For centuries, Jewish families have observed Passover with Seders that have included roasted lamb, fish dishes and matzoh ball soup in keeping with Kosher traditions that date back to Exodus in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.
But in preparation for this year’s Passover, Jewish community leaders have put a new twist on an ancient tradition. They gathered at Equinox restaurant in Northwest Washington, where owners Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray served modern-day variations of traditional Passover dishes from their book, “The New Jewish Table-Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes.”
Passover, which starts Monday and ends April 2, commemorates the exodus and liberation of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt. In the story told in Exodus, God says he will strike down all first-born males, in the last of 10 plagues visited upon Egypt as punishment for the pharaoh who will not free his Jewish slaves. God instructs the Israelites to mark the doors of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb, promising that he will “pass over” them, hence the name of the holiday. After the Jews’ deliverance from Egypt, God commands them to begin observing the “Feast of Unleavened Bread” as there was no time for the bread dough to rise before their flight. This unleavened bread, matzoh, is a staple of the Seder.
As he stood in the Equinox kitchen last week preparing matzoh brei with strawberry compote, poached salmon mousse and quinoa salad with figs and mint , Todd Gray, who is not Jewish, joked about developing a passion for Passover cooking after falling in love with his Jewish wife.
“You want me to talk about the spirituality of a non-Jew during Passover?” said Todd, who has been married to Ellen for 18 years. “This is a big tradition with my new family.”
“Food is about celebration,” Todd said. “It is so much more than a meal. . . . It engages conversation. It evokes emotion. We can drive emotion into our food.”
As Todd cooked, Ellen entered the kitchen.
“Isn’t she hot?” he yelled. Ellen smiled and said that being business partners with Todd “means that we get to hang out and cook food together. Now that I am a vegan, I am really making it hard for him. Try Jewish food that is vegan!”
The Equinox meal on March 11 was part of the Jewish Food Experience, a regional project launched in December designed to bring people together around Jewish food, which is a central part of the religion and culture.
“Food brings people together, and nothing does it more than Jewish food,” said Jeff Rum, the president of Spark Experience and one of the developers of the Jewish Food Experience Web site. “It connects the young professional in Dupont Circle to a family in Falls Church to an interfaith couple in Bethesda.”
Rum said the project, which is organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, will partner with groups in the Washington area on events, including wine tastings, book signings, films, lectures and charitable endeavors. In June, the group will sponsor a music festival. (The project is sponsoring an online contest in which people are asked to create an exciting dish out of matzoh. Five finalists will receive gifts, and the winner gets $200 and a gift basket of Jewish food items. The deadline is Friday.)
“Wherever Jews have lived, they have adapted to the products of the land, ” Susan Barocas, project director for the Experience, told the group at Equinox. In an interview after the event, Barocas spoke about the relationship between food, Passover and the journey of the Jewish people.
From cleaning to preparing meals according to Kosher laws, Passover is an exciting but challenging time of year, Barocas said. And when it comes to preparing matzoh for Passover, there are specific Kosher laws. “To make something Kosher, you have 18 minutes to stir it up, roll it flat and get it into an oven,” she said.
Barocas said that during Passover, people keeping Kosher don’t eat pasta or leavened bread. Jews also avoid shellfish and refrain from consuming meat and milk at the same time.
“It is not about sacrifice. It is really is about the separation and being aware of what you are eating and thanking God for that animal,” Barocas said. “For me , Passover is a time of freedom. You think about the journey — the Exodus was a huge journey. I think about the personal journey in my life. It is definitely a time you want to be with family.”
Joan Nathan, broadcaster and author of 10 cookbooks including “Jewish Cooking in America,” was also at Equinox last week.
“Jewish people have always adapted to whatever community they were in, but they have adapted to the laws of Kashrut [keeping Kosher] so that there is Jewish Indian food, Jewish Iraqi food,” Nathan said.
While the focus was solely on food during the cooking demonstration, Stuart S. Kurlander, Jewish federation president, said the goal of the Experience is to create a more welcoming environment, and for the Jewish community to come together in a greater way.
DeDe Feinberg, a trustee of the United Jewish Endowment Fund, which is part of the federation, echoed those sentiments.
“Being a Jewish mother, there is nothing more important than food,” Feinberg said.
“It is not only the bringing of the food to the table and the nurturing; it brings the family together. The food is the medium for people coming together.”