Three thousand years after the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the Passover seder meal commemorating that event is still being celebrated in much the original way. Jews still eat the unleavened bread, taste of bitter herbs, ask the four ritual questions, drink four cups of wine and open the door for Elijah the prophet to come in and take part. The way each family observes the seder reflects a particular background. But not until I attended the seder of my husband's family did I realize how different those observances could be.
My parents' seder never began with the meal itself. Cocktails came first (a startling aberration, I learned later, from Jewish tradition), then matzo with herring in cream sauce and chopped liver, and gefilte fish balls. I preferred the herring; the only good thing about the gefilte fish seemed to be the horseradish around it. (Years later when I tasted my mother-in-law's gefilte fish I realied that it could be delicious.)
Finally the seder began. Our mahogany dining room table was set with symbolic foods placed on a flat cut-glass plate in the center, my father's silver bar mitzvah cup from Germany alongside it for the kiddush (the blessing over the wine) and a copy of the Haggadah, the service book, on each plate. Our Haggadah was invariably a children's Haggadah -- short, slightly food-stained from seders past and, most important in English.
Our seder included the immediate family, my brothers Alan and Rick, invited students from nearby Brown University and, often, Christian friends.
At the table, I sat to my father's left, presumably to help serve while he carved. This position had advantages when it came to filling my own plate, enabling me to slip on an extra potato or a larger slice of cake. My father, also a "nosher," was a fast eater and would spoon more stuffing onto his plate while Mon's head was turned.
Sitting next to my father also had its disadvantages. Even though Dad has been leading a seder for 40 years, he is not comfortable with this role and takes on an exaggerated seriousness that often provoked my laughter. It seems to me that at least every other seder I was temporarily excused from the table, overwhelmed by giggles.
Dad did not grow up with a seder. Grandmother Lina would explain, "My religion is in my heart." Grandpa Rudolph refused even to participate in the ritual. My American-born mother, a woman of Hungarian origin who has always maintained she brought fresh ideas into her husband's German family, insisted upon starting married life with a family seder. A deal was made: If Dad would lead an annual seder, she would learn how to make chremslach, a deep-fried fritter filled with raisins and almonds served during Passover at his grandmother's home in Germany. Dad carefully planned the service -- straight out of the children's Haggadah, his only model.
For a child, not only the tastes but the rituals make the seder different from every other meal. One tradition was the beautiful seder plate my mother prepared. The roasted egg and the shankbone recalled the sacrifices performed in the Temple. The chopped apple and nut haroset symbolized the bricks used for the pharoah's buildings.
To me the most poignant part of the Passover food ritual was the lifting of the parsley, symbol of spring, and then dipping it into salted water in recollection (as I learned it erroneously) of the tears shed by the Israelites for the Egyptians killed by the plagues.
My mind would sometimes wander during the stories. Sometimes I was swimming across the Red Sea. Once I tried to imagine how rushed the Israelites must have been not to have had enough time to make bread with yeast. At other times I pictured myself as the maiden who found the infant Moses.
After drinking the second cup of wine of four required by ritual, we were ready to eat. Our meal was always an abbreviated version of a menu from The Settlement House Cookbook .
The meal began with clear chicken broth with two light matzo balls and a sprig of parsley. "How delicately light your matzo balls are," Dad would exclaim after his first bite. Mom would beam with a sign of relief. For my mother, an otherwise eclectic cook, the lightness of her matzo balls indicated her success as a Jewish mother, cook and wife. Thank goodness my husband Allan approved of light matzo balls as well. Some Jews prefer matzo balls that plummet to the belly's floor like cannonballs, and marriages hae shattered over less.
Allan was, however, taken aback by other features of my family's seder. Traditionally -- and perhaps equally important his mother's way -- the matzo ball soup should have been preceded by hard-boiled eggs in salted water and gefilte fish. For my part, I was shocked when I learned that my in-laws do not consider the kosher Israeli dry cabernet sauvignon a substitute for Manischewitz sweet. (To the Gersons, wine is not wine if it is not sweet.)
Our main course was a crusty leg of lamb with new potatoes, fresh asparagus and green salad.
"How shocking," burst out a Conservative friend once when I described this menu.
"But it's in the Bible," I insisted. "'And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it.' (Exodus 12:8.)"
Meat may not be roasted for Passover until the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, she replied, since roasted meat symbolizes the sacrifices performed in the Temple. Moreover, she added, leg of lamb is not a kosher cut and anyway a proper Pasover meal requires three kinds of overcooked garlicky meat -- a brisket, baked chicken and a chicken-veal-beef meat loaf. My mother's response to such quibbling was firm: If a leg of lamb was good enough for The Settlement House Cookbook it was good enough for her.
Dessert was chremslach and a kiss torte, a meringue shell filled with strawberries and topped with whipped cream. (As far as Mom was concerned, the meringue met the Passover requirement that no flour be used. She was not concerned about the whipped cream -- we did not observe the separation of milk and meat.)
Dinner over, we children searched for the afikoman, the dessert matzo that Dad had hidden. Usually it was found in the same front hall drawer each year by Rick, who thereby received the dollar prize. We rarely finished drinking the third and fourth cups of wine, but Elijah the prophet was ceremoniously welcomed each year. The sedar ended when we began singing Passover songs off-key.
The Gerson family seder, when I encountered it, was a profound shift from the gastrocultural events of my childhood. The story was the same and the matzot were still square, but that about sums up the similarities.
As we entered Allan's parents' apartment, we were welcomed by the aroma of chicen soup and a barrage of introductions to his entire family. The tiny living room was crammed with borrowed tables and chairs to seat about 40. Allan's father, Mottel, conducted the sedar in perfect Hebrew and Yiddish and halting English. The men listened, the women hovered. Allan's mother, Peshka, secretly delighted, moaned over the number of relatives attending, all from the same shtetl in Poland. For weeks she had been preparing the gefilte fish (although Aunts Ruchsha and Chuma insisted behind her back that Pehska's lacked the right amount of almonds and salt).
No one would miss the sedar, even Aunt Chuma and her brother Uncle Moshe, who had not spoken to each other for years. (Seating, glances and conversations were arranged accordingly.) Mottel had learned how to conduct a sedar from his father, and Allan has learned by watching and listening to Mottel.Mottel, a Holocaust survivor, makes his annual heartfelt speech in hesitant English, reminding us of the World War II Warsaw ghetto uprising as an analogy to the flight to freedom along ago in Egypt. He desperately wants his children to remember their Jewish roots and the horrors that befell his family before the Gersons migrated to the United States.
For years Allan and I have alternated attending sedars at his parents' and my parents' homes. But this year we are planning our own seder for the first time. Until now have viewed a seder as an event prepared for my enjoyment, a theatrical performance for a spellbound child. Although our 3 1/2-year-old daughter Daniela will be present, our seder will be essentially for adults. It will have the seriousness of the Jewish tradition, the panache of the contemporary and the lightness of Allan's personality. The food will be a combination of both our culinary backgrounds. And I hope Daniela will be able to look forward to our pageant in the same way that Allan and I did. The service will be left up to Allan. I'll be trying to make light matzo balls, my mother-in-law's gefilte fish and my mother's chremslach as delectable as I remember it from my childhood. MATZO CHREMSLACH Serves 6 to 8 3 matzot, soaked and squeezed very dry 2 tablespoons chopped raisins 2 tablespoons chopped almonds 3 eggs, separated 3 tablespoons matzo meal (or more) 2/3 cup sugar Grated rind of 1 lemon 1 tablespoons lemon juice Vegetable oil for deep frying
Mix the matzot, raisins, almonds, egg yolks, matzo meal, sugar, lemon rind and lemon juice. Beat the egg whites until stiff. Fold into the matzo mixture. Heat the vegetable oil to 375 degrees. Dorp the mixture by tablespoons and brown on both sides. Drain well on paper towel. Serve warm, with stewed prunes flavored with orange juice.