The Exodus from Egypt is our best story. It is one of the greatest stories ever told, repeated and repurposed in every form of narrative, from opera to superhero saga: both Superman and Moses were sent away in a baby-sized capsule to escape the threat of death, raised by a very different family, and as adults used their special powers to help others.
Passover celebrates the arrival of spring, but slavery, redemption, and freedom are front and center at the Passover Seder, and never more than this year, as Congress considers the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The redemption of George Floyd’s ancestors was never complete much less assured. Our people wandered for 40 miserable years in the desert and spent much of the ensuing centuries with a packed suitcase by the door. I am not suggesting an equivalency, not from the comfort of our bountiful tables, but the liturgy won’t let us forget that we were strangers – chattel, in fact – and that freedom is always at risk.
The story includes a cast of unlikely – and diverse – heroes. Pharoah’s daughter – the villain’s own flesh and blood – is the one who rescues Moses from the river. Like most of the women mentioned in the Torah, she is not named. But we do know the names of the midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies, and Shifra and Puah, may have been Egyptian allies rather than members of the tribe.
And by the way, Moses himself, God’s right-hand man, grew up as an Egyptian and had a speech impediment.
The Seder turns a story full of pain and terror (murders, snakes, the death of innocent children – both Hebrew babies and first-born Egyptians) into a dinner party, with pillows to recline on and more wine than necessary. It’s been so long since our enslavement, we can bask in our freedom. Except that this year, like last, we will celebrate at a distance, on screens. And many of our tables will be missing loved ones who died of COVID-19, whose memory will become part of all our Seders to come.
I have Seder envy. I am jealous of people whose memories of Passovers past are sweet as Manischewitz, who cheerfully execute two Seders without a word of complaint about the cleaning, planning, cooking and clean-up. I envy families who look forward to tables groaning with Grandma’s recipes, who don’t invent the menu or the service from whole cloth every year.
I have very few childhood memories of Passover: it was the only time I can recall eating in the dining room – on fancy china and wine glasses stored in a sideboard that was never opened; there was chicken soup and matzah balls; my mother never sat down and her impatience to serve the meal permeated the room; it was not fun.
For many years, my husband, daughter and I were invited to celebrate at a big Seder that became our family Seder, and provided us with sustaining, joyful memories. There was hilarity and singing. Roast chicken, kugels, soup, and a red Jell-O-salad full of canned cherries that I looked forward to every year.
Jokes were repeated year after year. My daughter sat at the far end of the table with older kids who didn’t stop her from sampling the wine – one of her fondest Passover memories. When that beloved family moved to the other side of the country, we were adopted by another clan who shared their customs and memories, which included a lot of singing, and course after creative course of unheard-of and delicious dishes. It was wonderful, even without the cherry Jell-o mold.
The Seder is an ancient pedagogic strategy, which commands us to teach our children about the Exodus from Egypt in a manner so vivid that everyone at the table – but especially children – remembers (not just imagines but actually remembers) what it feels like to be a slave.
The Seder plate is part of the lesson plan, with items symbolizing spring, rebirth, and suffering. Since the late 1970s, an orange has been added on many Seder plates in recognition of the Jews who used to be ignored or excluded by the community — including women and LGBTQ Jews – but are now welcome and treasured.
The orange is no longer controversial or even a curiosity. It is, however, a sign that Jewish traditions change over time. A few years ago, my daughter put a padlock on the Seder plate. It was jarring – almost brutal – but it brought home the plague of mass incarceration that has gutted the lives and dreams of Black and Brown Americans by the millions. It was a powerful reminder that the freedom we take for granted is denied to our neighbors, and it challenged us to pay attention and take action.
The phrase is “keeping Passover,” which means eight days (seven in Israel) of giving up leavened foods, and (just to be sure) foods that could, theoretically, ferment on its own. Ashkenazi Jews take this proscription to extreme measures, just to be “safe,” and prohibit corn, rice, and cannellini beans. This approach has become less onerous as American Jews – in general – eat more fresh fruits and vegetables than our chicken schmaltz-loving grandparents. My husband’s mother came from Iran, so we follow the Sephardic/Mizrachi tradition, which allows rice and legumes.
The hard and fast rule for everyone is, Nothing Made With Wheat. Except matzah.
Matzah is called the bread of freedom and the bread of affliction. By lunchtime on the third day, the freedom symbolism is lost on me and I am stuck with boxes of edible cardboard, which includes the absurdly expensive “artisanal” stuff from Vermont, and the equally pricey extra-kosher Shmurah boards from Israel. Slather it with chocolate or cream cheese; it’s still cardboard.
As someone who learned to bake because I consider dinner the hurdle before dessert, there is nothing more frustrating than trying to make cake or cookies with the powdered cardboard that is sold as matzo meal or Passover “cake meal.”
I spent years trying out the Passover “sponge” cake recipes featured in the newspaper. I followed cookie recipes that friends swore were good enough to serve all year, except that they never did. All of it ranged from meh to feh.
But today, there is no need to wander in a dessert wilderness for eight days thanks to almond flour. Once hard to find, it’s becoming a supermarket staple, due, no doubt to the buying power of the gluten-free community. (Thank you.)
Almond flour is no more “flour” than matzah cake flour, but it is the opposite of sawdust. Finely-ground nuts, moist and flavorful, can be the foundation of heavenly cookies, cakes, and crusts – and as kosher for Passover as anything made by Streits.
Last and very least, I must confess my fondness for Passover tchotchkes. Setting the table with wind-up walking matzah balls and little plastic frogs that can be made to jump or stick out their tongues, and you will delight children and turn the grown-ups turn into children. Frogs are the cutest of the plagues, which is a ridiculous thing to say; then again, who wants to play with faux lice, or tiny plastic dead babies?
I’d rather eat matzah.
Anita Diamant, best known for her novel “The Red Tent,” is also the author of four other novels, six guidebooks about contemporary Jewish life, and the forthcoming “Period. End of Sentence. A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice,” to be published in May. She is the founding president of Mayyim Hayyim, Living Waters Community Mikveh in Newton.