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Passover : A Marriage of Two Seders

March 24, 1994|JOAN NATHAN

The Passover Seder, which begins Saturday evening, commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, an event that is still being celebrated in much the same way it was more than 2,000 years ago. Jews today still eat the unleavened bread (matzo), taste the 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.

Yet there are significant differences in contemporary observances of Passover. Indeed, the way each family observes the Seder reflects its particular background, family history, preservation of traditions and adaptation to change. But not until I attended the Seder of my husband's family more than 20 years ago did I fully realize how different those observances could be.

Our Seder in Providence, R.I., included the immediate family, invited students from nearby Brown University and, often, Christian friends. My parents' Seder never began with the meal itself. Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres came first--a startling aberration, I learned later, from Jewish tradition.

Then came matzo with pickled herring, 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 homemade gefilte fish, I realized it could be delicious.)

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

Sitting next to my father also had its disadvantages. Even though Dad had been leading a Seder for 40 years, he was never comfortable with that role and took on an exaggerated seriousness that often provoked my laughter. It seemed to me that at least every other Seder I was temporarily excused from the table, overwhelmed by giggles.

My late father did not grow up with a Seder. His mother, Grandmother Lina, would explain, "My religion is in my heart." Grandpa Rudolph refused even to participate in the ritual. But my American-born mother, a woman of Hungarian and Polish origin who has always maintained she brought fresh ideas into her husband's German family, insisted upon starting married life with a family Seder.

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A deal was made. If Dad would lead an annual Seder, she would learn how to make chremselach , 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 flavors 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 recall the sacrifices performed in the temple in Jerusalem. The chopped apple and nut haroset symbolize the bricks and mortar used by the Jewish slaves for 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 in recollection of the tears shed by the Israelites during their Egyptian exile.

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

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The meal began with clear chicken broth in which two light matzo balls and a sprig of parsley floated.

"How delicately light the matzo balls are," Dad would exclaim after his first bite. Mom would beam with a sigh of relief. For my mother, an otherwise eclectic cook, the lightness of her matzo balls indicated her success as a Jewish mother, cook and wife. Thank goodness my husband, Allan, approved of light matzo balls as well. Some Jews prefer matzo balls that plummet like cannonballs, and marriages have been shattered over less.

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

"How shocking," a conservative friend once burst out 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; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.' "

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"Meat may not be roasted for Passover until the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem," she replied, "since roasted meat symbolizes the sacrifices performed in the Temple." Moreover, she added, leg of lamb is not a kosher cut. And anyway, a proper Passover meal requires three kinds of meat: a brisket, baked chicken and a chicken-veal-beef meat loaf.

My mother's response to such quibbling was firm. If leg of lamb was good enough for "The Settlement Cookbook," it was good enough for her.

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