Like all great stories, each telling of the Passover tale brings new understanding. So, too, does the Seder — which is the Passover ceremony and dinner — evolve and transform. In The New York Times, Shmuel Rosner describes it as “a quilt sewn over generations … mysterious and beautiful, and often restless.” The Passover holiday is closely associated with food, which also over the millennia has been reshaped with each preparation of every dish until, taste by taste, they are as much a reflection of our own joys and struggles as our ancestors’. In this Taste feature, Rabbi David Goldstein of Temple Emanuel in Lakeland answers my Passover questions, and we consider the central role of food in celebrating freedom and reminding us that as Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
Photography by Tiffani Jones / Set Styling by Lisa Malott
WHAT IS PASSOVER?
You are probably familiar with the saga outlined in Exodus: a cruel and deceitful Pharaoh, enslaved Israelites, 10 plagues, Moses leading his people out of enslavement, the parting of the seas … all well-known touchstones. The name “Passover” comes from the 10th plague, in which the Israelites are instructed to mark their doors with blood. Though Moses had given warnings to the Pharaoh, he did not release the Jews from bondage. At the stroke of midnight, the firstborn sons from houses that were not marked died, while the plague passed over the marked houses, sparing them from harm. Shaken by the destruction of the 10th plague, the Pharaoh concedes, letting the Jews flee Egypt. Their journey to freedom could finally begin — and still continues.
Early in our discussion, Rabbi David brings up a paradox in the Passover narrative, one that has intrigued me for some time. He says, “Why the blood to start with? Does anyone really believe that God couldn’t tell which were Jews and which weren’t? Up to that last plague, the Jews didn’t have to do anything. God did it all for them through Moses and Aaron. In the last plague, God basically says, ‘You don’t get to sit on the fence. You don’t get to wait and see if it’s happening or not. You have to make a choice and take a risk. Because, let’s face it, let’s say it doesn’t happen. How do you think Pharaoh would have reacted the next day? He wakes up and his son and the Egyptians are fine, and all those Jews with blood on their doors showing they thought he was going to die. It absolutely would have made them a target.”
| Everything on the Seder plate, whether modern or traditional, signifies the Israelites’ struggle for freedom. From the egg, shankbone, and horseradish, each is layered with symbolism and meaning. With each bite at Passover, the history of sacrifice is remembered through each bitter, sweet, and savory taste. |
The Rabbi explains that the lesson underneath is that freedom doesn’t come without taking action. At some point it requires a leap of faith.
He continues, “In the Passover story, [making the decision] is the symbolic battle. Jewish history says that many of the Israelite families did not put the blood on the door; they were too scared; and many non-Jews did. We hear about a ‘mixed multitude’ leaving Egypt. It was everyone who believed Moses’ message, who believed there really was a God. They took the risk and survived.”
WHY DO WE EAT THESE FOODS FOR PASSOVER?
Everything during the Passover service and dinner is designed to remind us — often with many layers of symbolism and meaning — of the Israelites’ struggle for freedom. The Seder plate is most emblematic of this with its procession of ceremonial foods. Our plate carries a roasted shankbone (the zeroa) to depict the Passover sacrifice, in which a lamb is roasted and shared among the community. The egg (chagigah) represents the offering before the holiday begins and is often used during dinner or eaten with the saltwater symbolizing the tears of enslaved Jews. The horseradish (maror) on our Seder plate is a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. A paste of nuts, spices, dried fruits, and wine (charoset) depicts the brick and mortar used by the Israelites as they toiled and built Pharaoh’s cities. The onion and parsley on our plate (karpas) alludes to the backbreaking work the Jews endured as slaves and are also dipped in the saltwater. The unleavened flatbread (matzo), is not part of the Seder plate but is always eaten as a part of Passover meal. When the Jews fled Egypt, there was no time to let the bread rise and so eating the matzo is a lesson in humility and gives us greater appreciation for the redemption of freedom.
Many families prepare additional non-traditional Seder foods with unique or private significance. Vegetarian participants might replace the shankbone with a roasted beet. Blogger Z’ev Hadash writes in Keshet, “Cinnamon alone is bitter but can be used to sweeten the greater whole,” and so adds a cinnamon stick on his Seder plate to represent the solidarity of his community. Rabbi David says, “You can add to the Seder plate, but you can never subtract.
“We gather pieces of every culture we’ve lived among, and the food is what reflects that more than anything else. If you are living with a Moroccan family, you’d have very different Passover recipes. The ‘Jewish’ foods we are familiar with here in the United States are what we would call Ashkenazi-Eastern European. The reason for that is the 1860s saw a major influx [of Jews] from Germany, and the 1880s through the 1910s saw a huge immigration from Eastern Europe. We have all of our recipes and traditions and food from them.
“So what people think of as ‘Jewish food’ is actually Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and [these foods have] become strongly associated with [Jewish-American] food. It’s a good thing. We’ve adapted. And for someone who loves corned beef and pastrami, it’s a very good thing.”
WHY DO WE KEEP KOSHER?
“If it has a split hoof and chews cud, you can have it,” the Rabbi tells me. “If the cheese comes from a different animal or herd than the meat, then it’s fine. The law says, ‘Don’t cook a calf in its mother’s milk,’ and if you really can’t live without your chicken parmesan then go for it, if that’s what’s really stopping you from being observant. Take one step at a time. When people try to tell me ‘[kosher law is] because of health,’ it’s not. The Torah is very specific. It says, ‘I am your God and I have chosen you to be different from all the other peoples. Therefore you will observe this because it makes you different.’ And there’s nothing that differentiates us more than our eating habits. It’s the idea of a discipline. Let’s face it; if you have friends that are vegan, gluten-free, have multiple allergies, you know that it’s a struggle to provide for their needs. It separates them from everyone else in that moment. If you have a whole people that is saying, ‘We have to stick to specific foods,’ it does separate us.
“We are supposed to be taking care of this world; we are supposed to be improving on it. We’re supposed to be working to eradicate hate. We’re supposed to be working hard to create greater freedom. We’ve been commanded to do it, and we are told, ‘It is the right thing.’
“If I have to think about what I’m eating, I have to think about what I’m doing. So I accept [kosher] for that reason. But if you’ll excuse the expression, it doesn’t have to be ‘whole hog’ all at once. Take it one step at a time.”
WHY IS THIS NIGHT DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER NIGHTS?
The Rabbi explains, “Passover is about liberation. Freedom. It reminds us that in many national histories, before freedom came, there was an enslavement period. We here in the United States are still grappling with what we did to the Africans who were brought here into enslavement and the Native Americans who were also enslaved but very rarely talked about.”
Rabbi David sits back and continues quietly, “Acknowledging our past — the good and the bad — is important to understand our current situation.
“Passover, and the Seder, specifically, serves as a beacon that those who are enslaved don’t have to stay there. There is a risk [in striving for freedom], but there was also a risk when the Israelites were putting the blood on the door. If we’re not willing to take risks, we don’t have freedom.”
Author’s Note: By the time the recorder shuts off, I realize the interview has lasted nearly two hours. The sun is sinking into Lake Hollingsworth. Kids and parents are just arriving for movie night at the Hebrew school of Temple Emanuel, and there is a friendly chatter in the air as I pack up my car and drive home. It’s a warm, quiet evening, and I consider the journeys of my ancestors. They seem close enough to reach out and touch.
Passover Seders are often concluded by singing ‘L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim’ or ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ to evoke a desire for the diaspora who scattered across the world after fleeing Egypt to return to a common Jewish home. It seems to me that there will always be a next year; a new reckless dream; a new item on the Seder plate; and that as long as there are people in the world who are not free, our journey continues.
BAY LAUREL AND LEMON LENTILS
2 cups green lentils
4 cups water
A bay leaf
A lemon wedge
Salt and pepper to taste
Rinse the lentils under running water, making sure that there are no sticks or weird bits. Strain, and place in a pot with the measured amount of water. Add the bay leaf.
Bring to a simmer as you would rice, then reduce the heat to low. Cook uncovered for about 20 minutes, until no longer crunchy. Make sure that there remains enough water to barely cover the lentils.
Strain the lentils as you would pasta and remove the bay leaf. The lentils can be stored cooked like this and heated up as you need it. I like to reheat lentils in a sauté pan with olive oil, and season them with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon right before serving.
MARINATED MUSHROOMS AND ARTICHOKES
1 pound sliced button mushrooms
1 pound artichoke hearts, sliced into bite-sized pieces
3 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Red pepper flakes, to taste
1 Tablespoon dried or fresh rosemary
Good-quality balsamic vinegar, as desired
Toss everything together, except the vinegar, to marinate for at least an hour. Just before serving, heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Drop the marinated mixture, along with any juices, into the pan and sauté, tossing frequently until the vegetables are cooked through. Season again if needed, and garnish with the balsamic. Serve immediately.
Bosc pears, slightly firm, one per person — select the most beautiful ones
1 quart of cool water
1 quart of sugar
A generous glug of white wine
Vanilla extract, or one vanilla pod
Freshly grated or chopped ginger
A cinnamon stick
A star anise
Good-quality coconut milk
“Pre-pear” the pears by peeling them, then paring vertically into halves. Use a spoon to gently scoop out the seeds and core, then pair the pear halves back together. Slice the bottoms off so that they have a flat surface to sit up on in the bowl.
In a pot large enough to hold everything, combine the water, sugar, wine, vanilla, ginger, and spices. Lower in the pear pairs and turn on the heat to medium. If needed, add a little extra water so that the pears are submerged. You want to keep the poaching liquid to just below a simmer. If it gets too hot, the pears can become grainy or turn into mush. When the pears are barely fork-tender, turn off the flame, and let them cook the rest of the way with the residual heat in the pot.
Serve them in a bowl with a ladle of the poaching liquid and a dash of the coconut milk. Skillful, patient cutting will allow you to sit the pear halves up in the bowl and they will appear as if they were whole, which is quite a lovely effect.
Osso bucco (sliced veal shanks),
one per person, depending
on the size
Matzo flour or meal (use regular
flour if it’s not for Passover)
Olive oil, as needed
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 onions, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
4 Tablespoons tomato paste
A bunch of parsley
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
A bay leaf or two
A cup of stock: veal, beef, or
chicken … whatever you have on hand.
A bottle of dry white wine
8-10 cloves of minced garlic
The zest of 3 lemons
Another handful of minced parsley
Preheat the oven to 325°F, and a pan on the stove with a medium-high flame. Season the osso bucco with salt and pepper, and dredge it in the flour, shaking off the excess. Sear each shank in the hot pan with a little of the oil until they are nicely browned on each side. Arrange them in a deep roasting pan and cover with aluminum while you prepare the other braising ingredients.
Add a little more oil to the pan that you used to sear, and stir in the chopped onion, celery, and carrots. Lower to medium heat and cook, stirring, until the veggies are soft. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for two minutes.
Pop the herbs into the roasting pan with the osso bucco, and pour in the stock and wine. Add the tomato paste mixture, season with a little more salt and pepper, and cover again with the aluminum foil. Ease the entire roasting pan into the hot oven and cook about 1.5 hours, or until the meat wants to fall off the bone.
Once the meat is done, remove from the pan and strain the rest of the pan, keeping the liquid and tossing the solids. This liquid can be simmered over a medium-low heat to make a delicious sauce.
Mince the garlic, lemon zest, and parsley together to garnish the meat on the plate. When this “gremolata” hits the warm sauce and veal, it will release wonderful herb and citrus aromas and flavors.