Friday Favorites 4/6/2012

This evening the Jewish holiday of Pesach … commonly referred to Passover … begins at sunset.   The holiday, which celebrates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, is perhaps the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, observed to some degree by even otherwise non-observant Jews.   If you are interested in the details of the holiday, there is an excellent summary on Judaism 101, a great resource for all your questions about Judaism.   This holiday has been part of my life for roughly forty-five years now, counting the time Muri and I were together before we were married.   Jews do not eat leavened bread during Pesach, commemorating the fact that the Jews had to leave Egypt in a hurry and did not, therefore, have time to let their bread rise, the result being the first matzo.   In observant homes, all leavened products are removed from the home during Passover.   As a semi-Jew (a particularly reformed sect that changes its degree of observance from year to year), I sometimes eat leavened bread during Passover, although not in front of Muri.  This year I plan on towing the line and sticking to matzo, no small sacrifice.  As I said to Meleah of Momma Mia Mea Culpa on Facebook, Passover means Hello Matzo, Goodbye Fiber.  By the end of the eight days of Passover, your insides can feel like you’ve been eating cement.

As a young Catholic man from an Italian town dating a young Jewish woman, getting acquainted with Jewish foods was an interesting experience.  I don’t think I’d ever eaten a bagel before I met Muri and I’d certainly never eaten one with cream cheese, tomatoes, onion and smoked salmon (aka lox).  However, it was an unexpected treat so I came to my first Seder (the traditional meal on the first night of Passover) with hopeful expectations.  Let’s just say the reviews of the Seder menu were mixed, although, over the years I’ve come to enjoy most of the traditional foods.   Let’s talk matzo first.  If you haven’t had matzo, think of a very large saltine with no salt and no taste.  Or perhaps the lid of a shipping box.  I prefer egg matzo, which has a little more taste although it is not strictly kosher for Passover.  But then again, neither am I.

A feature of the Seder table is the Seder plate, which holds six foods with symbolic meaning for the holiday: Maror – bitter herbs, usually horseradish, symbolizing the harshness of the slavery the Jews endured in Egypt; Charoset – a course paste of apples, nuts and wine symbolizing the mortar used by the Jew to build the buildings of Egypt;  Karpas – a leafy vegetable, usually parsley; Zeroa – a roasted lamb bone, symbolizing the sacrificial lamb; and a hard boiled egg.   The early Jews must have realized that if people were going to eat this weird stuff, they were going to have to be really hungry.  They came up with a Seder ritual consisting of prayers, readings and songs that went on long enough that everyone was starving, so no one really objects when they have to taste the bitter herbs, dip the celery in salt water then eat it (the salt water symbolizing the tears of the slave), or eat a Hillel sandwich, Charoset and horseradish on a piece of matzo (It’s actually better than it sounds).

Once the ritual part of the Seder is mostly over, the cuisine improves.  For starters, there’s matzo ball soup.  You see, we make everything with matzo during Passover, and matzo balls are industrial strength dumplings made from matzo meal.  The soup is generally chicken-based and filled with veggies.  Muri uses carrots, celery and parsnips.  Excellent.  At the first few Seders I attended there was gefilte fish, defined by Wikipedia as a Jewish dish made from a poached mixture of ground deboned fish, such as carp, whitefish and/or pike, which is typically eaten as an appetizer.  It’s better than it sounds, too (and definitely better than it looks), particularly if you slather it with horseradish.  Muri won’t touch the stuff.  Many Jews make brisket and roasted potatoes but Muri makes roasted chicken because, as she recently told her sister, My guys don’t like brisket.  She’s a good wife.  There are vegetables but never rice, corn or legumes, since these are not eaten during Passover either.  For desert, there’s usually a cake made from matzo meal.  These cakes will never win a prize at the Orange County Fair but they’re a nice treat in the middle of a week of matzo.

There are things that are favorites because they move me, like music and art.  Other favorites excite me, like vacations in Maui.  Then there are things that are favorites because they are part of the fabric of my life.  Passover even ties together my childhood Catholicism and my adult semi-Judaism, since the Last Supper was in fact a Seder and the first communion was a piece of matzo.  So, on this Friday, I wish you a Happy Pesach if you are of the Jewish persuasion and a Happy Easter if you are Christian.  And a good weekend regardless of what you believe.

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3 Comments on “Friday Favorites 4/6/2012”

  1. I am used to much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the matzo regulations, as I have a lot of Reform Jewish friends who are observant of Passover. I also live in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, and I find it beautiful to watch them walk to Schul so often, particularly on High Holy Days. Chag Sameach.

  2. Happy Holidays to you and Muri, Bud!

    I will be celebrating BOTH Pesach & Easter. Gotta LOVE being Jewish & Italian.

  3. cherperz Says:

    That was an interesting post. I have heard of some of the food…who hasn’t heard of bagel and lox but some of it really sounds bad. (not trying to cast aspersions on your food but…bitter herbs with horseradish, roasted lamb BONE, ground fish slathered with some horseradish. Clearly, I would make a bad Jew. (at least as far as keeping to the appropriate foods)

    I hope you and Muri have a wonderful Pesach and/or a nice Easter (if you still have ties to your Catholicism)

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