Some Passover tidbits

Passover has always been my favorite Jewish holiday — the food, the songs, the rituals of the Seder, the theme of freedom from oppression, and oh, did I mention the food?

Chanukah gets a lot of hype in America because it has morphed into a Jewish alternative to Christmas, and a reason for kids to get toys. But in reality, Chanukah is small potatoes (small latkes?) next to the big three pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot.

In Biblical times, Jews were commanded to travel to Jerusalem and worship at the Temple for these three holidays. Sukkot takes place during the fall harvest season. Shavuot takes place during the spring harvest season, seven weeks (the word shavuot means “weeks”) after Passover.

And Passover begins… this coming Monday evening.

We  always host a big seder with about two dozen close friends and family members, using a homemade haggadah that I cut and pasted from a variety of other haggadot before Becca was born. I love our haggadah. And I don’t have the time or drive right now to undertake a major revision of it.

But still, it’s always nice to learn something new about the familiar words and rituals.

Here are a few tidbits that were new to me this year. Not a whole meal’s worth of knowledge, just a little nibble to spread on your matzah:

Chazeret. For years, I’ve looked at the spot on our Seder plater that says chazeret and wondered just what “chazeret” was. I knew everything else — the matzah, maror, karpas, charoset, maror, shankbone. But chazeret? It turns out that chazeret is a second bitter herb used by some (not all) Ashkenazi Jews, alongside the maror.

Our seder plate, with the mysterious "chazeret"

Apparently some rabbinic scholars noticed that the phrase “bitter herbs” was plural and interpreted that to mean there should be two different bitter vegetables on the seder plate. So some families put romaine lettuce or another bitter green on the seder plate, in addition to maror.

The Maxwell House haggadah. When I was very little, I vaguely recall my family — like many other American Jews — using a haggadah distributed free at supermarkets by Maxwell House. Maxwell House haggadot were a kind of institution among American Jews, especially those who wanted a cheap and easy approach to putting on a seder.

Thanks to the wonders of the Web, I recently learned the back story behind the Maxwell House haggadah. Apparently American Jews shied away from drinking coffee during Passover in the early 20th century, assuming that coffee beans fell under the Passover prohibition against eating legume-style beans.

Maxwell House’s advertising agency sought out a rabbinical opinion in 1923 that coffee beans were really more like berries than beans, and thus were kosher for Pesach. And to drive this message home, in 1934 the ad agency printed the first of what eventually became more than 50 million Maxwell House haggadot — the start of the longest-running advertising promotion in history. (And last year Presidnet Obama reputedly used a Maxwell House haggadah for his White House seder!)

Passover songs like you’ve never heard them before. My friend Mary Mazzocco pointed me to a compilation of very eclectic Passover-related songs by non-Jewish folks ranging from Charles Mingus to the Carter Family to the Velvet Underground. (Plus Ray Charles, Nina Simone and Ray Barretto.) You can download it here.

Whipping scallions. The New York Times had a great story this week by veteran Jewish-food writer Joan Nathan on the Passover traditions of Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles.  Among them: Giving each person a scallion, or green onion, as they are called out here in California.

And then whacking each other with those scallions just before singing Dayenu to represent the Egyptian overseers whipping Hebrew slaves!

I love it. But can I get my family to go along with the idea of whipping scallions?

And my final tidbit…

Passover, the sequel. I’m talking about Shavuot. Although it’s one of the Big Three pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot gets almost no attention from secular American Jews. Okay, so there are no matzah balls or chocolate-covered matzah, that’s a definite limitation.  But Shavuot commemorates when the Jews received the Torah and the Ten Commandments from God at Mt. Sinai. And it relates to Passover’s freedom theme  in this way:

Passover is about freedom from.

But freedom from isn’t enough. The next step is freedom to — freedom to become fully human. Freedom to  develop a code of ethics and principles. Freedom to build a society based on justice and compassion.

Getting out of Egypt was the first step. The haggadah says dayenu — if God had led us out of Egypt, it would have been enough.

But  that isn’t true. Freedom from oppression is not enough, really. We also need the freedom and the vision and the will to create a just society, so former victims don’t simply become victimizers.

That’s where the Torah and Ten Commandments came into the picture. Passover is freedom from. Shavuot is freedom to.

Do you have any favorite Passover traditions or new tidbits of Passover knowledge you’d like to share?

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P.S. I know I have posted a lot this week. Apologies if you are experiencing Ilana-blog overload! I am heading back east to visit my sister tomorrow and am not likely to post for a while, so relax and have a good Passover.

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3 Responses to “Some Passover tidbits”

  1. Nancy King Bernstein Says:

    This one might have been my favorite yet–especially the freedom from/freedom to part. Have a wonderful Passover & a good trip east.

  2. Wendy Ng Says:

    I remember having Passover Seder at my good friend’s house when living in New York. I felt it such a privilege to be invited. I loved it! the food was fabulous, and to this day I even remember the place setting for Elijah crammed into a corner of the table no one was sitting at. I know Susie seemed a little sheepish about the religious part–reading the Haggadah, but she said, “We do the Evelyn Woods speed reading version of the Haggadah.”

  3. elliot Says:

    Ilana – very nice and keep ’em coming. I’m a sucker for freedom tales, including Charlie Mingus’ Oh Freedom song (he was half-Cherokee, thus an MOT himself).

    Passover’s always been my favorite too. A creative service geared towards kids; cousins and multi-generations being re-united; sharing spring with out-of-towners — it can’t get any better than that. Matzoh meal pancakes and fried matzoh (in infinite varieties) were always on my top 3 list of ANY food, any time of year. But memories – apart from the wonders of what my grandma Bobbie did with those egg-and-starch-heavy dishes, perhaps these two memories:

    1. my good-for-little Uncle Milliard getting me to pour matzoh meal into a volcano shape, spoon out a crater and pour gravy into it. Then, in a sort of physics exercise that was my add-on, I’d eat downward while avoiding any gravy drain-through (thereby grossing out guests who imagined what eating raw matzoh flour does inside of a kid’s belly). and

    2. contrast that with Uncle Leon mit der mustache, though I really have no idea how he was related. When nobody was looking, he’d get me laughing at the most somber point in the re-telling of the Jewish slavery-liberation story so I’d get in trouble; it never failed when he flapped napkin ears my way and baa-ed like the Pesach goat. Hag sama’ach.

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