Posts Tagged ‘Pesach’

The Seder Table: A Short Story

March 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I had a short story about Passover published in the J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for Northern California. Because this is Passover week, I figured I’d share it with you here. One of my goals when I set out to write it was to fit the tight 800-word limit of the J’s fiction section. Happy Passover!

The Seder Table

By Ilana DeBare

Normally she would be thrilled to have the twins flying home at the last minute for seder, but this year Robin wanted to bar the door. She reached for the big silver platter that had been in her family since the 1800s and attacked it with her square of chamois like a siege army. She didn’t want Jen and Maia leaving school, a vicious reminder of all that was wrong, like her friends’ solicitous phone calls asking if they could make the matzah balls this year, or the fatigue that set in around noon, or the goddamned bald head in the mirror.

Robin set the big silver platter aside, shiny as a new morning, and reached for the ceramic seder plate. It was a junky piece of kitsch, but it was her kitsch. She’d bought it in the Old City on her junior year abroad and used it every Passover since then. It had been through ramshackle seders on the living room floor in group households when she was single, seders that careened on fast-forward when everyone had squirming toddlers, decades of seders in which friends arrived with new husbands and then no husbands and then second husbands.

Robin was wiping down the plate when her cell rang. Dan. Checking in on her, no doubt. Which was sweet and considerate and loving and made her even more furious.

“Everything’s fine,” she answered curtly. “I’m doing the platters.”

“Well, hi-it’s-nice-to-hear-from-you too.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve just got my hands full. I can’t talk now.”

“No prob. How are you feeling?”




“Do you want–”

“I said I was fine. Look, sweetie, just get the girls at the airport, okay?”

When she reached to return the phone to her purse, a wave of exhaustion nearly brought her to her knees. Pacing. She had learned to pace herself in this new, hopefully-temporary metabolism. In past years, she tore through seder preparations in three intense days. Now, like a taffy pull without the sweetness, Robin had stretched those three days of work into a week. She had graciously agreed to let friends make the desserts and the charoset; she had even condescended to order the gefilte fish from a deli. All she had to do today – all – was polish the silver and glassware. Of course she could handle that.

After a nap.

It was four in the afternoon when Robin woke. She had never been a napper, and she planned on rejoining the ranks of the joyously, obliviously non-napping sometime soon. This round of chemo was working. The doctors were uniformly encouraging. Next Passover she would make the gefilte fish again. To hell with “next year in Jerusalem”; next year in normalcy would be just fine with her.

Robin reached for some crystal wine glasses that had belonged to her mother. Like everything else, they were dusty. She grasped multiple stems in each hand, like squawking chickens held upside-down by their feet, and padded toward the sink. And then it happened – who knew why, just a click of the front door like any other day, Dan arriving with the girls, but it spooked her and she twitched and the flock of crystal chickens flew out of her hands and smashed on the floor.

My mother’s crystal; what will she say? she thought, and then She can’t say anything, she’s been dead for 15 years, and then At least it wasn’t my seder plate and then Oh God, why do they have to see me this way because tears were running down her face and she had slumped onto the floor amidst the shattered glass.

“Mom!” called Jen, and they were suddenly around her, hugging her, so eager to make it all right. But it would not be all right, Robin knew, even if the chemo worked and her hair grew back and the gefilte fish swam back to her stove. If not this, it would be something else – the stroke that took her mother, the “female problems” that took her grandmother. It felt like only yesterday that she was triumphantly bargaining a few shekels off the price of an already-dirt-cheap seder plate, yesterday that she was inhaling sweet talcum powder from plump baby bodies. But the girls were grown; their childhood was gone; her own youth was even longer gone; and now her mother’s crystal was gone too. It was just a matter of time until all that remained of their cherished lives would be brittle heirlooms on someone else’s seder table.

Robin reached one arm around each girl. “Careful,” she managed to say. “The glass. Don’t cut yourself.” But what she was thinking was: We are always leaving Egypt, Pharoah’s chariots are always at our heels, and there will never be enough time for the matzah to rise.        

Sixth-night seder

April 4, 2010

Passover seders are like children: Everyone thinks theirs is the most fabulous one in the world, yet we all have the good taste not to say so out loud.

We had ours on Saturday, the sixth night of Passover, since I was away visiting my sister in Rhode Island at the beginning of the holiday. We were 24 in total, about the same size as usual, and we used the same home-compiled haggadah as usual. 

Even with so much continuity, every year is a little different. Before we had Becca, we did a longer seder with lots of discussing and digressing and politicking. Then we and our friends had babies, and it took on a beat-the-clock feeling: How much of the seder could you get through before the baby melted down? 

Then the kids got older, and there was often an empty seat while some little boy was off in the living room taking a Lego break.

Now the  average age of the kids has risen to somewhere between 10 and 16, and we’re able to have a  focused, coherent seder once again. 

And yes, we added the whipping scallions that I had read about in the New York Times and mentioned in my last blog post. See below:

Let the scallion whipping begin!

Let the scallion whipping begin!


Now, I know that the point of a seder is the story – the exodus from Egypt, the collective memories of slavery, the vertical connection to our history as Jews and the horizontal connection to the freedom struggles of so many other peoples today. 

Okay, I know that. Now can we talk about the food? 

I am about to violate the basic rule of discretion that I laid out at the beginning of this post, but I must say that I make the absolutely best matzah balls in the world. You may scoff, but this verdict comes from the toughest of critics — my daughter, who is usually about as complimentary to me as Simon Cowell is to American Idol wannabes. 

They are light, fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth. So even if I never get my novel published, I can take satisfaction in being Queen of the Matzah Balls. 

My absolutely, positively, undeniably fabulous matzah balls

This year,  I also made two great kosher-for-Passover desserts, including one that I decided to add at the last minute. (I ran out to the grocery store at 1 pm for the ingredients.) 

The dessert I’d made before was a raspberry jam linzer torte from a recipe by Tina Wasserman in Reform Judaism magazine a couple of years ago. The new one was a lemon cheesecake from the web site of the late, lamented Gourmet magazine. 

Lemon cheesecake and linzer torte

As anyone who has had dinner at our house knows, Sam is the baker in the family. He makes apple pies, fruit tarts, éclairs, croissants, and pain au chocolat.  I don’t go near anything that requires rolling out dough or letting things rise. 

But I have a personal passion for Passover desserts. Sometimes I fantasize about writing a Passover dessert cookbook. I love having to work within such strict, almost absurd limits. It’s one thing to make a main course without wheat or grains or leavening – but desserts

It’s kind of like Iron Chef: The Pesach Challenge

And there are so many bad Passover desserts out there. 

The old dry sponge-type cakes. The jellied fruit slice candies. The — I shudder even to think of them — canned macaroons

So I love the challenge of coming up with Passover desserts that are not dry and boring – that are modern and fruity and moist and scrumptious. 

The linzer torte and cheesecake definitely made the grade. So did our friend Jane’s chocolate death cake (only three ingredients — chocolate, eggs and butter) and our neighbor Lisa’s caramel and berry flan. Then there was the  chocolate toffee matzah, which I sometimes make but which last night was made by our friend Lynn.

Jane's chocolate death cake


Lisa's caramel flan

Lynn's chocolate matzah (and some crystallized ginger)

I quietly skipped the brisket that Sam made for the main course, knowing the desserts that would be coming.

No loss. Today we’ve got brisket leftovers for dinner.

But — sad for the soul, good for the thighs — the desserts are all gone.

Aftermath of a great seder


Some Passover tidbits

March 26, 2010

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?


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.