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Passover Ritual and Seder Meal : Symbolic Celebration Takes On Each Family's Special Touches

April 10, 1986|JOAN NATHAN | Nathan is the author of "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" and "An American Folklife Cookbook" (Schocken Books). and

Three thousand years after the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the Passover Seder meal commemorating that event is still being celebrated in much the original way. Jews still eat the unleavened bread, taste of bitter herbs, ask the four ritual questions, drink four cups of wine and open the door for Elijah the prophet to come in and take part. This year the Seder meal is eaten after sundown on April 23. Passover begins April 24 and lasts eight days.

The way each family observes the Seder reflects a particular background. But until I attended the Seder of my husband's family I did not realize how different those observances could be.

My parents' Seder never began with the meal itself. Cocktails came first (a startling aberration, I learned later, from Jewish tradition), then matzo with herring in cream sauce and chopped liver, and gefilte fish balls. I preferred the herring; the only good thing about the gefilte fish seemed to be the horseradish around it. (Years later when I tasted my mother-in-law's gefilte fish I realized that it could be delicious.)

Haggadah on Each Plate

Finally the Seder began. Our mahogany dining room table was set with symbolic foods placed on a flat cut-glass plate in the center, my father's silver bar mitzvah cup from Germany alongside it for the kiddush (the blessing over the wine) and a copy of the Haggadah, the service book, on each plate. Our Haggadah was invariably a children's Haggadah--short, slightly food-stained from Seders past, and most important, in English.

Our Seder included the immediate family, my brothers Alan and Rick, some students from nearby Brown University and often, Christian friends.

At the table, I sat to my father's left, presumably to help serve while he carved. This position had advantages when it came to filling my own plate, enabling me to slip on an extra potato or a larger slice of cake. My father, also a "nosher," was a fast eater and would spoon more stuffing onto his plate while Mom's head was turned.

Sitting next to my father also had its disadvantages. Even though Dad has been leading a Seder for 45 years, he is not comfortable with this role and takes on an exaggerated seriousness that often provokes my laughter. It seems to me that at least every other Seder I was temporarily excused from the table, overwhelmed by giggles.

Dad did not grow up with a Seder. Grandmother Lina would explain, "My religion is in my heart." Grandpa Rudolph refused even to participate in the ritual. My American-born mother, a woman of Hungarian origin, insisted upon starting married life with a family Seder. A deal was made: If Dad would lead an annual Seder, she would learn how to make Chremslach, a deep-fried fritter filled with raisins and almonds served during Passover at his grandmother's home in Germany. Dad carefully planned the service--straight out of the children's Haggadah, his only model.

For a child, not only the tastes but the rituals make the Seder different from every other meal. One tradition was the beautiful Seder plate my mother prepared. The roasted egg and the shank bone recalled the sacrifices performed in the temple. The chopped apple and nut haroset symbolized the bricks used for the Pharaoh's buildings.

To me the most poignant part of the Passover food ritual was the lifting of the parsley, symbol of spring, and then dipping it into salted water.

My mind would sometimes wander during the stories. Sometimes I imagined swimming across the Red Sea. Once I tried to envision how rushed the Israelites must have been not to have had enough time to make bread with yeast. At other times I pictured myself as the maiden who found the infant Moses.

After drinking the second cup of wine of four required by ritual, we were ready to eat. Our meal was always an abbreviated version of the menu from "The Settlement House Cookbook."

The meal began with clear chicken broth with two light matzo balls and a sprig of parsley. My husband Allan was taken aback by this feature of my family's Seder. Traditionally--and perhaps equally important, his mother's way--the matzo ball soup should have been preceded by hard-cooked eggs in salted water and gefilte fish. For my part, I was shocked when I learned that my in-laws do not consider the kosher Israeli dry Cabernet Sauvignon a substitute for Manischewitz sweet.

Our main course was a crusty leg of lamb with new potatoes, fresh asparagus and green salad.

"How shocking," burst out a Conservative friend once when I described this menu.

"But it's in the Bible," I insisted. " 'And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it.' (Exodus 12:8)."

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