Were I somehow granted three wishes, they would all be for the same thing: to once more experience the Passover of my childhood. Of all the Jewish holidays, it has always been my favorite. I'm certainly not alone in this feeling - for most Jewish people, this is a special time when families come together, from far and near, to celebrate their heritage and reaffirm their faith.
In my family, the eight-day holiday transformed our ordinary, middle-class home into a palace. Flower-laden vases and baskets suddenly occupied once-barren tabletops. The tiny rooms overflowed with aunts, uncles and cousins who had come to participate in a wonderful feast (seder), more delicious than even Thanksgiving. Best of all, and most unusual, everyone was happy. In fact, our seders bordered on hilarity. One might argue that the Mogen-David wine sipped liberally at key points during the reading of the haggadah (Passover prayer book) augmented our good spirits, but I suspect is was the holiday's true meaning that made everyone feel so good.A time of remembrance and reflection, the holiday commemorates the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Passover got its name because God "passed over" the Jewish houses when he slew the firstborn of Egypt. (This was the last of the Ten Plagues, described in detail during the seder.) Each spring, Jews the world over celebrate their continued freedom by retelling this ancient story.
And, because this is a Jewish holiday, we also eat - most notably matzoh. Unleavened and quickly baked, matzoh reminds us that the Jews, hastily fleeing Egypt, had no time to let their bread rise and bake properly. Matzoh is central to Passover cuisine, appearing in its purest form as a substitute for bread, but also used in pancakes, egg dishes, stuffing, and of course matzoh balls. Many a joke has been made about matzoh balls, but to most Jews they're no laughing matter. Either light-as-air or heavy-as-lead, any matzoh ball is better than none at all, especially in a bowl of chicken soup. (I believe matzoh ball appreciation is genetic, since my son took an instant liking to them with little provocation from his parents.)
I grew up in a family of Conservative Jews, which meant we were stricter than the Reform Jews but not as strict as the Orthodox. We ate no products made from regular flour or yeast for eight days, and we had seders on the first two nights of Passover. (Reform Jews have one on the first night only.) My grandparents, who moved in with us for the week to make sure everything was "strictly kosher," were vigilant about ridding our home of all leavened products. According to the rule, you could either sell your bread, cake, cookies and crackers for a penny, or give it all away to needy families. We always packed it up in boxes and "sold" it to our non-Jewish neighbors, who then returned it at week's end. (Understandably, they ate all the good stuff. For example, the Girl Scout cookies never came back.)
Passover purists demand a special set of dishes, utensils and cookware that have never been touched by leavened products. No problem for the affluent, but we certainly couldn't afford that, and so to ensure that our seder was "untainted" by any crumbs, my father - a clean-freak at heart - would scrub everything in scalding hot water. This usually took him two full days, during which time the kitchen became as sterile as an operating room.
Cleaning of the entire house was begun weeks in advance. Windows were washed and floors were scrubbed. No shelf or corner was overlooked, in preparation for my grandfather's official search for leavening (hametz).
Our basement freezer became a culinary Fort Knox as my grandmother single-handedly prepared for two huge multi-course dinners, each feeding no less than 20 people. She had plenty of help from the kitchen staff - my mother, my sister and me - but all we really did was peel potatoes, scrape carrots and chop onions. Sarah did everything else, and with stellar results.
To be invited for the seder on the first night, you had to be on good terms with the cook, and so as Passover approached, all the relatives started treating Sarah especially well. Everyone wanted an invitation to her seder, and preferably for the first night. The food was just as good on the second night, but there was definitely an air of "been there, done that." Among the younger generation, this often led to mischief.
One year, back when it was all the rage among college students, my cousin Alan "streaked" our seder. He accomplished this by stationing himself outside, clad only in a raincoat. When it was time for the seder leader to open the door, inviting the Prophet Elijah to enter, Alan appeared in his stead (or possibly by his side - it was hard to tell since you couldn't actually see Elijah, he being a symbolic guest.) Dropping his raincoat for his grand entrance, Alan circled the astonished onlookers once and fled before anyone could make a positive identification. My grandmother was in shock, especially since to calm her down, we all insisted it had really been Elijah. "Like that he comes to a seder?" she wailed. Sarah spent the rest of the night glancing nervously at Elijah's place setting, which awaited him should he choose to join us for dinner.
The youngest seder attendee always begins the dinner service by reciting The Four Questions, which ask "Why is this night different from all others?" The answers, given by my grandfather, explained the meaning of the seder. Following this, custom and ritual involve the eating of foods that symbolize the Passover story: an apple/walnut paste (haroset) reminds us of the mortar used by the Jews to build the pyramids, salt water represents tears, and hard-boiled eggs represent redemption. This phase of the seder may be done rather succinctly or at great length, depending on the seder leader's proclivities.
It was during this stage of the proceedings that an annual battle occurred between my grandparents. He, wanting to follow every letter of the religious law, had a tendency to go on into the night, irrespective of the grumbling stomachs around him. She, who had toiled for weeks preparing her famous dishes, was eager to serve the meal and receive the usual well-earned accolades. His reading was punctuated with her yelling from the kitchen, `Enough already with the praying, let's eat!"
Everyone secretly agreed with Sarah but wouldn't admit it, and so the seder continued for two hours, with nothing to munch on but a symbolic stalk of celery dipped in a bowl of symbolic salt water. The youngest children and an occasional adult often slipped under the table for a nap until dinner was served. This tradition survives in my own home today, with my husband eager to explain every detail to our guests while I'm waiting in the wings, anxious to serve the soup.
Despite the mouth-watering array of foods we enjoyed during Passover, some rebellious souls still craved the "forbidden." The leader of the underground was my father. Having grown up in a strict Orthodox family, he loosened up in his older years, and he found in me a willing accomplice. After five or six days of matzoh, matzoh and more matzoh, he could stand the deprivation no longer. Early in the morning while everyone else was still asleep, we would sneak out to a local diner for French toast and scrambled eggs. Although most definitely not kosher, Dad assured me that it was OK since we hadn't sullied our own kitchen. Still he strongly suggested that the practice remain "our little secret," since he feared the wrath of Sarah more than any higher authority.
These days my observance of Passover is tinged with nostalgia, since my parents and grandparents are gone, yet their ghosts continue to haunt me. Coupled with that is the fact that observance of the holiday is somewhat low-key here in Salt Lake City, with only about 1,500 Jewish households. According to Eve Bier, director of the Jewish Community Center, that's one of the things she notices. "Where I grew up in New York, everyone was celebrating the holidays. Here, that's not the case." Still she says things have come a long way. "I've lived here for 21 years, and I've seen this city change. People are much more aware now. The only thing we really miss is family."
I couldn't agree more. But Passover lives on, and while new friends happily take the place of family members long gone, I'm still trying to duplicate Sarah's matzoh balls.