SOMERVILLE – Not only is Phil Weiss a seasoned and erudite scholar, teacher and philosopher, but he is, as well, a superb vegan chef. Weiss, the former religious leader at Temple B’nai Brith in Somerville is married to Nomi Davidson. After one of their sons became a vegan about 20 years ago, the couple also decided to take up the vegan mantle in their household.
Pre-pandemic, Weiss and Davidson were known to host a passel of relatives for Shabbat and the holidays. To prepare, Weiss produces small mountains of vegan treasures with which to sate the assembled. This is especially the case on Pesach, when a crowd of 25 is not unusual. But, during this Pesach, Weiss and Davidson – perhaps with their younger son, Sam – will be together, in-person for the Seder, with the rest of their family joining online.
Starting at about 7:30 p.m., the family – urged on by the younger generation – will recite the entire Haggadah chapter and verse, ending up sometime after midnight. They have even figured out, despite Zoom limitations on synchronous speech, how to interleave different voices for songs in a way that suggests, closely enough, the sense of singing together.
This full repast of prayer is supplemented by Weiss’ excellent cooking, though, during these pandemic times, only some of it makes it to nearby family households.
Though Weiss is largely an improvisational cook who works from memory, he has, at the request of several young relatives, provided some written recipes for his various delicacies.
Weiss is famous in his family for a cabbage soup he often makes with sour salt “with something approximating matzah balls,” and for what he calls a “Kishke Kugel,” actually made entirely with carrots, celery, onions, matzo meal, and hot paprika. He also makes an eggplant spread that one might take for a variant of chopped liver. “Boiled potatoes replace boiled eggs as a forshpeis” says Weiss, “and there is a roasted beet on the Seder plate instead of a shank bone.” Asked how he makes matzah balls stick together without eggs, Weiss answers simply: “The thing about flour and water is it’s pretty much glue. I add some potato starch.”
About the significance of Pesach, Weiss says, “I think it’s the transmission of the tradition that I received from my grandfather and my father and that the kids have picked up, and they love it and they don’t want anything left out … we have to do the whole thing including my grandfather’s versions of the songs from the end of the Seder.”
About adjustments during the pandemic, Weiss says that “it’s been going very well with Shabbat and holiday services online – they’re a little shorter – but we do miss the group singing.” But he is hopeful about the future. “It’s been hard for so many people – so many people feel isolated. It’s so important at this point to hold on with faith that this shall pass,” he says.
Phil Weiss’s Vegan Pesach Cabbage Soup
Pour oil in the bottom of a large pot with a low flame.
Add to pot:
• a chopped onion (or two)
• a chopped stalk of celery (or two)
• a chopped carrot (or two)
• two diced potatoes
• a few minced cloves of garlic
• a chopped head of cabbage
Turn up the heat a bit and sauté the vegetables, adding salt and black pepper.
Add to pot:
• a can of ground tomatoes
• water* and let it all come to a boil; then turn down the heat to a simmer.
• a bunch of prunes
• vinegar or sour salt
Taste the soup, being careful not to burn your mouth.
Add whatever it tastes like it needs (more sugar, more sour salt or vinegar, more salt, more water, etc.)
Let it cook a good long time (probably at least two hours).
*If you are using vinegar rather than sour salt, don’t add all the water you think it needs yet.
– Charles Munitz