Thursday, April 13, 2017

Passover, Spring Cleaning, and Vera

A dinner plate with two pickle spears, Kalamata olives,
asparagus, potato, beef brisket, and two varieties of kugel.
Forgive my blog for becoming so modem slow while loading up posts and pages. I hope I didn't crash and burn this barn down.

Chag Pesach Sameach (say: KHAHG PAY-sahkh sah-MAY-ahkh)! Happy Passover Holiday!

Well, at least it's fun for the first couple of nights. Then it gets a bit tedious.

Let's start off with the basics: why do Jews, regardless of their theistic theories, celebrate Pesach, or better known as Passover?

A pink cloth covered long table
with numerous place settings.
To give it some context, I think, we have to look at Judaism as a culture, and not just a religion. This holiday is the most practiced holiday outside of synagogue. Seriously. No rabbi or cantor is needed; just someone willing to lead the service and someone willing to host the service. You can invite whomever you want to this event; friends, family, even your new neighbors down the street or the homeless person trying to keep warm and fed while sleeping underneath a bridge. Pesach is more or less a celebration and a remembrance.

Jews celebrate Pesach due to their ancestors being freed of enslavement by Moses from Pharaoh in Egypt (as told in the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible). On the other side of this proverbial coin, Jews also remember folks in the present day who are currently enslaved; human trafficking victims, child soldiers, refugees from various countries seeking asylum, domestic violence victims who are stuck in their situation at this very moment, etc. As Jews, we believe that until everyone is free from slavery (in whatever form), regardless if they are Jews or gentiles, then no one, not even we, are free.

Now that we have that out of the way, how does one celebrate Passover?

Depending on either where you live or your movement (denomination or branch), it is either seven days (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements living all over the world except for the city of Jerusalem) or eight days (Reform and residents in the city of Jerusalem, regardless of movement).

So you have seven or eight elaborate dinners? Where do I sign up?

Not so fast, Dear Reader. The elaborate dinner happens only on the first night or sometimes including the second night. There is something you're supposed to do during those seven or eight days.

Umm, okay. What is that?

A basket of matzah, covered in lavender cloth, sits next to
a carafe of white grape juice and a bottle of grape wine, all
behind an empty wine glass.
You can not eat anything with chametz (say: KHAH-mehtz), or leavened bread, in it. You are allowed to only eat bread that is matzah (say: MAH-tzah), or unleavened. For the duration of Passover.

Oh. So what does matzah taste like?

To keep it 100, flavorless brittle cardboard. The type of crusty crunch that you would except to find in your school's lunch pizza.

It looks like a big cracker to me.

In a sense, it is a big cracker.

Really? How in the hell do you make sandwiches with that stuff?

Funny you should ask that. I'll get to that in a bit.

For this "elaborate dinner," called a seder (say: SAY-der), it's not just sitting down and vacuum cleaning all of the food in sight. "Seder" in Hebrew means "order." Meaning, there is in order of how the meal is actually carried out.

You serious, bruh?

A book entitled, "A Passover
Haggadah," in both the Hebrew
and English languages.
Totes. Most families will have their own version of a book, called a haggadah (say: hah-GAH-dah) to accompany them during the seder meal. Each haggadah gives specific instructions on what blessings are to be given, what songs to sing, and when the meal starts and ends.

*jaw drops* You got to follow along in a book, just to eat a meal. Why not just say grace and then eat?

Because that's not how it works, Dear Reader. The seder, from start to finish, in itself, is one big epic grace prayer.

Now, I will spare you the details of what goes on during the seder. However, I will tell you some of what is featured during the seder.

First, every seder service will have a seder plate. This plate has six different items representing symbols from the Book of Exodus.

Maror (say mah-ROAR): a bitter herb (horseradish will do just nicely); maror represents the bitterness of the Jews' plight as slaves in Egypt.

Charoset (say khah-ROH-set): a mixture of apples, tree nuts, various spices, and red wine; charoset represents the cement or mortar the enslaved Jews used to build pyramids for Pharaoh.

A korach, or "Hillel sandwich."
Bonus: combine a small dash or maror and charoset between two broken pieces of matzah, and you have what Jews call a "Hillel sandwich" (technically called a korech [say: KOH-rekh]). Trust me on this one. I remember looking at my rabbi like he had lost his mind in the Cuyahoga River when he told me about this rather unusual combination back when I was a conversion student. I ended up loving the Hillel sandwich, and eventually I had to apologize to my rabbi for not believing him to begin with. Folks who grew up in a home of Eastern or Central European influence and cooking will totally understand how yumtastic this hors d'oeuvres really is.

Z'roah (say: ZER-oh-ah): a shankbone from a lamb; during the days when The Temple was still in tact, lambs were offered as paschal sacrifices. The paschal lambs were roasted and eaten on the first night of Passover. Since The Temple does not currently exist at the moment, we only have a shankbone to remind us of days of yore (then again, I'm not sure I really want to see Mary's Little Lamb go up to the bimah just to get ritually slaughtered and spit roasted over an open flame....).

Me demonstrating dipping the
karpas into a small bowl of salted
water.
Karpas (say: KAHR-pahs): a vegetable that is not a bitter herb (usually another herb, like parsley); when dipped into a small bowl of salt water and then eaten, the karpas visually represents the tears shed the Jewish slaves during their time in Egypt, and when eaten, you "taste" those tears as well (considering tears from eyes are usually of a salty flavor).

Beitzah (say: BAY-tzah): a hard boiled egg; the beitzah also represents of an animal sacrificial offering during the time of The Temple. Since there is no Temple, no sacrifice. The egg is to remind us that we can't do the sacrifice, because our holiest of holy places of worship is not in current existence.

Chazeret (say: KHAH-zeh-ret): a bitter vegetable, like a piece of romaine lettuce; can also be used to make a Hillel sandwich with matzah and charoset. Also represents the bitterness of slavery upon the Jews in Egypt.

Even though we don't eat the items directly off of the seder plate, everyone at the table gets their own piece of matzah, maror (and/or chazeret), charoset, z'roah, and karpas.

The feast also includes a couple of items that most families include that you may not necessarily find in a gentile (non-Jewish) home.

A piece of gefilte fish on a plate.
The first item is gefilte (say: gheh-FIL-tah) fish. Literally, like beer and bondage, it is a required taste for some folks.

What species of fish is gefilte?

It's not a species, Dear Reader. It's a mash of different kinds of fish (usually carp, pike, and/or whitefish) with some vegetables formed into an object similar to a skinned white potato. Served with carrots, it is a staple among many a Jewish home. This article gives more detail about how this fishloaf is so got damn popular.

The other item that gets served during a Passover seder meal is matzah (or matzo) ball soup.

Also served with carrots, matzah ball soup is basically chicken noodle soup without the chicken and without the noodles. It's a chicken stock broth (essence of chicken, how's that?) with root vegetables and matzah balls. Similarly shaped (not exactly) like the individual loaves of gefilte fish, each matzah ball is a mix of matzo meal, eggs, water, and some skimmed chicken fat.

It's a really good soup; I just wish there was actual pieces of chicken meat in the soup.

A bowl of matzah ball soup, with one large matzah ball.
After you have had your gefilte fish and your matzah ball soup, then you get into the main course, usually beef brisket as the meat of choice.  Dessert comprises of either flourless chocolate cake or coconut macaroons, super sugary fruit gelatin slices, and egg noodle kugel (say: KOO-ghel) with raisins.

And after you have had your fill, you can relax for about 10 minutes.  Then, you get back to your seat at the table to continue the seder.

What happens if the Itis kicks in?

That's why you lounge for a bit, to less the Itis pass by. Somebody will wake you up to continue the seder.

After the first night of Passover, basically you can eat anything that does not have any leavened bread in it for the next several days. The purpose is to remind you of the affliction the Jews had to endure during their enslavement in Egypt. Also, it reminds you to not be so filled with hot air (not to have an inflated ego). Passover makes you humble, all the while without the Iron Sheik breaking your back, heh.

So wait, what happens to the chicken that was cooked to make the stock for the matzo ball soup?

I don't know, Dear Reader. Maybe it's saved for the rest of Passover to eat with the matzah and some mayonnaise or mustard? That's what I would do.

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