It was really just going to be too much trouble to do a Passover Seder this year. My mother is Jewish, and I live in the same town as my parents and my only sibling, but we are just all sort of Professionally Busy. My brother (a doctor!) runs a hospital, I (a lawyer!) have a couple of jobs, and our entirely gentile spouses are willing participants in Jewish holidays, but unlikely organizers thereof. Then there are the kids, the dogs, the community obligations, the laundry, the cello lessons, the baseball conditioning…there is always a reason to opt out of anything that involves lots of cooking and dressing up, particularly in the middle of the week.
(I should also mention that members of my own household attend church on a regular basis, and that this week is also Holy Week and culminates in the “Big E.” Easter and Passover are certainly not mutually exclusive, since Easter would not exist without that last Seder, but a Jewish Hootenanny requiring the production of everything from matzoh balls to flourless cake is daunting if there’s a Christian Ham Fest coming at you at the end of the week). We decided, in a round of phone calls, that a Seder was just too much this year. My parents (one Jew, one Atheist) would join us for brunch after Easter Sunday services, and my brother’s family would be on their own and scot-free.
Then, while I was cooking dinner the other night, I happened to listen to a podcast version of American Public Media’s “Speaking of Faith,” in which a Talmudic scholar was talking about Passover, and the Exodus story. She spoke about the fact that a Seder, a ceremony that takes place not in a temple, but in a family home, is about “telling the story” of the Exodus from Egypt. The point is not that it be read and assimilated in some private, scholarly way, but that it be “told” again and again, year after year, with the children who are “told” in their childhood becoming the “tellers” as they grow to adulthood and bring their own children to the table. For me, this telling has significance in terms of both religious faith and of family connection; the story also has great resonance with the story of any people enslaved by an unjust government and finally escaping to freedom. It seemed, as I sliced onions, that I was maybe, possibly crying some complicated combination of tears involving both irritating gas and a sense that I was letting something slip away that was of great importance to my son, and to my brother’s children.
So, in the spirit of any good Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie, I said (to no one in particular) “let’s put on a Seder!!” I knew I was on my own – the Seder of my childhood with an army of women cooking briskets, roasting lamb shanks, and starching table cloths was simply not on. I also knew that the Seder couldn’t be held on the actual first night of Passover because I was going to be out for oysters (traif) and beer (a yeast-containing product forbidden during Passover) with a friend on that night. I decided on Thursday night, which is the second night of Passover, and on which some more orthodox Jews actually hold a second Seder. It was nothing that would make a Rabbi proud, but I get points for scrappiness. Or something.
I called my brother and told him that all I wanted was the kids, and that he and my sister in law were free to attend, not attend, go out to dinner, or disport themselves in the manner of their choosing. He said I could have them, and that he would make the matzoh ball soup (as he always does) whether or not they decided to come for dinner. That meant I had the opening act taken care of, and an army of minions (not to be confused with minyans) to help me chop apples, snap asparagus, serve and clear. I called my mother and told her we were on for Passover, and that my conditions included the use of plates, glasses and silver that could be washed in the dishwasher, a tablecloth that could go in the washing machine, and freedom to tweak the menu in a respectful manner. The tectonic plates shifted, and I was given a free pass (over).
Here’s the menu:
Matzoh Ball Soup (Made by my brother)
Brisket (Made by me, using the Ancestral Recipe)
Asparagus (Nice and springy, and a welcome break in a heavy meal)
Gfelte Fish (Ick, ick, ick, but some of the family loves it)
Noodle Kugel (This recipe although I will probably use apricots instead of apples. My mom says it should really only be served if the main dish is chicken, but I have reminded her of the Great Passover Compact of 2009).
Fresh Fruit for Dessert (No one who has consumed matzoh balls, brisket and noodle kugel needs to eat cake, flourless or otherwise).
In addition to the actual meal, there must also be bitter herb (probably horseradish), charoset (fabulous stuff made of apples, nuts and honey to symbolize mortar), a shank bone most likely a bone from tonight’s chicken thighs), roasted eggs (hard boiled instead so they don’t freak out the kids), salt water, and free-flowing matzohs. There will also be a couple of bottles of good wine (I’ll need it by then), and sparkling cider for the kids. I believe that part of freedom for the children of Israel is that they be spared from drinking Manischewitz.
(NOTE: None of these pictures is mine, they are all stock photos taken by Strange Jews in Cyberspace. I will take pictures of our own actual Seder on Thursday night).