When Hebrews were nomads, long before their history was written, the feast of a paschal lamb on a spring night when the moon was full was a family ritual. They rubbed roasted meat with bitter herbs and ate every bite before midnight, leaving only the bones.
Hundreds of years later the nomadic families banded together in agricultural communities. Each spring they discarded everything that had leavening in it as an act of faith that God would provide for another year. Since it took seven days for the fermentation process to make new leavening, the people ate unleavened bread for a week.
Centuries after that came the Exodus of Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and the beginning of Passover traditions about 1200 BC. To the symbolic lamb bone, bitter herbs and unleavened bread they added many more traditions for their spring feast.
And then came the time about 3,200 years after the Exodus when nomads who commute on freeways to weekday jobs wore designer clothes and sat on folding chairs in a Pasadena auditorium. They gathered as a community to learn how to maintain tradition with microwave ovens, food processors, jaded taste buds and easily distracted kids.
They got their ancient history lesson from Marcia Alper, a Hebrew scholar, and they got ideas and recipes from each other at a gathering sponsored by the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center Sisterhood.
The people were preparing for the seven days of Passover that will begin Friday, marking the deliverance of Jews from slavery. Passover's traditional holiday feasts, called seders, offer such ceremonial items as as charred lamb bone and symbolic foods such as bitter herbs and unleavened bread, which is eaten throughout the week.
"The genius of Judaism is that we take all these things and we keep reinterpreting them," said Alper, who conducts workshops on holiday traditions. "We have a beautiful history and it's worth every effort to keep it alive."
The audience learned that:
- Imagination and electronic kitchens can keep tradition alive. They can transform matzos (traditional unleavened bread) into pizza dough, a shell for spinach and cheese pie or hamburger-type rolls when mixed with eggs, oil and water.
- Cake meal, also unleavened and kosher, makes terrific brownies, jelly rolls and date and apple cakes. It is possible to make a Viennese torte from a base of cold mashed potatoes and a chocolate mousse based on potato starch.
- A food processor can make a creative charoset, a mixture of fruit and sweet wine that symbolizes the mortar that was used by Hebrew slaves when they made bricks. Sisterhood President Charlotte Nothmann's "mortar" contained prunes, raisins and oranges, in addition to the usual apples and spices.
- There is no known way to control calorie intake during Passover week. "I sacrifice my body for the holidays," said Marilyn Fingerhut, creator of gourmet jelly rolls.
- Those who would have it all can buy Passover place mats, jigsaw puzzles, paper napkins and children's story books.
"The important part is telling the story," Alper said. "If we don't, we'll lose it. It has to come alive. So we must act as if we were there."
And then, Alper reminded them:
"In a sense, we are still there, because slavery still exists in the world. None of us are totally free, and we can't relax until we get freedom for all people. That's what this is about."