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The Passover Chronicles

This Jewish holiday is an edible metaphor.

It's one thing to declare "You are what you eat," and something very different to mean it, I thought, as I sat down to the worst meal I have ever cooked--but it was glatt kosher.

I was in the former East Berlin, shortly after the wall came down, at a Passover seder for 50 Jews, mainly German ex-Communists and Russian refugees. This was their first seder and they wanted it to be authentic--not just kosher but glatt kosher, the best, the most. So to supervise the ritual meal, they'd brought in a Hasid from London, a large and awkward young caterer who belonged to the missionary Lubavitcher sect. Unfortunately, he soon discovered that not only was I the only one besides him who knew anything about Jewish dietary law, but I was also the only one who had ever cooked for more than four people. He threw everybody else out of the kitchen, including some Russians wielding menacing cans of mayonnaise. The Russians couldn't understand what was wrong with their mayonnaise, and the Hasid had to admit there was nothing specifically unkosher in it. The problem was that mayonnaise has no meaning for Jews, and it was the meaning of food that mattered.

The diet of a religious Jew is a continuous edible metaphor, and of all the Jewish holidays, none is a greater pageant of symbolic food than Passover. I have always loved Passover, an eight-day holiday that commemorates the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Passover teaches children about championing the oppressed, fighting for freedom and even feeling compassion for enemies. And it is all done through ceremonial meals called seders, held on the first and sometimes the second night.

But as the mayonnaise incident taught the ex-Communists, while Passover may celebrate deliverance from oppression, its dietary laws are both tough and arbitrary.

The Great Matzoh Debate
Matzoh, or unleavened bread, is a food that all Jews agree is a key part of Passover--but they don't agree on which type is acceptable. Because the Jews didn't have time to wait for their bread to rise before they fled from Egypt, leavened bread is forbidden during the entire holiday.

But what is unleavened bread? In Yemen, Jews make a soft matzoh that resembles the flat, grilled, pita-like bread of the Bedouins. I've camped with Bedouins in the Sinai and watched them make bread at night, a flour-and-water dough flattened and cooked on a steel barrel lid over a fire. Is this matzoh? It is even prepared in less than 18 minutes, the time limit mandated by Jewish law to insure that no fermentation takes place. Yet even when this soft bread is made by Yemenite Jews, other Jews generally reject it because the soft, puffy texture makes it look leavened.

Matzoh, as specified in Deuteron-omy, is lechem oni--poor people's bread. Since the importance of suffering can never be overstated in Judaism, Americans insist on translating this as the "bread of affliction."

The matzoh for my Berlin seder was flat, square and machine-made, the kind eaten by most Americans and, probably, most Jews. But it was the English, in 1875, who invented the matzoh-making machine and square matzoh. Naturally, the rabbis debated: Should square matzoh be allowed? Some rabbis even suggested that the corners be cut off. But this would take time and that might allow fermentation, and so matzoh remained square.

Symbolism on a Platter
Symbolic eating reaches its apotheosis in the traditional seder platter. It displays six foods, each representing an aspect of the Passover story: two kinds of greens, bitter herbs to recall suffering under slavery and a roasted shank bone and a roasted egg to recall animal sacrifices in the temple. (Roasting seems to be one of the few unsuccessful ways of cooking an egg, so some Greek Jews rebelled, pickling the eggs and simmering them in saffron.) Only the sixth food, a sweet, fruity dish called haroset, is actually pleasant to eat.

Haroset, which symbolizes the mortar the Jewish slave laborers used to lay walls in Egypt, can even capture a cook's imagination. Some is chunky, some is pureed. I once found an Italian haroset with chestnuts. The Sephardic Jews of the Mediterranean often use dates and pomegranate. My haroset in Berlin, following the Ashkenazic traditions of my Eastern European ancestors, had chunks of apples and walnuts in sweet wine.

Gefilte Fish and Beyond
In Berlin, we began the Passover meal with gefilte fish. Gefilte is Yiddish for "stuffed," and authentic gefilte fish is a whole stuffed carp cut into slices. Carp, which originated in Asia, was one of the first farmed fish in Europe, and therefore relatively inexpensive food for the poor. But gefilte fish became even poorer in America, where frugal cooks began preparing the stuffing alone--dumplings of fish stuffing--which, unsurprisingly, does not compare to the real thing.

Because I served authentic gefilte fish for the first course of the Berlin seder, I could resort to dumplings in the second, which was chicken soup with matzoh balls. I turned to this soup partly because, miraculously, my Hasidic supervisor pronounced some Berlin chickens kosher, and partly because I was panicking and Ashkenazic culture has implanted the idea in my mind that, when there's trouble, chicken soup will make everything all right.

Seder foods, like Jews themselves, also reflect secular traditions. The Jewish Manual, published in London in 1846, suggests a Passover dessert of boiled pudding, the British holiday sweet. Italian Jews eat almond cakes. And there is nothing especially Jewish about my chicken soup and dumplings, a traditional German dish.

One of my favorite Passover-food conflicts is the rice-and-beans issue. Several centuries ago, rabbis in Central Europe declared that, like wheat, barley and other grains, rice and beans should not be eaten at Passover. People in Poland and the Ukraine weren't eating rice or beans, so this was a small sacrifice for them. But in the Mediterranean, where rice and beans were staples, Sephardic rabbis rejected the ban, which has led to the excellent rice dishes with artichokes now served at North African seders. A Havana couple of Polish origin once told me that they declare themselves Sephardic for the week of Passover.

Roasted lamb, chicken, veal or even turkey is often the centerpiece of the Passover meal. Unfortunately, some Jewish authorities prohibit roasted meats on Passover, in commemoration of the Roman destruction of the second temple of Jerusalem, which ended the practice of animal sacrifice. Algerians roast a lamb the night before Passover, the last roast until Passover ends.

Passover food is supposed to be special. A pivotal line in all 3,500 known versions of the Haggadah, the book that guides Jews through the seder, is "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Gefilte fish and beef brisket (a favorite of Eastern European Jews) aren't special in themselves, and yet because we hardly eat them anymore, they recall childhood and family when we do.

Because our supervisor had banished all the local beef as nonkosher, brisket was not an option at the Berlin seder. So my main course was a large salad. If that seemed a bit poor for so grand an occasion, remember that the food of poverty is also part of the Passover tradition. But there are always small victories. I was able, after extensive negotiation, to keep the Russian mayonnaise out of the salad.

Mark Kurlansky is the author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (Walker; in paperback from Penguin).

Though cooking instructor Susan Shapiro Jaslove doesn't usually have 50 people for Passover, she sometimes has 20. And while brisket may not have been an option in Berlin, with Jaslove's family, it's a must. A sampling of her recipes follows.

Published April 1999
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