A Holiday for Storytellers

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Hi, all.  David here.  Faith and I have switched days for a while.  She’ll be posting on Wednesdays for the foreseeable future.

This past weekend marked the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover (also known as Pesach).  I’m Jewish, but I wasn’t raised in a religious household.  My parents, siblings, and I didn’t go to temple, we didn’t observe Yom Kippur, which is the holiest of Jewish holidays, we actually celebrated Christmas rather than Hanukkah, because it was more convenient.  But every year we went to a Passover Seder at my aunt’s house, and even when I was young, I looked forward to Passover.  As I’ve grown older it has surpassed all other holidays to become my favorite.

Why?  Because, like Thanksgiving, it’s a holiday that revolves around family and food, two of my favorite things.  And because it is entirely about shared history, about storytelling as a way of reinforcing heritage and tradition, and about using symbols and metaphor to reinforce that storytelling.  Passover is, in short, a holiday that is made for writers.

At the Seder, the celebratory meal of Passover, Jewish families and friends gather at a table and read the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt as it is retold in a book called the Haggadah.  We go around the table taking turns reading from the text, paragraph by paragraph, adults and children alike.  Anyone who can read. This is a story most of us know already — even if you’ve never read the Haggadah, you’ve probably seen the late Charlton Heston (may he rest in peace) playing the part of Moses and raising his arms to part the Red Sea.  Yes, this is about that exodus from Egypt. 

The Haggadah’s version of that story has some unique elements, and I’ll get to those in a moment.  But first I want to share with you the symbolism of the food, because it’s truly fascinating.  The most familiar Passover food is the matzoh, the unleavened bread (basically a cracker made of flour and water).  The Matzoh of today, while mass produced and conveniently perforated in rows for easy, clean breaks, is very much like that eaten by the Jews who fled Egypt.  In their haste to escape from Pharoah’s Egypt, they had no time to wait for their bread to rise — so they baked it flat and ate it that way.  During the eight days of Passover, Jews are not allowed to eat any leavened breads.  Only Matzoh.

During the ceremony, we also eat sprigs of parsley, as a symbol of spring’s renewal.  But we dip the herbs in saltwater (as we do our hardboiled eggs — another symbol of renewal and season) to remember the tears of those who had been bound in slavery.  We eat what is called a “Hillel Sandwich” which is Matzoh with horseradish (bitter herbs, to remember the bitterness of slave life) and charoset.  Charoset is a mix of almonds, walnuts, apple, raisins, cinnamon, and kosher wine — foods that reflect the bounty of the earth — that is meant to symbolize the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build structures for Pharoah.  It’s delicious stuff — mortar never tasted so good — and it’s particularly good when offset with the horseradish.

Finally, the traditional Seder plate is supposed to include a shank bone from a lamb, because, according to legend, when God sent down the ten plagues to punish Pharoah and his people, the Jews sacrificed lambs and put the lambs’ blood on the doors of their homes so that the plagues would passover their homes.  (Hence the name of the holiday.)  Thus, the lamb bone represents both the mercy of God who delivered Jews from bondage, and the sacrifice necessary to fulfill the promise of God’s promise to Moses.

At the beginning of the meal, the Haggadah instructs us to put aside three Matzohs, symbols of redemption.  One piece represents the redemption of the past, as told in the Haggadah.  Another piece represents the redemption promised to all Jewish people in the future, and the middle piece represents redemption in the present.  At the beginning of the ceremony, a piece is broken off from this middle one and hidden, as redemption is often hidden from those who seek it.  This hidden piece is called the Afikoman, and after dinner the children are sent to search for it.  Different households handle what follows in different ways.  We do it this way:  when the children find it, they bring it back to the adults who then “barter” for its return by giving the children gifts and sweets.  After the meal is complete, every person at the table eats a small piece of the Afikoman and then nothing more for the rest of the night, so that they may leave the meal with the taste of redemption on their lips.

Finally, the meal includes wine.  Lots of wine.  Four cups, which are filled and drained at certain prescribed points in the ceremony.  The wine represents the bounty of the earth.  It also makes for fun times later in the meal when we sing songs and do various word games (sequences that build with each turn and that have to be recited in one breath).

The Haggadah also includes what are called the “Four Questions,” which are to be asked (read) by the youngest child in attendance who can read.  These questions basically seek to explain what it is that makes this one night special.  (Why do we eat Matzoh rather than leavened bread?  Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we dip herbs in salt water?  And, the one I always thought bizarre when I was a kid:  Why do we eat reclining rather than sitting?  The answer to this last one is that we eat reclining to show that we are free and can indulge in such luxury just as our oppressors once did.  Thing is, I’ve never been to a Seder where we actually reclined.  I mean, who wants the mess….?)  But by having the questions read by the youngest among us, we get at the essence of Passover. This is a holiday that celebrates oral tradition, the passing of our story from one generation to the next.  We do it through narrative, through symbol, through games and songs, and yes, through food  (because what could be more Jewish than that?).

We went to a Seder last night at the home of a friend.  It was loud and chaotic, and filled with laughter and screaming kids, just as all Seders should be.  We read and answered the questions, we ate wonderful food (Matzoh ball soup is something everyone should experience at least once in life — I recommend a New York City Deli if you can’t find your way to a Seder) and drank wine.  I’m not sure the kids really “got” the story of the Haggadah, but that’s okay.  I never did until I was much older than even my oldest daughter.  I do know, however, that my kids have come to love Passover, just as I did, and that’s a start.

Happy Passover to all of you.

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5 comments to A Holiday for Storytellers

  • Beatriz

    David–

    Thank you for sharing a bit of your Pesach with us. You’re right– it is the holiday for writers.

  • My pleasure, Beatriz. Thanks for the comment.

    And yeah, Alan, the food really is terrific.

  • David,
    I have missed so many family holidays because of my day job schedule. You make me realize how unfair to myself I have been.
    That has to change.
    Faith

  • Thanks for the comment, Faith. I’ve found that holidays have become more important to me as I get older and (perhaps more to the point) as my kids get older. I know that we have only a few Passovers left as a family before the girls go off to college. It makes me want to savor each one.