As a child, my familiarity with Jewish culture extended no further than any information I’d managed to gather from a calendar featuring extravagant bar mitzvahs (including parties held in top Chicago hotels). And as for Jewish cuisine, kosher was simply a foreign term, indicating something I didn’t eat. My mom (who had been the assistant to two conservative rabbis) told me “kosher” meant she was guilty of eating chicken salad in the synagogue’s kitchen.
My next lesson in Judaism came from a girlfriend’s invitation to her Passover Seder. She taught me that the Seder shindig had a set menu, included periods of reclining, and featured enough matzos and wine to feed gentile friends. I thought wine and reclining sounded sexy, but she reminded me we were talking religion, so I repressed my baser visualizations with the familiar childhood image of an old man in a robe feeding me bread and wine from the pulpit.
My girlfriend helped me understand pieces of the Seder puzzle, so hopefully the next time I’m invited for Seder, I won’t do something like walk into the kitchen and bite into a hardboiled egg before the proper time (as I did), since now I understand—duh!—it’s a symbol for sacrifice.
The Shank Bone
The official meat for the Seder came from a lamb offered as the sacrifice on the afternoon before Passover, then prepared and refrigerated until placed on the Seder plate. My girlfriend kindly replaced the dish with a chicken neck on the plates of any of her guests (me) who might have run out of her apartment at the first sniff of any charred lamb.
My girlfriend cut me some slack when I pulled that sneaky move with the hardboiled egg and informed me that the egg was meant to be both an offering and a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. She showed me how we would (in due time) dip the eggs in salt water before we continued with the meal. I sat in mourning as I contemplated the possibility of sneaking another egg when she went back in the kitchen.
Romaine lettuce symbolizes the bitter enslavement of the Jews. My girlfriend explained that the lettuce stem, if left in the ground too long, becomes bitter and hard. She smiled when she said that—it must have been the wine. She also explained that no water should touch the lettuce during the holiday, which is why she had to prepare it before lighting candles on the first night of Passover. I was impressed by how many rules Seder prep had—I’d always assumed the Catholic Church was the winner in terms of number of rules.
The Bitter Herbs
The bitter herbs—or maror—included a mixture of freshly grated horseradish set atop the romaine lettuce. Bitter herbs also signify the harshness of the slavery that the Jews endured in Egypt.
Haroseth would prove to be my favorite dish on the Seder plate, and was the perfect compliment to the salty eggs. This mixture of apples, nuts, and wine represents the mortar and brick made by the Jews when they built the storehouses in Egypt; my girlfriend said it tastes best used as chutney with the matzo and maror.
Mmm … potatoes, my personal favorite in the family of white vegetables. This root vegetable symbolizes the strenuous work the Jews did as slaves. My girlfriend recited the Kiddush blessing (“the time of our freedom”) while she let us recline on our left sides, holding our wine (I was worried I’d spill some on her IKEA couch). Next, she instructed us to perform a ceremonial washing of our hands. Then she blessed the matzo and the bitter herbs, cut a small piece of the potato and dipped it into salt water, and gave each of us a piece. Having received the blessings of freedom, I felt free to move on to the next course.
Finally, the matzo ball soup.
Photo courtesy of Seth/picasweb