The Passover Seder
“I hope it’s kosher just to drink a glass or two,” Tiffany said. “Somebody’s gotta drive us all home.”
Chris and Tiffany were new friends that I really wanted to keep. They watched college football, listened to NPR, collected records, went to Sufjan Stevens concerts, voted for Democrats, and had a bumper sticker on the back of their VW that said, “Not on the rug, man” . . . and we met them at church! Tiffany had a sense of humor rivaled only by her extensive vocabulary, which meant I was ready to break out the BFF necklaces and make it official, even though we were still in that awkward stage of “couple dating” where you’re trying to make sure everyone likes each other. Chris taught art at the local high school, Tiffany was a pharmacist, and Early would start preschool that fall. They’re not the type to ditch a friendship over frozen chicken (and/or turkey) cutlets, but I wanted to impress them with my seder anyway . . . you know: seal the deal.
Good thing I got my groove back with the matzo toffee.
The recipe came from the brilliant Olga Massov at SassyRadish.com , and it’s dumb easy. You take five sheets of whole wheat matzo, break them into pieces, and spread them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Then you melt a stick and a half of butter in a saucepan, add a cup of brown sugar, and let that little cauldron of deliciousness simmer until it bubbles. Drizzle the toffee over the matzo, spreading it evenly with a spoon, and stick it into the oven for about fifteen minutes. Then (and this is where it gets really good) sprinkle a bag of chocolate chips over the hot, toffee-drenched matzo and watch it all melt. If this doesn’t make you contemplate converting to Judaism, at least for a second, then you can safely assume you have no soul. Add a sprinkling of sea salt and a handful of toasted almonds, stick it all in the refrigerator for a few hours, and you’re done.
The house smelled heavenly! Chris and Tiffany would be making us mix CDs in no time!
We gathered in the dining room, where I’d gone all P31 on myself and covered the table with a dark-brown linen tablecloth and set it with my best dinnerware. Each place setting included a Passover napkin, a dessert bowl filled with salt water, and a little bag of chocolate coins. Long-stemmed white candles flanked the two plates that made up the centerpiece, one piled high with sheets of matzo, and the other, the seder plate, filled with an odd assortment of foods—a chunk of horseradish root, a leaf of romaine, a hard-boiled egg, some celery stalks, a small piece of chicken (and/or turkey), and a mix of fruit and nuts. The seder plate in Jewish tradition acts as a sort of visual aid for retelling the story of the Exodus. Each item on the seder plate would be explained as the meal progressed.
We began with an appetizer of matzo ball soup, followed by the Passover kiddush, a prayer for the first glass of wine. (We started with the cabernet.) Then came the ceremonial washing of the hands, which we did not-so-ceremoniously with a bottle of Germ-X passed around the table.
“Don’t forget to recline,” I reminded everyone.
In ancient times, only wealthy, free men enjoyed the luxury of reclining at the dinner table. Reclining at the seder reminds the Jewish people that not only did God grant them freedom; God made them masters. Even the poorest are required to recline as if they are noblemen.
Chris and Tiffany exchanged glances before leaning back awkwardly in their chairs, and it suddenly occurred to me that not everyone considers ritualized eating a good time.
The first appetizer represented on the seder plate is the karpas, the vegetables. We used celery sticks, which we dipped into our bowls of salt water to remember the tears shed by the Israelite slaves. This is meant to arouse curiosity in the children present at the seder, prompting them to ask questions about the meaning of the celery and salt water, but Early seemed content to munch on her snack without explanation, so we moved on.
After eating the karpas, we broke the matzo: I lifted three sheets from the pile, held them out for everyone to see, and said, “Blessed be you, Lord our God, King of the World, who brings bread out of the earth.” Then I broke the middle piece in two, setting one piece aside to honor the poor who do not have bread, and breaking the other one into little pieces. Dan wrapped these pieces in a napkin, handed them to Early, and told her she could hide them anywhere in the house.
Now she was interested.
With an impish grin, she dashed into the living room, and after a little prompting from her mother, hid the stash of matzo under the coffee table. This matzo represents the official “dessert” of the Passover meal, the afikoman, which the children traditionally “steal” and hold for a ransom. Because the seder can’t be complete without the eating of the afikoman, the children always receive their ransom, usually a gift, at the end of the meal.
Now that the pace had picked up a bit, it was finally time for the maggid—the retelling of the Passover story. Dan poured himself and Chris a second glass of wine (the pomegranate this time), but since Tiffany and I had yet to finish our first, we just topped off our glasses of cabernet. Reclining came a bit easier now.
With the wine now flowing, we asked the four questions.
Traditionally, the four questions are asked by the youngest child at the seder, but since the Passover meal was new for all of us anyway, I thought we’d ask them together. So we passed the list of questions around and each asked one out loud:
“Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip our food in salt water, but on this night we do?” asked Dan.
“Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either leavened bread or matzo, but on this night we eat only matzo?” asked I.
“Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?” asked Chris.
“Why is it that on all other nights we dine either sitting upright or reclining, but on this night we all recline?” asked Tiffany.
According to the Talmud, even if a person is all alone on the first night of Passover, he must ask the four questions.
I responded by reading a children’s version of the Exodus story, one that captured all the drama of Israel’s plight, Pharaoh’s cruelty, the marvel of the ten plagues, and the excitement of crossing the Red Sea, without getting into too many gory details about the death of the firstborn and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army and that sort of thing.
At the conclusion of the story, we washed our hands with Germ-X again, and after a prayer, ate the matzo. We liked the egg matzo the best, as it was sweeter and denser than the traditional and whole wheat varieties. Then we enjoyed the rest of the appetizers represented on the seder plate: The maror (“bitter herbs”) of horseradish and romaine represented the bitterness of slavery; the charoset, a tasty mixture of chopped apples, sliced almonds, honey, cinnamon, and sweet wine, symbolized the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build the Egyptian storehouses; the beitzah, a boiled egg, represented holiday offerings at the temple; and the piece of chicken (I really should have used some kind of shank bone) represented the lamb that was the special Paschal sacrifice on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt. The charoset was the biggest hit, with its delicious contrasts between sweet and salty, crunchy and soft.
Finally, just after sunset, it came time to enjoy our “feast” of chicken (and/or turkey) cutlets, potato wedges, and asparagus. (Technically, you aren’t supposed to start a seder until after sunset, but it was a weeknight, and 60 percent of us had actual jobs or school to attend the next morning, so we bent the rules a little on that one.) The Meal Mart cutlets weren’t half-bad, actually . . . or maybe everything tasted good to me now that I was working on my second glass of wine.
After dinner, Early went to fetch her stash of matzo and won a basket of toys and Easter stickers I’d found at Target. She seemed truly excited about her prize, which made me happy because I’m never sure what sort of stuff to buy little kids. We gobbled down the matzo toffee, and poured the third cup of wine (the Moscato). Dan and Chris were keeping up just fine, but I could only sip at this point, and Tiffany, the designated driver, had called it a night. We all felt warm and giddy, and a jovial spirit filled the dining room.
Our own bottles nearly dry, we decided to leave some of the nasty Mogen David stuff out for Elijah. So we filled a glass and left it on the living room bookshelf, by the front door. As instructed, Early ran to door, opened it, and called out, “’Lijah! ’Lijah!” in her thick, Tennessee accent, before bursting into a fit of giggles.
At this point we were supposed to sing hymns of praise to God while drinking a fourth glass of wine, but this seemed like a dicey combination to me, so we skipped the songs altogether and instead settled in to an enjoyable evening of talking, drinking, waiting for Elijah, and playing hide-and-seek with Early. Elijah never showed up, probably on account of the terrible wine, but we ended the night happy and full and not so wasted after all. I almost forgot to perform the last activity of the service, remembering just as Chris, Tiffany, and Early were pulling out of the driveway to head home. So I ran outside, nearly falling over the potted plant on the porch, and shouted, “L’shana ha’ba-ah b’Yerushalayim! Next time in Jerusalem!”