Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Holiday of Bitter Herbs

Every seder we host is just a little bit different. The menu changes and so does the haggadah. We figure out new ways to tell the age-old story of how the Jews came out of Egypt.

My husband, who should probably have been a rabbi, concocted the most wonderful haggadah using bits and pieces from lots of places. Much of it came from The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach, assembled originally by Rachel Barenblat at Williams College. He had interspersed readings about Darfur and miscellaneous other materials. In addition, he sent out homework ahead of time, including questions like What has liberated you in the past year? and What is an example of a current-day plague?

Our guests included several Catholics, several not-so-believing Jews, and the rest of us for a toal of 9. Two of them were grad students from GW, referred to us by the Hillel group there.

As we sat down to begin, for once I knew our dinner of lamb shanks would only get more tender if we took a while with the first half of the seder. That is never a problem for my husband, who would be happy to discuss all night.

Our seder plate included a couple of new things this year:
– An orange inspired by a criticism of Jewish feminism “Women belong on the bimah (pulpit) like oranges belong on the seder plate.” Susannah Heschel subsequently wrote: “An orange is suggestive of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.”
– An olive as an embodied prayer for peace, in the Middle East and every place where war destroys live, hopes, and the freedoms we celebrate.

I always like the part of the seder when we use our pinky to put drops of wine on our plate to symbolize the 10 plagues: blood, frogs, lice, insect swarms, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the first-born. This year we added 10 additional drops for horrors currently plaguing Darfur: rape, torture, looting, destruction of property, displacement, separation of families, loss of community, starvation, disease, and murder.

We read the following poem by Marge Piercy before we ate our hard-boiled eggs, symbolizing the new life of springtime:

Season of the Egg

It’s the season of the egg,
older than any named creed:
that perfect shape that signs
a pregnant woman, the moon

slightly compressed, as if
a great serpent held it
in its opened mouth
to carry or to eat.

Eggs smell funky
slipped from under
the hen’s breast, hotter
than our blood.

Christians paint them;
we roast them. The only
time in the whirling year
I ever eat roasted egg:

a campfire flavor, bit
burnt, reeking of haste
like the matzoh there was no
time to let rise.

We like our eggs honest,
brown. Outside my window
the chickadees choose partners
to lay tiny round eggs.

The egg of the world cracks
raggedly open and the wet
scraggly chick of northern
spring emerges gaunt, dripping.

Soon it will preen its green
feathers, so it will grow
fat and strong, its wings
blue and binding.

Tonight we dip the egg in salt
water like bowls of tears.
Elijah comes with the fierce
early spring bringing prophecy

that cracks open the head
swollen with importance.
Every day there is more work
to do and stronger light.

Of all the Passover foods, the horseradish ranks right at the top for me. It reminds us of the bitterness of bondage. I was honored to share my recipe (or I should say Joan Nathan’s recipe) with our Rabbi Toby this year who reported: “It rocked.” So if you are so inclined, here it is:

1 lb. horseradish root, peeled and cut into inch-long pieces
1 red beet, peeled and quartered
½ cup white vinegar
1/4 cup sugar

Put all ingredients in the bowl of the food processor and grind until fine. Take care as you open the processor because the fumes will surely clear out your sinuses and may knock you over!

The Passover of 2008, which seems to have gotten separated from Easter this year, is officially upon us. For 8 days we avoid bread, flour, even rice, as we mark the exodus of the Jews from Egypt thousands of years ago.


Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

Sounds like a wonderful seder! Thanks for the report.

Will you "keep" Passover this year, avoiding leavened foods?

8:35 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

I don't eat bread (at least not at home). But I don't pay much attention to avoiding things made with flour. I didn't clean out my kitchen cabinets either. So I guess the answer is really No!

10:12 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I think the telling of non-canonical legends is a great idea. I think I need to incorporate that into our traditions.

Sorry, but I am not much of a horseradish fan (although, I do like wasabi).

As usual, it is always nice to hear of other traditions and customs.

The only non-canonical Seder story I know is of the gefilte fish (and I am pretty sure you've heard it before):

As Moses and the children of Israel were crossing the Red Sea, the children of Israel began to complain to Moses of how thirsty they were after walking so far. Unfortunately, they were not able to drink from the walls of water
on either side of them, as they were made up of salt-water.

A fish from that wall of water told Moses that he and his family heard the complaints of the people, but that they through their own gills could remove the salt from the water and force it out of their mouths like a fresh
water fountain for the Israelites to drink from as they walked by.

Moses accepted this kindly fish's offer. But before the fish and his family began to help, they told Moses they had a demand. They and their descendants had to be always present at the seder meal that would be established to commemorate the Exodus, since they had a part in the story.

When Moses agreed to this, he gave them their name which remains how they are known to this very day, for he said to them, "Go Filter Fish!"

9:18 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Richard -- I love the gefilte fish folklore. Where in the world did you find this?

9:43 AM  
Blogger Kellyann Brown said...

You set a beautiful seder table. I love your matzah cover. My favorite part of a seder is keeping an empty chair for Elijah and opening a door for him. Can you imagine what you would think if you opened a door and he was REALLY there?! (I know, I'm so literal sometimes!)

6:11 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kelly -- I love that matzoh cover because the figures were drawn by my father-in-law when he was still alive and our children were young. I had brought along a project to fill the hours while their grandmother cooked.

As for Elijah, last year the doorbell rang just as we were opening the door for Elijah. It was only a yardman, but it was a little jarring to think what if???

6:23 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I havwe no idea where I originally heard it, but a quick search on Moses filter fish brings up some hits and I grabbed the text from one of those.

So? I guess this means you haven't heard it before?

7:07 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Richard -- New to me! I must say that my making homemade gefilte fish was what won my mother-in-law's heart over to her (originally non-Jewish) daughter-in-law. I cannot abide by the jarred stuff after eating my homemade fish with the spicy red horseradish for so many years.

7:49 PM  

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