Passover is around the corner and in households worldwide, the final countdown has begun. When talking to some of my family & friends and looking at my facebook page over the last week, it’s incredible to see how hard everyone is working to make this holiday feast so special! What many have made vis-a-vis amounts and variety puts me to shame! In yiddish, the perfect word to describe all these enthusiastic, talented (mostly) women is a balabusta (a great woman in all ways who knows how to kill it with her cooking)!!
Passover is a holiday that has been in existence since antiquity (over 3,300 years ago) when the Jewish people, then called the Israelites, with the help of their prophet, Moses, escaped from slavery in Egypt (referred to as the Exodus). Since this ancient festival is celebrated around the globe, the foods that are prepared can be very different. For example, the Ashkenazi Jews, emanating from Eastern Europe, eat one food that many, Ashkenazis included, cringe at and often joke about. This well-known dish is called gefilte (meaning “stuffed”) fish, made from carp, whitefish or pike, and served with beet-red-hot chrain (horseradish). This is not a delicacy for the faint of heart! I, however, happen to love it!
The Pesach (Yiddish word for Passover) seder table is usually adorned with one’s finest linens, dishes, cutlery and glassware, but the most important items consist of the seder plate, the sacramental wine for the prophet Eliyahu, and the matzah. In addition to the traditional matzah we eat, made by the long-standing Manischewitz or Streit factories in New York, and many others, I always serve a box of shmurah matzah. This type of matzah is actually “guarded” from the moment it is harvested.
Every item on the Passover dinner table is symbolic of the hardships the Israelites encountered while in bondage. There are many beautiful Judaica and giftware items available for Passover which add an air of elegance & sophistication to any table, making the holiday more festive.
Our family, like every other, has a treasure chest of memories of the many seders of days gone by. Ours were led by my sweet, and so very missed, Dad, who was fluent in prayer from his younger days attending cheder (an elementary religious school teaching Jewish tradition, history & prayer & the Hebrew language) in Dej, Transylvania, Romania, Some years, if we were lucky enough to share the holiday with our Uncle Aaron & his wife Sophie (Uncle Aaron was the grandfather we never had) from New York, our uncle, too, would conduct the seder either in our home or in his and my aunt’s apartments in either Queens or the Bronx. Their living space was very small and I remember they once took their kitchen table into their bedroom so that we’d have more room! Imagine having a seder between a bed and a vanity! Our uncle, too, was well-versed in Jewish prayer from his youth in Trembowla, Poland. These memories are so precious and our Dad and the many other relatives we have lost over the years are always with us, most especially during holidays.
Prior to one Passover, since I never make gefilte fish myself, my mom and I ventured over to the Montreal Kosher factory to pick some up. We stood in line for hours and when we finally got the fish, it was boiling hot. My husband, Bradley, had just gotten a brand new sports car which I was using that day and I suddenly realized that the piping hot fish would stink up his new vehicle. I thought he was going to kill me! My mom and I drove home with the windows wide open to let all the
fumes out. Thankfully by the time we got back, the wind had gotten rid of the odour! As you can see, gefilte fish is a huge topic of this holiday! Even my favourite comedienne, Joan Rivers (who, very sadly, passed away recently), was on the LOVE side of the gefilte fish equation. In the forward to a cookbook called Eating Delancey – A Celebration of Jewish Food, published in December 2014, she wrote:“If I had to choose a last meal, it would be gefilte fish with freshly grated horseradish.”
One day my mom was making another “delicacy” for Passover. Well, rather, she was opening up a jar of borscht. Not a pretty word, and also, another dish certainly not for everyone – it’s definitely an acquired taste! Borscht is a cold soup made from red beets. In the jar are what seems like a million tiny, thin slivers of these very red beets. On that particular day, the jar slipped out of my mom’s hands and smashed on the floor. She went mad trying to pick up, not only the shards of glass, but the pieces of beets that went into every crack in the floor! It took her forever to clean up! We laugh about it now but she was a wreck! (And if Borscht isn’t your thing (my brother Bernie shivers when he thinks of eating it!), there is something even more tantalizing – Shrek-green Schav!!!!! If you want to know more about these treats, this article brings them to life!
When my brothers and I were kids, our family would be invited to our cousins’ homes for holidays. Once, when we were at the home of one of my uncles and aunts in Outremont and the seder was just winding down, the doorbell rang. My dad jokingly said it was Eliyahu. (The custom on Passover is to set a glass of wine on the table for the prophet Eliyahu and then at the end of the seder, open the door so he could symbolically come in and drink the wine). I believed him & totally freaked out, bolting from the table at the speed of sound to hide! I was petrified! In the end it wasn’t Eliyahu of course, but another one of my uncles, aunt and cousins! lol! As I recalled this story, I tried to google an image of Eliyahu to see who I was so afraid of. This is the only one I could find!
Charoset is one of the symbolic foods on the seder plate signifying the clay & mortar the Israelite slaves had to mix for constructing the Pharaoh’s buildings. The sweet ingredients in this recipe symbolize their eventual freedom. Ashkenazi Jews usually mix together chopped walnuts, apples, cinnamon, honey, & wine while Sephardic Jews usually combine raisins, dates, figs & spices. (In truth, what really looks like mortar is my hubby’s matzah ball soup after he dumps the contents of a whole box of matzah farfel into his bowl, causing the farfel to sponge up all the soup)!!! There are literally dozens of recipes for charoset by Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, African, Spanish, Greek, Turkish, Hungarian, Russian, French, Italian, Portugese, and many other Jews around the world! You can find a few variations here and here! This year, believe it or not, there is even a charoset ice cream made by Ben & Jerry’s (of course you do have to go to Israel to try it!)!
There are as many variations of the Haggadah (the Passover prayer book) as there are recipes for charoset. Our family has two very unique, important ones in our collection – the Sarajevo and the Arthur Szyk Haggadahs. The Sarajevo Haggadah is said to be the oldest one in survival, from the 1300’s. You can watch this clip, called “Searching for Hope – The Sarajevo Haggadah” to find out more about this incredible artifact that survived generations, wars, and everything in between. My hubby and I were very fortunate to wander into an art gallery in La Jolla a few years ago which had a few limited edition reprints of this Haggadah. We were so intrigued that we ended up buying one and have proudly displayed it in our home ever since, looking at it every Passover to remind us of the survival of the Jewish people who have endured the Exodus, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and so many other horrific times over the past 5775 years of their existence.
The other Haggadah which has deep meaning to us was created by the brilliant artist, caricaturist & historian, Arthur Szyk, on the eve of the Nazi occupation of Poland, where he lived at the time. In it he portrays many parallels between the perils of the Jews in Egypt with the Nazi genocide of the Jews during the 1930’s & 40’s. He, luckily, escaped being murdered, moving to the U.S. in 1940. The masterpieces he created are incredible, not only for their mastery and calligraphy, but also for the brutal time in history during which they were created. As fortune would have it, last year while visiting San Francisco, my hubby & I visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum which was hosting an exhibit on “Arthur Szyk & The Art of the
Haggadah.”It was the first time in over 60 years that all of the paintings he created for the Haggadah (48 in all) were on display. As a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, this Haggadah has special significance to me.
On Passover leavened bread is restricted. In it’s place is matzah (as mentioned earlier), a hard, flat, cracker-like board, made solely of flour and water with absolutely no leavening agent. The reason for this ritual is due to the fact that the Jewish people fled from Egypt in such a hurry that their bread didn’t have time to rise. In fact, any product with yeast is prohibited along anything made with wheat, spelt, barley, rye, oats or spelt. For Ashkenazi Jews, kitniyot is also forbidden (including legumes, rice, corn, soy beans, string beans, peas, lentils, mustard, sesame seeds and poppy seeds), however these foods are okay to be eaten by Sephardic Jews who never adhered to this prohibition. As for matzah, most products for Passover are matzah-byproducts. You just can’t escape it!
When we were kids my mom would change all the dishes, lest they came into contact with anything non-Passover. She would put elastic bands on the cupboards where everyday items were stored and we would strum the elastics like guitar strings! I had a favourite white bowl for my chocolate milk and matzah farfel cereal. It was MY bowl, but one day, my younger brother, Stephen, took ownership of it and it was no longer mine (I think he still has it)!!! My older brother Bernie and I didn’t have to fight over favourites because he always loved matzah brei (kinda like a very large, thick pancake, made from broken-up matzah, eggs and water), and I hated it! Bernie loved it smothered in sugar or strawberry jam.
My mom would use these see-through green mixing bowls that she received from a lady who used to help her clean her home, along with these pyrex bowls with different coloured decorative bands on them. Most of our dinner plates were amassed from Texaco gas stations (are they still around???) over a period of time. Every time my dad filled the car up with gas, we were awarded a plate or soup bowl! One of the drinking glasses we had was an old Schwartz’s mustard jar! We also had a little, manual, dullish-silver teapot which was heated up on the stove, and kitchen utensils with red plastic handles. Whenever we see these items, they bring back so many wonderful memories of our Passovers long ago, and we can still smell the delicious dishes my mom would prepare. Today, my mom is strictly a guest at our seders as she has “retired” from cooking! But her recipes have, thankfully, been handed down to us so we can still enjoy her gourmet delights!
In the “old” days and even today, the most symbolic wine for Passover is the legendary Manischewitz Concord Grape – fodder for many jokes because of its intense sweetness. It definitely tastes more like grape juice than actual wine, but be careful; you can easily drink down an entire bottle without realizing it! Not a bad deal for college students at only $7.99 CDN a bottle (yes, I know, I’m a horrible parent!!!), however beware of the plague-like hangovers! There are some really fun cocktails bartenders have come up with, both with this kitschy elixir and without it such as the Manischewitz Smash, the Borscht Martini, Manischewitz Jello Shots, the Brickmaker, the Elijah Fizz, and even the Oy Vey Iz Kir adapted from the Shalom Japan Restaurant in Brooklyn, NY! My favourite, however, has to be the The Drunken Pharoah, (learn how to make it here)!
Since this holiday has been celebrated for thousands of years there is no end to what one can write about on the subject (especially for me, who, as my readers know, has the worst editing skills on the planet). I hope I’ve covered just a bit here!
To all those who celebrate and to all those who don’t (but wish they did!), I wish you a great holiday! Bitayavon (Bon Apetit!) L’Chaim (To Life)!!!!
Until next time, Hugs & Kisses from The Pomegraddict