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PASSOVER STORIES / American families and an ancient dinner : Memoir : Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

March 24, 1994|AMY GERSTLER | Gerstler is a writer of fiction and poetry who lives in Los Angeles. Her most recent book is "Nerve Storm" (Viking/Penguin; 1993)

While growing up, I found Passover Seders nothing less than mind-bending. Theatrical, darkly fascinating, full of strange imagery, these ceremonies (the pre-meal portion of which seemed to last for days before you actually got to eat) constituted a marked departure from our family's customary modest, utilitarian suppers. In arranging and performing the Seder, I felt that my parents--my mother in particular--had mounted a small private opera starring familiar foods cast as characters quite different from their everyday identities. Certain foods were transformed at Seder from commodities judged solely by how they tasted, smelled or looked, into something like props at a magic show.

According to written directions, my mother prepared specific dishes that were displayed like museum artifacts on specially designed platters. These foods were presented to us not for nutrition's sake or because they were someone's favorite, but as illustrations. Because they were visual aids, we were encouraged to touch and examine them. On any other night, this would be considered playing with food, grounds for being sent from the table. But the Seder ritual forced my parents to turn many of their household rules upside-down. Since most children are anarchists at heart, my brother, sister and I reveled in this revolutionary aspect of Passover--religion-endorsed subversion of parental law.

And perhaps, although I would never have thought so at the time, the momentary relaxing of their rules in order to facilitate the unexpected gave my parents some secret pleasure too.

One of the first precepts to be discarded at Seder was an edict I often ran afoul of while I was a kid: No reading at the table. Passover temporarily erased Mom and Dad's notion that reading during meals constituted anti-social, borderline criminal behavior. Haggadahs, little 60- or 70-page books, were distributed at Seder, as part of the place settings. Not only were there what seemed like hours of reading from the Haggadah, but everyone took turns hamming it up--praying aloud, orating question-and-answer sessions, declaiming blessings or stories full of drama and violence.

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Seder was my first conscious introduction to the powerful notion of food as metaphor. This was a concept that would continue to reverberate in some useful--and other rather regrettable--ways throughout my life. But that's another story. Usually the meaning of the Seder's symbolic foods related to a literalization of some aspect of the lives of the biblical Israelites, or the story of their flight from Egypt under hotheaded, tongue-tied Moses' leadership.

At Seder, we learned that the ancient Jews baked matzo-like bread because they were in a terrible hurry to escape once they were finally given permission to leave Egypt. Our ancestors, we read in the Haggadah, couldn't hang around and wait for the dough they'd made to rise. Fleeing for their lives before the wicked Pharaoh might change his mind, they made do with unleavened bread. Soft, spongy, fragrant loaves were their last concern.

And when I was young, matzo did seem like a prisoner's version of bread--big, dry, flat sheets too brittle for making proper sandwiches. Although I enjoy it now, matzo then looked and tasted to me more like some antique form of paper than an acceptable substitute for fresh, seeded corn, rye, or any other kind of bread.

But I knew I was being crass. My personal freedom was vast, circumscribed only by things like the fact that my parents limited my dessert intake and told me when to go to bed. I was utterly unfamiliar with the kind of oppression we were reading about.

My mother would get tears in her eyes when we got to the parts about conditions endured under slavery. She'd say over and over again "We have so much to be thankful for, living here in America." I listened, and I knew I should pay attention, but her intense emotion at the table made me squirm. I concentrated on hoping it wouldn't be much longer before we could dig into the dinner that I'd been smelling since late afternoon, now being kept warm in the oven.

Matzo was certainly central. Before and after it, we were presented with a parade of cryptic ceremonial foods. A little custard cup on the Seder table contained not the usual pale, friendly blob of my mother's chocolate-chip-studded tapioca, but salted water, meant to represent enslaved ancestors' sorrowful tears. We dipped lettuce or parsley in the salt water and took a bite in order to taste those tears.

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A mysterious roasted egg and lamb shank sat in their respective depressions in the serving dish, lying on top of marks that looked like broken matchsticks but actually spelled out their names in Hebrew. The egg had a dichotomous symbology--eternal life, but also mourning, an odd duality I came to regard later as characteristic of Jewish temper or thought and maybe even my own, sometimes uncomfortable, darkish cast of mind. The lamb shank stood for the lamb sacrificed by the ancients on this holiday.

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