Not A Holiday You Pass Over
by Zehorit Heilicher, Tastemaker in Residence
Here comes Passover: an epic biblical story that has been told for thousands of years, capturing the minds and imaginations of generations. The highlights: Moses is a slave’s child who is adopted by the daughter of a king (Pharaoh) and is raised as a prince, unaware of his origins. As an adult, he uncovers his roots and leads his enslaved people in a journey to freedom, faith and peoplehood. The story highlights the birth of of the Jewish people, giving us thrilling moments: the burning bush, the ten plagues, the exodus, splitting the red sea and Mount Sinai – No wonder Hollywood has been fascinated by it!
My personal relationship with this particular holiday is one of love and hate. The story is incredibly inspiring and my memories of the holiday when growing up in Israel are fun, warm and oh, so yummy! The SEDER on the eve of the holiday is an evening of celebration with friends and loved ones over a ceremonial meal filled with meaning, song and again, yummy food – notice the theme here??
However, this holiday more than any other, requires so much elbow grease in preparation, that the festivities can be overshadowed by plain fatigue. The focus of the holiday is re-enacting aspects of the Exodus story. The most traditional custom is to avoid consuming any leavened bread for the duration of the holiday. This harkens back to the Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt in such a hurry, that their breads (most likely a version of pita) did not have time to rise. The observance requires that a Jewish home be cleansed of ALL Chametz: leavened bread and anything than can be used to make leavened bread, or baked goods of any kind. Consider your own kitchen and think how much time you would require to cleanse it of all crackers, chips, flour, yeast, bread, cookies – you get the picture… The more observant Jews actually burn their Chametz before the holiday begins.
Now for the love part! Two traditions I get excited about every year. One is small and intimate and the other is boisterous and shared. The night before the Seder, after the house has been cleaned and scrubbed, the food has been mostly prepared and darkness has descended, we gather as a family to perform Bedikat Chamtez: checking for Chametz. It is a ceremonial ritual in which my husbands hides a few pieces of crackers or bread in the house and our kids search for them in the darkened home with the aid of flashlights (when they were younger) or candles (as they grew older): A Passover treasure hunt! It is a moment when they pit their forces against us parents in a friendly competition. I love hearing their giggles and whispers while watching them try to find the most loot. We then gather the pieces to dispose of in the following morning and say the traditional blessing. At that point the holiday begins at our home and Matza –unleavened Passover bread is the only bread that enters our home for 8 days.
The second ritual I love is the Seder dinner. Seder means order in Hebrew, reflecting the specific order of this meal: there is actually a book to follow, called the Haggagdah: the telling. We gather friends and family members around a dinner table laden with ceremonial foods that are reflected on the Seder plate. Bitter greens reflect the bitter experience of slavery; whole egg is for renewal and spring while a lamb shank reflects God’s hand in the Exodus and the plagues. Also, Haroset that is a sweet mixture of fruit and nuts is set to resemble the mortar the slaves used in building the pyramids and food is dipped in salt water to evoke the slaves’ tears.
It’s an evening dedicated to the retelling of an ancient story and yet, it does not stop there. We attempt to find ways to relate the story’s lessons to todays’ freedom struggles around the world, today’s enslavement to addiction of any kind and more. This draws our younger participants into the conversation and creates a lively and engaging exchange. As my husband and I look around at the table laden with sumptuous food, surrounded by our friends and loved ones, free to celebrate our faith and traditions, we acknowledge our fortune and our blessings. Indeed, a holiday to embrace and cherish!
Sweets are a challenge during Passover – Imagine baking without flour, yeast or baking powder… Here is a wonderful recipe from the great baker Marcy Goldman from her book “A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking”
Caramel Matzo Crunch
4 medium unsalted matzo, or more if needed
1 cup unsalted butter, or margarine
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3/4 cup chocolate chips, or chopped semi sweet
1/2 cup chopped pecans, optional
- Heat the oven to 375F and line a cookie sheet completely with foil. Cover the bottom of the sheet with parchment paper.
- Line the bottom of the sheet evenly with the Matzo, cutting extra pieces to fit, as needed all the spaces.
- In a 3-quart heavy bottom saucepan combine the butter with the brown sugar. Cook over medium high heat, stirring constantly until the mixture comes to a boil (2-4 minutes). Boil for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and pour over the matzo, covering completely.
Place the baking sheet in the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 350F. Bake for 15 minutes, checking every few minutes to make sure that the mixture is not burning. (If it seems to be browning too quickly, remove the pan from the oven, lower the heat to 325F and replace the pan).
Remove from the oven and sprinkle immediately with the chopped chocolate or chips. Let stand for 5 minutes and then spread the melted chocolate over the matzo. Top the matzo with the nuts. While still warm, break into squares or odd shapes.
Chill the matzo, still in the pan, in the freezer.
This makes a good gift.