Pesach Foods

How can you write about Pesach and not write about food? Here are some of my insights, in Seder order (if you know that seder already means “order,” you get to chuckle over that):

Parsley/cold boiled potato/celery into salt water: Salt water is the ocean, the womb of life on earth. Parsley is spring green, although actually growing it has always been iffy for me. You plat it at Tu B’Shvat, exactly 2 months earlier; it’s better in leap-years, when you have 3 months for it to grow instead of just 2. But Younger Son’s parsley sprouted inside its Ziploc bag, and we watered it and zipped the bag shut and put it on the windowsill for another month, watering occasionally; and finally opened the bag when it was well-established. That’s the only successful parsley growing I’ve ever had. The seeds have always either rotted in the soil or the tender plants dried out. Making a little greenhouse out of the ziploc bag was a really good idea. Though note that after they sprouted they needed a little additional water in the environment to survive.

I wonder if there’s a spring green that actually is sprouting around now, around here. It’s a little too early for fiddlehead ferns. But something like that seems just right. And come to think of it, in Sephardic tradition you dip karpas into vinegar (kosher for Pesach, of course); and that’s just right for fiddleheads too.
But in Ashkenazic custom, you dip Spring into Fertility. But guess what, it’s more than that. A colleague of mine, Rabbi Geoff Dennis, was a nurse before he went to rabbinical school. He taught me that salt water is also a disinfectant. Pouring salt in the wound may hurt, but it may also clean it out. So this is part of the theme of Spring cleaning, of removing the old “soured” dough (the chometz), of starting afresh. Salt water helps to control and defeat the little infections that plague and trouble us, that prevent wounds from healing cleanly and quickly. We can’t avoid wounds in our lives; but we can keep them clean and encourage them to grow back together. Metaphor here.

Matzah. “Bread of affliction.” Flat bread is indeed poor people’s bread, simple, not requiring yeast. It was probably what slaves ate.
But it’s also the bread of escaping to freedom. The story, as one of the haggadot I grew up with put it, is that they didn’t have time to bake leavened bread, “so they snatched up their dough and fled.” I think my parents saw the possibility of double entendre: Was it their bread-making or their money that they snatched up when they fled?

But really. When you travel, do you take big puffy bread that takes up a lot of space, or do you take flat bread that packs well (pita, tortillas)? Do you take bread that will quickly get moldy, or do you take something drier (crackers, hardtack)? Think of yourself. You might pack yourself a sandwich for today, but something you’ll be eating in two days will probably be based on crackers or chips, perhaps for dipping.

But there’s one other amazing thing about matzah. The research on this was only done in the past 10 or 15 years, I believe. Egypt was the cradle of beer-making in the ancient near east. (I think somebody has actually made beer using an ancient Egyptian recipe.) And as a by-product of beer-making, you learn about … yeast! So Egypt was also the cradle of leavened bread in the ancient near east.

So I have a theory. In rejecting leavened bread for the 7 (or 8 ) days of Pesach, our ancestors were literally rejecting the bread of Egypt, the country that enslaved them. Over the years, we forgot about the connection between Egypt and leavened bread; but we remembered that we weren’t supposed to eat leavened bread on Pesach. And now, with modern archeology, we have rediscovered the secret: Don’t eat the bread of the enslavers when you celebrate your freedom from them. Reject slavery. Reject enslavement.

And given all the rabbinic interpretations that connect chometz (fermentation, leavening) with the “puffing up” that too much pride does to us, it’s pretty clear that there’s a connection between too much self-righteousness, too much self-certainty, too much self-pride, and putting down other people. Whether intentionally or not, when we are too full of ourselves, we leave little room for the healthy doubt and questioning that allows us to see and feel from another’s perspective. Participating in the oppression of another requires the smothering of that empathic capacity — just as rising dough will expand and smother anything in its way, even the bowl that is supposed to contain it.

Maror. Oh, maror that I love. And charoset. The symbols of the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom, respectively.

Or are they?

Charoset is sweet, whether Kurdish, Iraqi, Afghani (those were the charosets that I made three years ago when we went to war in Iran — my little political statement), Israeli, Yemeni, Sephardic, or (for most of us in the US) plain old Ashkenazi. But it’s supposed to represent the morter used by the Israelite slaves in building Pharaoh’s brick store-cities. Sephardic and Mizrachi charoset, by the way, really does resemble morter. Grind dates and figs, or sesame seeds and walnuts, and you really could paste bricks together with them. Not that you’d waste it that way, it’s too yummy! Next year maybe I’ll get the recipes on-line. Tonight too tired.

So does charoset represent the sweetness of freedom… or the false sweetness of embracing one’s own slavery? We can get sucked in, you know. We can believe that it’s for the best, or even in our own best interests, to cooperate with our own enslavement. We know that the Israelites had a terrible time adjusting to being free people. I can’t look at charoset without seeing it as a symbol of the ways that we are seduced into being enslaved. (But I can sure eat it without any qualms!)

And maror. The bitter herb. The horseradish that we mostly use is actually spicy, not bitter; some folks use a romain leaf, and for good reason. (Though I think that that’s actually used for the mysterious chazeret that has disappeared from many seder plates.) Romain is bitter, not spicy. This was driven home to me at Eldest Son’s model seder, where they used radishes for the maror. Good choice: spicy but not too spicy. (I learned long ago that if you peel off the red skin the remaining radish isn’t very spicy at all.) But bitter? Not at all. Bitter is really unpleasant. Bitter is late arugula leaves. Which would make a great maror, but at this season perhaps it would be better as karpas. I’ve said for several years that I’d like to use dandelion greens as a sort of Reconstructionist maror: Living in two civilizations. Choosing local produce to fulfill the mitzvah.

But you know why I thought of dandelion in the first place? Because I’ve grown maror. It’s a root crop, tenacious, hard to kill. In fact, liable to become a weed if not well controlled. Doesn’t spread like dandelions, but certainly reminiscent.

So does maror represent just the bitterness of slavery? Or is it also a symbol of the tenacity with which we (and others) held on during our slavery? Of the indomitable spirit that cannot be crushed by mere bondage, or even by attempts to destroy our family structure (whether in our story or in the lives of African American slaves). Maror reminds us that we cannot be crushed and eradicated, even by the bitterness of slavery. And it’s a reminder not to be taken in by the sweetness of slavery, the sweet mortar of the charoset which beguiles us.

And of course the orange. I have a whole treatise on the orange. It’s modern midrash in action. The story that circulated for several years — that Susannah Heschel began adding an orange to the seder plate after a man shouted at her that a woman belongs on the bimah (as a rabbi) as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate — is not the real story. In fact, some thoughtful women have declined to put an orange on the seder plate, because in that story it stood for denigrating women. (Though some were willing to incorporate it into the charoset, which is a lovely tradition and there are traditional charosets which contain oranges anyway.) But here’s the real story, as Susannah Heschel herself tells it. (But even this telling is not complete. See below.) The story that circulated for many years was a myth — or, in Jewish terms, a midrash, an embroidery upon (and in this case, total transformation of) the story.

Heschel created her ritual based on an earlier midrash that she had read, about the inclusion of lesbians, in which a fiery rabbi declared that lesbians have as much place in Judaism as a crust of bread on the seder table. (Read more about it here.) In that midrash, a crust of bread was placed on the seder plate. I actually did that once, years ago, at a model seder (before Pesach, I think). And as Susannah Heschel says, doing this felt transgressive — even though this was not a kosher-for-Pesach seder, even though I believe it was not even Pesach yet. And that certainly is not the statement we want to be saying about the presence of gay men and lesbians in Judaism! So she transformed the crust of bread into a fruitful orange.

And here’s the part that I love. Even before reading Heschel’s own essay talking about the origins of the orange, I recognized that earlier crust-of-bread midrash hiding behind the orange, so to speak. Because I have a copy of the Oberlin feminist haggadah in which she she read that midrash! I don’t remember any more why I have it. Someone gave it to me, a photocopy of a photocopy. Perhaps out in Portland, when I was living there; in any case, that’s where I tried the crust-of-bread maneuver. So it was so tremendously exciting to trace the development of a modern midrash, through both intentional reworking and the “folk process.” Oberlin midrash: Heschel’s borrowing and adaptation: the subsequent “hijacking” of her intentions and even of the whole story itself. (I have even seen the story written that the orange became the symbol because the supposed man who stood up and challenged her was in Florida, “Land of Anita Bryant.” I can’t find any of those versions on the web right now, and it’s really way past my bedtime.) And finally, the newest telling, in which all the earlier versions are mentioned and commented on. And the incomplete new telling, like the two I referenced above, neither of which mentions something I’ve read elsewhere — that Heschel herself meant the orange to include others who are marginalized in Judaism, specifically widows and orphans. (See below again.)

A local friend of mine told me a few years ago that the Oberlin haggadah actually had its genesis in Berkeley, and tried to put me in touch with a friend of hers who was there (so was she, I believe). I never followed up on that well enough. But look here (beginning “But wait, there’s more! Why do we put an orange on our seder plates?”) and you’ll get the most complete telling that I have seen, including the Berkeley connection. Except… that the write kindly gives us THREE versions of the story: The first from correspondence with friend Pat Cohn, a later one compiled by Abbe Don and based on the book “Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition,” in which Susannah Heschel’s involvement is mostly dismissed as “urban myth,” and finally the text of an email Heschel herself wrote writing herself back into the story. It’s FASCINATING.

And how Pesach-dik. “Therefore, even if we were all wise, aged, understanding, and Torah-knowledgeable, it would still be a mitzvah for us to expand on the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt. And whoever expands on the telling of the exodus from Egypt, this is praiseworthy.” (Rough translation based on the singing of the text in my head, which hasn’t been refreshed in too many years.)

Just as the haggadah itself tells and retells the story of the exodus, and expands the story through midrash and symbolism and ritual action, so do we tell and retell this story, expand, tweak it, and make it our own. The story of slavery and freedom, exodus and homecoming, is a story for all of us, for all time.

I wish you a zissen un a kosher Peysach, a sweet and kosher (in whatever way you observe it) Pesach!