Passover or Pesach is an emotional and nostalgic Jewish holiday that celebrates the exodus of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt. For years, our family has gathered as many people around our Seder table as possible. This reflects our open-door policy of welcoming family, friends and almost-strangers who had never been to a Seder. In fact, it’s the most beloved of all our Jewish holidays with more than 70 percent of Jews participating in a family or community Seder versus only 23 percent attending religious services monthly, according to one Pew Research Center study.
I’m not surprised. Part of the reason may be the joy of retelling the story of Passover including the miracle of God’s parting of the Red Sea and Moses leading the Israelites to freedom in the Holy Land. Who could resist the imagery, bravery and storyline of survival in the desert for 40 days and nights? In addition, a large part of the joy of this holiday is also be the array of foods prepared, from the holiday symbols—fresh parsley dipped in salt water to represent the tears shed to the haroset, a mix of apples, cinnamon, wine and nuts to signify the mortar that kept the bricks together that the Israelites made. Since the Israelites fled so quickly from Egypt, they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. The result is what we call matzoh, unleavened bread, that is the centerpiece of the meal at this holiday. Throughout the eight days of Passover, no leavened bread is to be consumed. Other food favorites include chicken soup with fluffy matzoh balls, flourless chocolate cake and coconut macaroons, some dipped in chocolate.
Like other families, I think our attraction has been part food and part tradition to retell how we’ve survived as a people and to teach the younger generation how joyous a holiday can be. For me there’s another reason. I love that the holiday has kept evolving as the next generation stepped in to help and even take charge.
Growing up we celebrated two nights as Conservative Jews, one night at home and one at dear friends of my parents with the best kreplach (triangular-shaped noodles filled with chopped meat or cheese) and soup ever. In each case, the service at the dinner table was long—I always counted the number of pages until the Haggadah—the Jewish playbook for the service--instructed us to eat! The tables were always set with the best china, crystal, silver and linen rather than paper napkins, and the food was almost too plentiful. By the time dessert came, most of us were full and falling asleep.
When my generation took charge after my father died, we shortened the service to the essential parts and most symbolic foods. We also adapted the recipes to suit our more sophisticated culinary taste buds. There would be homemade rather than store-bought macaroons based on an Ina Garten recipe and Cook’s Illustrated two-day, onion-braised brisket recipe that friend Nancy first made, and we deemed the best-brisket-ever! As my daughters became good cooks, there were more food changes, with daughter No. 1 in charge of the vegetables, often something with shaved or sautéed Brussels sprouts, which never would have been allowed to replace the traditional spring asparagus at my parents’ table. Daughter No. 2, after being begged, would make her flourless key lime pie, which we decided was so good it could be served any time of year, even when flour was permitted.
Last year we gathered for two nights, one Seder with 10 and the next night with 18 as cousins traveled far and friends who had never been joined us. We used a new online Haggadah adaptation from the site, www.jewbelong, which had us participate in a Passover play with each taking a role. It was great fun and a bit irreverent but kept the little ones’ attention. We also had masks for the young ones to wear that symbolized the 10 plagues that God sent to force the Egyptians to let the Israelites go. (It worked.) And although my mother no longer can make her haroset, we mastered her recipe and she became our taste tester.
This year because my 99-year-old mother can’t travel the two hours to my home or the same distance to other relatives, we will bring the Seder to her apartment for the second night. Nine of us will crowd around her table. We will bring out her good china, crystal and silverware which now are rarely used but opt for paper napkins to make cleanup easier. And we will buy part of the meal since cooking in her apartment is more difficult and her nearby fishmonger makes fabulous homemade gefilte fish.
To make prep easy, we will cook in advance. The soup will be made days ahead and frozen with fresh dill added when it simmers; macaroons and a cake will be baked a day ahead. All the other ingredients will be purchased in advance and ready for action, from fresh parsley to horseradish, capons for roasting, matzoh, haroset, matzoh balls and so on. We will decide where to hide the afikomen, half a piece of matzoh for the little boys (my grandsons) to find, what the prize will be for the finder (but each will take home a symbolic trophy of some kind) and when to open the door to let in Elijah whose cup of wine will be waiting for him.
And before we finish, we will repeat what I consider the most important twist on tradition: That next year, when my mother will be 100 years old, we will be together again, not in Jerusalem as the script goes, but at my mother’s apartment.
Combine 1 1/2 cups of chopped walnuts, 3 medium chopped and cored Gala or similar favorite apples—skin can be left on, 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons cinnamon or to taste, 1/2 cup of sweet red wine with a kosher seal. Make the day of and refrigerate. Always make extra; there is almost never enough!