what they were talking about, and what’s more, we really didn’t care. Because. It. Was. Boring. Oh yes, then there was that Manischewitz wine—if you’ve never had it, and trust me, you don’t want it, tastes something like very sweet cough syrup.

         When my husband and I had children, I thought there must be some middle ground—something between no idea what this holiday means and mindless ritual. My husband is not Jewish, but he is happy to go along with whatever I celebrate—especially if it involves food. And of course, food is the main thing. So I started doing research, and I learned the significance of the major Jewish holidays. I am not religious, but I feel bound to my religion and thousands of years of oppression. I celebrate Passover for those who over centuries have been persecuted and killed for wanting and trying to do so.

         The word Seder means order, and there is a sequence to the pre-dinner rituals—the dipping of greens, the eating of charoset, etc. Part of the Seder involves telling the Passover story—the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. When our girls were little, they would put on a puppet show with their friends to tell the story. As they got older, they no longer wanted to do that, so I wrote a play. Everyone at the table read a part. They were humorous little skits—often filled with musical theatre references and in-jokes to current TV shows. I also wrote our own family Haggadah—because really, who doesn’t? At some point, I decided our daughters, brilliant, talented writers, should take over as playwrights. (You can read Younger Daughter’s version of this event in her blog.)

         This year our older daughter and her fiancée will not be with us for our Passover Seder—which in our crazy way will not actually take place on the traditional first or second night of Passover, but rather toward the end of Passover on a Saturday night. This is the first year I will not have both my girls here as we celebrate, although we hope to Skype them in. (I’m hopeful, but I’m picturing it like one of those video conferences where inevitably someone’s audio or video doesn’t work.) I will spend the next two weeks cooking because it is an unwritten rule that there must be enough food to feed two or three times the number of invited guests. I’ll be making both vegetable and chicken broth with what I hope are the feather-light knaidlach I learned to make from my mother, along with an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes, along with the matzah, charoset, and gefilte fish. There will be good wine and flourless chocolate cake and cheesecake with a macaroon crust made by my daughter. (There will also be stewed dried fruit because my mother reminds us all every year, “Matzah makes you constipated.”) There will be missing those who are not with us. There will be laughter with those who are here. Why do I do this? Because despite the labor involved, holidays give us a chance to put aside our other work (in my case, to quite literally clear the work from the table) and take stock of what’s important–and any chance to share food and wine with family and friends is a joy and a privilege. To my family and friends, I love you all so much!

 

 

 

 

Passover

English: "Holyland" brand matzah, ma...

English: “Holyland” brand matzah, machine-made in Jerusalem and purchased at Trader Joes in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together. “

~Erma Bombeck

We held our big family Passover meal last Saturday night. No, it was not the first or second night of Passover, the time when the Seder is supposed to take place, but it was when my family could be there. Sitting around our dining room table—or more accurately, our dining room and kitchen tables pushed together—were the people I care about most in the world, plus a newcomer who fit right in with our crazy family. He wasn’t fazed by hugs or bathroom humor, and he discovered that he loved matzoh, which was fortunate.

The Passover Seder is about tradition, ritual, symbolic foods, and telling the Passover story. Like the spring holidays of many religions, it celebrates rebirth. Seder means order, and most Seders follow a sequence of steps, including hand washing, dipping greens in salt water, and eating bitter herbs, while commenting on and explaining in endless detail, and often in Hebrew, why these things are done. The Seder gets children involved by having the youngest ask four questions about the night and later having them search for a piece of hidden matzoh called the Afikomen. Drinking four glasses of wine is also part of the Seder. Our table always includes matzoh covers that our daughters made when they were young children. Although we somehow never finish the Seder, our family does go through most of the steps, using a Haggadah we’ve compiled. More importantly, our family tradition of Passover includes enormous amounts of food, much wine, and a play, now written by my daughters. Every year there is a new play, and everyone has a part to read. The plays very loosely tell the story of the Exodus while incorporating current events, pop references, and song parodies. This year, my brother’s Moses, in a sort of Marlon Brando On the Waterfront portrayal, stole the show. I guess you had to be there.

My younger daughter and I are the only people in our family who actually “keep Passover,” that is, we do not eat bread and other products made with leavening during the entire Passover period. I’m not certain of her reasons, but for me, the keeping of Passover is my own personal homage to my ancestors, to Jews throughout the centuries who were not permitted to observe Passover, and to oppressed people everywhere. As a historian, I know that Passover was often the time when the most vicious pogroms occurred. I know that Jews struggled to commemorate the holiday during the Spanish Inquisition, in the Warsaw Ghetto, and in concentration camps, and I honor them, in my own way.

Our Seder is not religious or “traditional,” but it includes the traditions of our family, the in-jokes and the food mostly prepared with unwritten recipes. I know I am fortunate, that not everyone has family members they love so much—or food that is quite so delicious.  I am mindful that this was a Passover when everything came together just right—people, good spirits, weather, and food–to form a sort of spectacular perfect storm of Passover. These things might never coalesce in quite such a way again.

This year we laughed and sang, and then we ate, and ate some more. My heart was filled with love and joy. My stomach was filled with food and wine. Some might be offended by our non-religious celebration. But to me, food, love, and laughter cannot be anything but wonderful, especially when it is shared with loved ones. “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  On this night, our family gets together to share our traditions, to laugh together, to eat special foods, to drink, talk, and sing—and to eat matzoh. For me, that is Passover, and it is more than enough.