Posts Tagged ‘Seder’

The world as a dinner party

March 26, 2013

We don’t throw formal dinner parties. It’s both generational and demographic; my husband and I came of age in the era of Laurel’s Kitchen potluck dinners filled with dreadful lentil-nut loaves.

We’ve moved beyond lentil-nut loaves, but we still tend to entertain in a casual way. Good wine, but no crystal glasses. Delicious food, but stainless-steel flatware rather than the sterling silverware that my mother had.

There’s one occasion a year that’s different, our Seder. White tablecloths, flowers on the table, and the silver wine goblets and serving platters that I inherited from my mother’s family. I always scramble to polish them at the last minute, since they haven’t been used since the previous Seder and have accumulated tarnish.

Our seder table / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Our seder table / Photo by Ilana DeBare

We also make place cards for the guests. That was always Daughter’s job before she went to college, writing elaborate versions of their names with colored markers. My part of it was figuring out where to place the guests.

So Monday afternoon, I took a little break from the Passover cooking and table-setting to sit down with the list of 22 guests and figure out who was to sit where.

It’s a job that takes  consideration. You want to keep parents and children next to each other, but you also want the kids to be near another kid of their age. The strong singers shouldn’t be bunched up at one end of the table. The guests who don’t know anybody shouldn’t be stranded in Siberia at the far end of the room.

Mostly, I try to place people next to each other who will connect in some interesting way — the bass player and the soccer coach? the two Kaiser doctors? the 20-something surfer and the 50-something Qi Gong practitioner?

Getting ready for our Seder sometimes makes me feel like a Virginia Woolf character — Clarissa Dalloway or Mrs. Ramsay, preparing a social gathering with small deliberate steps that no one really notices, but that create order out of chaos.

Then yesterday I thought of myself as God.

Suppose the world is a large-scale version of a dinner party, and God makes the seating plan. God sits there with the guest list and table chart and thinks about whom we should meet on any given day.

Now, those of you who have read this blog for a while know that I don’t believe in God. Not a God who favors one sports team or army over another, or cures individuals of cancer, or decides who we will meet as we blunder along in the world.

So I’m talking hypothetically here.

But just imagine that some God has made a dinner-party-style seating chart for your life — has sat there, putting careful thought into why you should encounter certain people. The co-worker in the cubicle next to yours. The Starbucks barista who makes your morning coffee. The homeless guy who begs for money at the freeway off-ramp. 

Imagine that there is some reason you are meant to encounter these people — something you have in common, something you might enjoy together, or something you might learn from each other. There is a connection, a reason to get to know them, even if you don’t have a clue what it is.

And then relate to them like that.

Forget the God part. You can believe in God or not. The God bit is optional.

Just relate to them like that.

Passover Seders, then and now

April 10, 2012

My friend Jamie Beckett posted a cool photo of a seder during World War I on her Facebook page. So that got me thinking… and doing a quick bit of Google image searching.

Happy Passover! Enjoy these photos and remember, as you gnaw on your 47th matzah of the week, that you are part of a long history. 

14th Century Seder, from the Sarajevo Haggadah (produced in Barcelona, around 1350)

Folk art of Ukrainian seder, 1800s

Popkin Family Seder in Duluth, Minn., 1910 / Photo from the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest

Passover seder, U.S. servicemen, World War I / Courtesy of the National Archives

1925 Seder in Manila, Philippines / Courtesy of Center for Jewish History

Yemenite seder in Jerusalem, 1939 / Courtesy of Jerusalem Post

Seder at a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz in the 1950s / Courtesy of H.H. Yad Yaari Archives

White House Seder, 2009 / Photo by Pete Souza

Our seder table, 2012 / Photo by Ilana DeBare

 

A Karaite seder

April 12, 2011

What comes to mind when you hear “Passover foods?”

If you’re like most American Jews, it’s matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and charoset made of apples, nuts and Manischewitz wine — basically, the European Ashkenazi tradition. Maybe if you’re a little adventurous, you’ll picture a Sephardic charoset based on dates and other dried fruits.

But here’s something completely different — a Karaite Passover menu.

No matzah balls. No charoset. No eggs, parsley, salt water, wine or even a seder plate.

Instead, a unique kind of unleavened bread with coriander, bitter lemon salad, barbecued meat on the bone, and juice made from fresh grapes and raisins.

Rollers that were used to knead matzah dough, outside the Karaite synagogue in Cairo, 1985 / Photo by Ira Nowinski, Stanford University Libraries

Karaism is a small but ancient stream within Judaism that was based primarily in Russia and Egypt. What distinguishes the Karaites from other wings of Judaism is that they don’t follow or acknowledge the Talmud, the rabbinic commentary on the Bible that mainstream Judaism sees as inspired by God. For Karaites, Jewish law ends after the Tanach.

A Karaite web site puts it this way:

Karaite Judaism rejects later additions to the Tanach (Jewish Bible) such as the Rabbinic Oral Law and places the ultimate responsibility of interpreting the Bible on each individual. Karaism does not reject Biblical interpretation but rather holds every interpretation up to the same objective scrutiny regardless of its source.

At first glance, one might assume that Karaites are some kind of primitive fundamentalist sect running around Monty Python-style in Biblical tunics. Not so. David Darwish, who catered the luncheon after my Bat Mitzvah, comes from a Karaite family and is not only a cell phone-wielding citizen of the 21st century but a terrific chef who whips up a mean Caesar salad. His brother owns Mezze, a lovely pan-Mediterranean restaurant on Lakeshore Avenue.

I asked David what he ate for Passover growing up, and he referred me to the keepers of culinary tradition in his family — his cousin Nadia Hartmann and her mother Nelly Masliah.

Nadia and Nelly came to the U.S. from Egypt 46 years ago. They’re affiliated with Congregation B’nai Israel of Daly City — the only Karaite congregation in America with its own permanent building.

The Karaite community, Nadia told me, celebrates only one Seder on the first night of Passover. Like an Ashkenazi haggadah, a traditional Karaite haggadah tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt and lists the ten plagues. But the text is almost all verses from the Torah: There is no story of the Four Children, no Chad Gadya. All those readings were added after Biblical times.

Karaites don’t drink alcohol during Passover since their reading of the Torah defines hametz  as not just leavening but fermentation. Instead, they say a blessing over “wine” that is a freshly-made blend of grapes and raisins. They soak raisins in water overnight, then put them in a blender with red grapes and water.

“It’s thicker than grape juice but not as thick as a smoothie,” Nadia said.

Back in Egypt, many Karaite families made their own matzot. Today they buy them at the supermarket like everyone else. But they also make a unique kind of Karaite matza called “orsa” — thin, flat crackers made from flour, oil, water, salt and ground coriander. (Although the flour would make this off-limits for Ashkenazi Jews during Passover, the Karaite tradition allows it since there is no yeast.)  I’m including Nadia’s  recipe below.

“The coriander gives it its flavor,” Nadia said. “It’s square, easy to eat, and you can get addicted to it.”

Rather than a ritual shankbone on a seder plate, Karaite families serve a main course that involves meat on a bone — typically barbecued.  “We often have lamb chops or a lamb shank,” Nadia said.

For bitter herbs, they make a salad — bitter frisee lettuce, six other kinds of lettuce, an oil and lemon dressing, and little pieces of pickled lemon.

Other traditional parts of their Seder meal are rice dishes and grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice. (Like other Sephardic Jews, the Karaites don’t prohibit rice during Passover.) Traditional desserts are Pain d’Espagne, an angel-food-like cake with jam, or cookies with nuts — both made with flour but no leavening.

After speaking with Nadia, I decided to try baking my own orsa — before Passover, so my Ashkenazi self could eat them.

It was a strange experience following a recipe for a food I’d never tasted or even seen, kind of like a Martian following notes for some alien item called “hamburgers.” I couldn’t even find a photo of them on the Web. Here’s how they turned out:

Dough for orsa / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Karaite matzot, or orsa / Photo by Ilana DeBare

They were crisp and a little crumbly like thin, savory graham crackers. Some ended up bitter because they were in the hotter part of my oven and got a little burnt.

My daughter suggested adding cheese. (Not part of the Karaite tradition!) My husband trotted into my study  later in the evening and said, “We don’t know why, because we don’t think they taste that good, but we’ve each eaten three or four of them.”

(What was it that Nadia had said about them being addictive?)

Meanwhile, I’m thinking of making that grape-and-raisin “wine.” There are always some folks at our seder who don’t drink alcohol; this could be a tasty and fun alternative to Welch’s.

Whether you celebrate Passover, Chag HaMatzot or Easter next week, happy holidays!

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Nadia’s Orsa (Karaite matzah)

 

Ingredients:
5 cups & 3 oz. regular flour
11 oz. oil
1 cup water
1-1/2 tblspn salt
2 tblspn ground coriander powder — preferable to grind your own from coriander seeds, leaving it a little flaky, since the pre-ground powder from the store has a tendency to burn
Preheat oven to 350.

In a big mixer like a Kitchen Aid, combine all the flour, spices, and a little of the oil and water. With the mixer going, add the rest of the oil and water gradually until it forms a ball. It should be soft enough to work. If it’s too soft, add more flour. Too hard, add water.

Work it on a table until it is very thin. (I used a rolling pin.) Then put a little bit at a time on an ungreased cookie sheet. Cut it in shapes. There should be enough dough for three, maybe four, cookie sheets.

Bake for about 25 minutes until very light brown. Be careful not to overcook.

A seder like you’ve never seen

April 6, 2011

We’re less than two weeks away from the first night of Passover, Monday April 18. This year the wandering and ever-confusing cycles of the Jewish and Christian calendars leave us with Passover coinciding with Easter.

Historically, many scholars believe the Last Supper was a Passover seder held by Jesus and his disciples. So, in honor of the overlap of the holidays this year, with a nod to the wonderful Christian readers of this blog, and with apologies to Mr. Da Vinci, here’s a picture of a seder like you’ve never seen:

I’d love to credit the Photoshop artist — but got this through an email with no credit given.

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A couple of small unrelated notes, and then my next post will return to my usual longer-essay format:

Last month I was honored to be invited to write a guest post about my Bat Mitzvah for Mothering in the Middle, a blog about women who become mothers after 40. (I became a mom at 36, but who’s counting?) The post is called “At 53, I Am a Woman.” Some of it will sound familiar to Midlife Bat Mitzvah readers, but some is new. You can read that essay here.

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And following up on our discussion about haggadot from a few weeks ago, here’s a link to a Kibbutz Artzi haggadah from 1964. Kibbutz Artzi was the most left-wing of the kibbutz federations in Israel, affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair, the youth group I belonged to as a teen in New York.

I hadn’t seen this in years. Historically, it’s interesting to notice how it differs from the haggadah our family uses today.

They’re both modernized and supplemented, but the kibbutz one has a ton more references to nature and agriculture (back to the land and all that!), a more Zionist slant (“we have built a house on our own soil, a steadfast home, for the exiled of Israel”), and the Holocaust is much more of a constant presence. (Not surprising when you realize that 1964 was less than 20 years away from the concentration camps, as recent and immediate to people then as memories of Becca  in diapers are to me.)

While the kibbutz haggadah includes Hebrew poems by Bialik and Alterman, our haggadah includes African-American spirituals like Go Down Moses.

A Labor-Zionist seder versus a liberal-American seder! What’s lovely about personalized haggadot is how they tell a timeless story but also reflect the culture around us, the things on our minds at a certain moment in time.

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!

Dayenu!

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

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