Tradition!

This Friday night, we begin our eight-day holiday of Passover. I have written more about this Jewish holiday previously on my blog in this post and this one where I shared a simple recipe for chicken and matzah ball soup. During the Seder we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Most Jews can probably remember celebrating a Seder at some point in their life no matter how observant or religious they are. When I think back about different stages of my life, I can remember celebrating Seders in Israel, with college boyfriends and their families and more recently (the past decade) with my own family and a variety of friends who have joined us in our home over the years.

I often tell non-Jewish friends and colleagues that Passover is as intense as the Christmas season. Swap gift shopping for food shopping, baking dozens of Christmas cookies for hours spent cooking traditional Passover foods like haroset, brisket and gefilte fish as well as the additional days of cleaning our homes and clearing out all of the chametz (bread) that is forbidden in our houses during the holiday.

photo-236Finally, the Passover holiday also requires that observant Jews use a separate set of dishes that hasn’t been in contact with chametz. So in addition to the cleaning and cooking there is also the schlepping and reorganizing of your kitchen. I must admit that there is a big part of me that dreads Passover. I know how much work it is to prepare for the holiday and the weeks before I begin actually preparing I spend too much energy fretting and worrying about everything that needs to get done. Yet every year the same thing happens. I find the cleaning to be an opportunity to touch cabinets and drawers that deserve a spring cleaning and a good wipe down and pulling out the Passover items puts me in a time warp. I have several Haggadot (the Jewish book we use that tells the order of the Seder) from when my kids attended a Jewish preschool. The Haggadot include velcro matzahs, hand drawn artwork and photos of my children at age 2, 3 and 4, unbiasedly adorable!

photo-238When I was a newlywed and we relocated to Portland, Oregon, we had just a handful of dishes that first year. Probably four plates, four sets of utensils and a few glasses.  In the late 1990’s after my husband and I had bought our first house, my folks sent me my grandmother’s glass Passover dishes. My beloved Grandma Rose greatly influenced my Jewish identity and I have many fond childhood memories of my grandmother, most revolving around eating and cooking. She was a kosher caterer and her food was always delicious. Her Passover dishes were nothing special just a simple set of glass dishes but each year when I unpack the dishes, I often feel her nishamah (soul) close to me as if these dishes that she used and touched transcend time and the traditions I continue are the same ones she celebrated. 

photo-237Several years ago, I tucked some letters that my grandmother had sent to me in the final years of her life into the Passover pantry. After I graduated high school and left Vermont to attend college in California, we wrote to each other regularly. When I find them in the Passover closet each spring (which I somehow forget are there from year to year)  I read her words in her scratchy handwriting and feel her love and adoration for me, her first grandchild. They also remind me of my connection to my past and my link in the family and always make me smile.

I hope others find that the work of the holiday is lightened by the ability to continue a family tradition and feel connected to loved ones who are no longer here to celebrate with us in person but whose spirit remains with us always.

Wishing you a wonderful and meaningful Passover.

Passover and Chicken Soup with Matza Balls

Passover (Pesach) celebrates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It begins this Friday night, April 6th and lasts for eight days. We gather together on the first two nights of the holiday for a special meal called a seder (means order) where we retell the story of this Exodus as well as Pharoah and all of the plagues he inflicted on the Jewish people (hail, boils, frogs, death of the first born) before he finally allowed the Jews to leave Egypt.

The central theme of the holiday is liberation and freedom. We retell the story during the seder and the holiday is filled with symbols and traditions. It is especially told for the benefit of the children so many seders while serious do have some levity in the retelling (for example, the kids might do a play, wear clothes like they were slaves in Egypt or even toss around marshmallows for the hail plague.)  One of the main symbols of the holiday is matzah which we eat during the week of Passover instead of bread. We clean our homes thoroughly before the holiday and refrain from eating any kind of leaven bread (hametz) during Passover replacing it with matzah. Matzah is meant to evoke the story of the Exodus and reminds us that the Jews fled Egypt without enough time to even let their bread rise.

In addition to matzah, we eat maror (bitter herbs to remind us of a time of slavery when we wept), a haroset – sweet food made from apples, sugar and wine which reminds us of the break and mortar used to build the pyramid during this enslavement but in contrast to the bitter herbs their sweetness reminds us of the sweet hope of freedom. We ask the four questions – why is this night different from all other nights, drink four glasses of wine throughout the seder and the children search for a  final piece of matzah that has been hidden by an older relative at the end of the meal called the Afikomen before finishing our final part of the seder (usually the child can hold the Afikomen for ransom from the relative.) We also sing many familiar holiday songs. This is a holiday that brings generations together for this retelling of the story. It is one of our most important and significant Jewish holidays and though I sometimes joke that I feel like a slave cleaning and preparing for the holiday meal. It is always a wonderful treat to host the gathering of friends and family.

One of the many traditional foods we eat for Passover is matzo balls in our chicken soup. Here is the recipe for matzo balls:

1 cup of matza meal

4 large eggs

1/4 cup of oil or melted margarine

1/4 cup water or chicken broth

1 tsp salt or to taste

Pinch of ground pepper

Beat eggs. Add water, oil, salt and pepper.

Mix well. Add matza meal and stir thoroughly.

Refrigerate for 1/2 to 1 hour.

Partially fill a large pot of water and bring to a boil.

Moisten palms with cold water.

Form mixture into balls about 1 inch in diameter.

Drop matza balls into boiling water.

When all the matzo balls are in the pot, reduce heat to low.

Simmer covered for about 30 minutes or until done.

Remove with slotted spoon into large bowl.

Simmer the matza balls for 15 minutes in your favorite chicken soup before serving.

Click the photo of chicken soup  to watch a clip of how easy it is to make Matza Balls from my segment on AM Northwest.

Bidikat Chametz – Search for the Chametz (Bread)

This week’s mitzvah Monday is about adding meaningful customs or traditions to our lives. The night before Passover (sounds like the lead in to a Christmas song) when I have been working to thoroughly cleanse my house for several weeks and tried to remove  every piece of bread and leavening we possess (well hopefully) we observe a family tradition that while customary is also quite fun. We  started observing this custom many years ago when my daughter was a toddler.  We gather in the dining room and make a short blessing thanking God for his commandments and commanding us to remove the chametz from our house.
I think of this custom as a family version of hide and seek. Before we say the blessing, I have hidden pieces of bread wrapped in paper bag material  throughout our living room and dining room. Then my kids and I walk through the house with a candle for light and a feather to pick up the last remaining pieces of bread and officially declare any other bread left in our house that we haven’t found yet null and void  – whew that takes care of anything later found in jacket pockets or somewhere else I might have overlooked. I love the symbolism of this last preparation for Passover as well as the fun it provides our family while we “search” by candlelight for the bread.

I often compare preparing for the Passover holiday to my gentile friends preparing for Christmas because there is so much expected as we approach this spring holiday, including cleaning, switching regular dishes for Passover dishes, shopping and cooking. But by the time we reach the search for the chametz I am ready. Both spiritually and mentally, ready to tell the story of the Exodus of the Jews from the land of Egypt, ready to eat some matzah and experience another year of Passover with my family and friends. Creating new traditions with our families can be as easy as learning about something we didn’t know existed and adding it to our routine.

Choosing to start a new custom in our lives, shouldn’t be overwhelming. Growing up, my family didn’t observe this search for the chametz, but as a young mother somehow I added this custom to our family and have always thought it was fun for the kids. This is the perfect season to start a new holiday tradition since Passover and Easter are both this week. A couple of great suggestions are collecting tzedakah (charity) right before your holiday meal to donate to your families favorite non-profit, or making a blessing before or after a meal, additionally you could make a blessing over your children and let them know something you are proud of that they have done that week. We typically do this on Friday night but any night of the week could work. Whatever custom you decide to add to your life, find one that is meaningful and adds joy when you do it. For me, the yearly custom of Bidikat Chametz makes me smile each and every year and why shouldn’t it, who doesn’t love any version of hide and seek?

Wishing everyone a wonderful spring holiday season.

Passover 2009

Our Family 2009

Our Family 2009

Our Passover Table

Our Passover Table

It’s been more than  week since I have posted any mitzvahs. I have been entrenched in Passover preparation which culminated in a wonderful Seder held on Wednesday night at our home with 15 people at our outstretched table. For days prior to the Seder,  I was cleaning and preparing my home as well as cooking and deciding which Haggadah we would use.

Passover is the celebration of the Jewish exodus from slavery to freedom in Egypt. We gather every year for a celebratory meal and retell the story. My goal this year was to host our first “large” Seder and to make it fun and engaging for the kids. I believe it was a success. I wanted to include some of the wonderful experiences we have had over the years at others Seders. For example, using green onions to pretend we are “whipping” the slaves, lots of fun additional English Passover songs  sung to any number of well known tunes. Think Take Us Out of Egypt, sung to the tune of Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Moses sung to the tune of the Flintstones. One of my favorite parts was the story of the exodus narrated by my 11 year old daughter and acted out by our friend’s daughter also age 11 and my son age 8. While it might have been a briefer rendition of the story it  certainly engaged the children as I had hoped. Finally, our favorite part, the 10 plagues with real “props” like plastic frogs, locusts and cattle and marsh mellows for the hail. Everyone seemed to enjoy this crazy part of the retelling. I jokingly tell my non-Jewish friends that April and preparing for Passover seems comparable to what I think non Jews must go through preparing their homes and tables for Christmas.

971-976) Included in the Seder are actually 5 mitzvahs. Here are 5 mitzvahs we all did on Wednesday night. Two mitzvahs from the Torah: 1) to eat matzah on the night of Passover 2) to tell the story of being freed from Egypt. Three mitzvahs instituted later by the sages – 1) to drink four cups of wine or grape juice 2) to eat maror (bitter herbs) 3) to recite the hallel prayers (praises).

A mitzvah received too. Finally, one of our guests wanted to bring her Chicken Soup to our Seder. Since I keep kosher and that wouldn’t be possible,  I invited her over to cook with me. On Monday, we cooked Chicken Soup, Stuffed Cabbage and she taught me how to make a Persian version of Haroset (a traditional Passover food). It  had dates and oranges and was delicious. Her help was a mitzvah and we had a ton of fun cooking together.