“Now, we are here; next year we should be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year — free people.”
“The tried to kill us; they failed; let’s eat!”
Only in my life is it possible to be asked to bring fruit salad for 12 to a Pastor Appreciation luncheon on the same day that my mother requests unleavened sponge cake for a Passover Seder. I am the Ecumenical Poster Child, being the product of a Jewish mother and an ex-Catholic Atheist father, and having become a Non-denominational Protestant myself, after years of flirting with everything from Buddhism to Catholicism depending on what boy I was chasing and what book I was reading.
The Passover Seders of my childhood took place at my grandmother’s house on Chestnut Street, in Ashtabula, Ohio. They involved a long, long table that stretched across two rooms, and the full compliment of food and ceremony. We ate herbs dipped in salt water and Moror (usually horseradish) to symbolize the harshness of life for the Jews during their years of slavery, hard boiled eggs to symbolize the festival sacrifice, and matzo with Charoset to symbolize the mortar used to build the temple. We observed, with ghoulish fascination, the roasted bone on the Passover plate that came from some hapless chicken, but might have come from a body exhumed for the occasion. We also cast sideways glances at the empty place setting reserved for Elijah because we weren’t exactly clear on who he was, but we believed that he was somewhat like a leprechaun or a ghost, and might appear unexpectedly at the door. Clearly, we were not paying sufficient attention to the story we heard every single year.
With my Uncle Murray in charge, we took turns reading aloud from the Haggadah the story of the Jews escaping from Pharaoh to find freedom in the desert, and the parting of the Red Sea. We toasted to “next year, in Israel.” The youngest children present asked the four questions and elicited the answers that tell the story of why we celebrate Passover. The exception to the rule that children “inquired” was the question asked by the “simple son,” which Uncle Murray generally reserved for his brother David ( A doctor!) amidst much hilarity.
Then the real food started: the matzoh ball soup (we were a family that preferred “sinkers” with as much schmalz as possible), roast chicken, Farfel, asparagus, more Charoset on matzohs, Gfelte fish with horseradish, and, at the end, flourless sponge cake with fruit. One of the adults would hide the Afikomen (a piece of matzoh) and the children would search the house, knowing that the finder of the cracker would get big bucks from Uncle Murray, although the consolation prizes were always awarded quickly and generously from the same wallet. It was all good.
Those Seders, when we ate our cake with milky, sugary coffee, and laughed at our Uncles’ jokes until it came out of our noses are a thing of the past. We still have a Seder most years, at my parents’ house, but it now involves less strict adherence to the rules. Depending on when Easter is, and how my mother is feeling, we sometimes have a “greatest hits” version of the readings and questions, and make the foods that accompany the ritual. This year, we went for a streamlined approach with only a meal, and an explanation for the children about the fact that Passover is not really just about eating matzoh balls, but is actually a celebration of their Jewish ancestors being freed from great oppression. My brother made the matzoh balls (“floaters,” despite my ardent pleas), my mother made the chicken, we had fruit salad and asparagus and Gfelte fish and I used my grandmother’s 1959 Rodef-Shalom Sisterhood cookbook, with her recipe handwritten on the inside of the front cover, to make an unleavened sponge cake.
Despite the fact that my son is being raised as a Christian, and my brother’s kids are pretty much religion-free, it matters to me that they remember who they are, and that Judaism is about more than the food as they become adults and make decisions about faith. The food, however, is a fabulous bonus. Here’s the recipe for the sponge cake:
Berniece Louis’s Passover Cake
- 9 eggs – separated
- 1 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
- juice and rind of 1/2 lemon
- juice and rind of 1/2 orange
- 1/2 cup potato flour (I use corn starch which is not kosher for Passover, but works just fine)
- 1/2 cup matzoh cake flour (available most places around Passover)
Beat whites with a pinch of salt to peaks, but not dry. Gradually add 1 1/2 cups sugar. Beat until sugar is well beaten in. Beat yolks until creams and light colored. Beat in vanilla, juices and rinds.
Mix 1/2 cup potato flour (or corn starch) and 1/2 cup matzoh cake flour and fold into beaten whites.
Bake in a tube pan at 350 degrees for 40 minutes then 325 degrees for about 15-20 minutes more.
Although my grandmother usually served this with fruit, you can also top it with whipped cream, a glaze of orange or lemon juice mixed with powdered sugar, or (if you happen to have some have some) lemon curd.