The author uses this old wooden bowl, which her grandmother brought from Russia, to mix gefilte fish for Passover. / Photo: Michele McDonald

How the story of my gefilte fish is an Exodus story



How the story of my gefilte fish is an Exodus story

The author uses this old wooden bowl, which her grandmother brought from Russia, to mix gefilte fish for Passover. / Photo: Michele McDonald

On several occasions, my family has attended Seders at the home of our friends, Amy and Paul. One year we couldn’t make it, and I called Amy to apologize.

“That’s OK,” she said. “But can you send the gefilte fish anyway?”

My gefilte fish – which is baked in a loaf, not boiled in balls – is somewhat celebrated among my family and friends. It’s not that it’s so tasty (although it is). It’s because it has inspired so many elaborative narratives that are told and elaborated upon year after year – a little like the story of the Exodus.

Actually, the story of this gefilte fish is an Exodus story. It begins in Gomel, Russia, and ends on the Canadian prairie. I’m not referring to the recipe for the fish, but rather the vessel I prepare it in every year – a large carved wooden bowl that my Baba Bluma Shulman managed to stow among her worldly possessions when, in 1924, she sailed third class on the RMS Cameronia from Russia to Halifax, and then traveled by train across Canada to frigid Winnipeg, Manitoba. She was 39 at the time, and she and my Zaida had three small children, the youngest being my mother who was only 9 months old and whose twin sister had died shortly before they set sail.

Their passenger cards list their “Race or people” as “Hebrew,” which only begins to hint at the reasons they had to leave Russia. It has always both puzzled and fascinated me why my downtrodden and grieving Baba considered this wooden bowl such a sacred necessity that she shlepped it halfway across the world, along with her samovar and her huge eiderdown pillows. (“As though they didn’t have feathers in Canada?” my sister Carol once asked.)

I don’t know what she used the bowl for, but it’s become – in my mind – a sacrilege not to use it for making gefilte fish, which she almost surely would have eaten in Eastern Europe. A sacrilege even though there’s a big chunk missing from the bottom of it so the bowl see-saws back and forth when I mix up the fish. And even though, truth be told, I don’t even like gefilte fish all that much.

But I can’t imagine a Passover without it, and there’s another reason I make it, too. It connects me to the family of my late husband, David, who died eight years ago. The oil-splattered recipe, which lives in a blue folder in my kitchen marked “Jewish,” originated with my mother-in-law, who also lives in Winnipeg, and who got it from her late friend, Ann. It’s made with three kinds of freshwater fish – carp, pike, and whitefish – all abundant in Manitoba, so it’s not such a luxury to make there. I mix it with carrots, tomato, a bit of sugar – and onions that I fry until they are translucent as per my mother-in-law’s firm directive, which sounds italicized when she says it.

But there’s a problem: It’s becoming very difficult to source freshwater fish like carp and pike in this part of the country, and very expensive to make. So expensive that six years ago, while frozen fish was selling for $6.98 a pound in Winnipeg, I paid $124 for three pounds of pike and whitefish at a Brookline fish market. My mother-in-law said she “nearly fainted” when I told her.

I was so outraged by the cost when I went to pick up my order that I got into a yelling match with the fishmonger and then wrote about it in a Boston Globe article, decrying the fact that gefilte fish was becoming an endangered species and we were being priced out of our tradition. He got back at me by canceling my fish order the next year when he saw my name on the customer list.

Passport photo of the Shulman family. They left Russia for Canada in 1924.

This is one of the stories that gets told every year at our Seder table. But there are others, including the one about how my sister Judy, who lives in Texas, bought frozen fish in Winnipeg when she went back for a visit, and packed it in her suitcase to use for Passover. Unfortunately, the flight she was on went to Houston and her suitcase went to Calgary.

It arrived a day late, the fish not quite yet defrosted. She served it anyway. “Nobody died,” she reported.

I know there are many families – and I envy them – who have not moved around as mine has, and for whom Passover is a familiar and predictable experience. I imagine it’s comforting to read from the same familiar Hagaddah, to eat together on the same dishes on the same tablecloth with the inevitable indelible red wine stain. To be able to reach back into a shared history, to reminisce, and to look ahead together as the family members expand in number and also contract.

This has not been my experience. My family is spread out on different continents and the guest list at our Seder is ever-changing. For many years, we’ve been blessed to share it with dear friends in our dining room, but we’ve also attended Seders in Houston, Winnipeg, at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston (for a Chabad Seder), and of course, on Zoom. One year, as my husband battled ALS, we held a Seder upstairs in his office surrounded by friends, since he could no longer make it down the stairs.

We always read the Four Questions in Hebrew and English, but our guests have come from many places, and there have been years when they’ve been read in Spanish, Yiddish, Tagalog, Portuguese, and Romanian. One memorable year, I invited a Jewish guest who’d grown up in the Inuit territory of Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic. She recited the questions in Inuktitut.

And so there has been little constant in Passover for me. Only the carved wooden bowl with its missing chunk, the gift of abiding friendship, and the stories that each year are told and, quite often, reinvented.

Linda Matchan is the associate editor of the Jewish Journal. Email her at

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