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Judi's Journal 3-30-2012

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Symbolic Passover foods

By Judi Siegal

Food plays an important part in the ritual life of a Jew. The very act itself is considered holy and is sanctified by blessings before and after meals. Even the choice of comestibles has certain rules and regulations. For instance, shellfish and pork are not allowed and red meat and poultry have to be ritually slaughtered in such a way as to cause as little pain and suffering to the animal. This is called kashering and the food that traditional Jews eat has to be certified that it meets certain Jewish standards. Food thus allowed is called kosher. Amongst the more liberal branches, even the business practices and raising conditions of the food preparations are taken into consideration so that free range chickens are more preferred than those inhumanely raised in confined areas.
All Jewish holidays have special foods associated with them but Passover stands in the foreground when it comes to symbolic choices. The frontispiece ritual for the holiday is the ritual meal called the seder and the accompanying foods, which make up the ritual.
The seder foods are supposed to provide the participants in the seder with the feelings and emotions one would feel if one were a slave. To begin with, some people serve chopped hard-boiled eggs in salt water. Eggs, especially at this Passover and Easter time of the year represent birth and the cycle of life. They also are a symbol of mourning (often served at Jewish funerals). The salt water stands for the tears shed while in slavery.
On the seder table is a plate with six symbolic foods: roasted egg, shank bone, greens, horseradish, orange and a mixture called haroset. The egg has already been explained but an additional explanation for the egg is that it stands for the special Passover offering made in the ancient Temple at this time of year. The shank bone represents the roasted lamb eaten with bitter herbs (horseradish) on the eve of redemption from slavery in Egypt. The lamb’s blood was used to smear over the lintels of the Israelite homes so that God would pass over their home and not smite their first-born sons. The lamb was later eaten as a meal. The bitter herbs signify the bitterness of slavery. The greens symbolize hope and the promise of spring and are dipped in salt water as a remembrance of the Red Sea, which split to allow the Israelites to escape to freedom.
SThe haroset, in Eastern European tradition, consists of apples, cinnamon, nuts and wine which are ground together to represent the mortar that was used in the brick laying for the construction of Pharaoh’s storehouses which the Israelites were compelled to build. The orange is a modern addition. Because Judaism is an evolving civilization, the orange has come to stand for the disenfranchised people in our own day, namely women and those of different sexual orientations.
Perhaps the most famous food eaten on Passover is the matzah. Often called the Bread of Affliction, this flat bread, actually a cracker was used as a staple food for the Israelite’s journey because they had no time for their bread to rise. Matzah is eaten for the entire duration of the holiday (eight days) as no leaven food is allowed. Matzah and its various forms, meal, crushed or bite sized is used throughout the holiday in various recipes.
What is served at the seder meal is also steeped in tradition but is not necessarily ritually mandated. For instance, the Eastern European tradition that most American Jews descend from will begin the meal with gefilte fish. This is cold-water carp and/or whitefish chopped with matzah meal, seasonings and egg and boiled in a broth. Quite delicious if you have grown up with it, but I always tease Jews by choice when they refuse to eat it! Others will begin with chopped chicken liver, sort of like pate, loaded with cholesterol but very tasty!
My favorite dish is chicken soup. All nationalities make this but I happen to think that the Jewish version made by a Jewish mother is the best! (To be fair, I also believe that an Italian nona makes the best lasagna!) Into this golden broth is put dumplings called matzah balls. These are made with eggs, oil, seasonings and matzah meal. (Or you can use a mix!) Light and fluffy, they are a special treat!
The meat served is usually turkey, chicken or beef. Some people have now opted for vegetarian choices. Vegetables are spring choices such as asparagus, green beans or carrots. Certain beans (like limas or kidney) or peas or corn are not allowed due to the fact that they are considered leavened foods.
A favorite dessert is sponge cake made with special matzah meal cake flour and as many as eight to twelve eggs to give it leavening and lightness. Chocolate macaroons commercially made are also popular.
As we approach the Passover and Easter season, may we eat at the table of love and understanding, drink from the cups of peace and salvation and relish the freedom we have as Americans.
(Passover begins on April 6, 2012 and continues for eight days.)