You know, my husband and I said, way back when, we did this for our kids. They were little back then. Like, really little. They wouldn’t sit through a Passover Seder, the long, tedious amounts of reading, praying, and singing I’d been subjected to as a kid. I remember feeling that night to be endless, even if I had the coveted spot of sitting in between my mom and my dad.
And don’t get me wrong. My dad was quite the show man, and Pessach was no exception. No one could sing Dayenu faster than him. No one could storytell like he could. Glasses of wine stopped being counted, heck, in fact, we had a huge plastic bin filled to the rim with homemade Sangria providing a constant flow for those longing to remain sweetly and happily inebriated.
But there was still tradition. My father was still, after all, the son of Itzaak Abbady. And even though I never met my grandfather, I knew he was a hard core traditionalist. I’d heard from my dad, the rebel and adventurer of the family, as he sizzled up bacon on Saturday mornings in our Venezuelan home.
“Your saba would turn in his grave,” he say with mischief in his eye, nodding towards the pan as he flipped over a piece of bacon. I never knew if he was serious or not. I grew up on a steady diet of Jewish law rule-breaking, but, when it came to Passover, the Haggadah was pulled out and read from front to end.
I was always starving throughout it all. Matzoh, I tell you, isn’t much of an appetite repellent.
So when my husband and I found ourselves in the role of hosting the Seder, we turned to The Rugrats, our 2-year old’s favorite cartoon show. They, apparently, covered the whole thing in 32 bright and funny picture book pages.
That first Seder was a huge success. We cut up an ocean-themed shower curtain, nailed it over the front door, and announced everyone would cross the Red Sea. Craft paper covered our front entrance, paint brushes were handed out, and instructions shouted: “Here! Paint! Mark the house so God will pass over us!”
When we read about the 10 plagues, toy frogs and wild animals whirled across the table at each other, making sure Eliyahu’s cup didn’t get knocked over.
So, here’s the secret:
If you include a shower curtain, red paint, and toys in your Passover Seder, people pay attention, people come back.
The funny thing is that, as you have also figured, kids grow up. From babies to teens, ours, and everyone else’s grew in front of Eliyahu. But the Rugrats still reigned during Passover Seder. The Rugrats, actually, are still in high demand.
This year my daughter will graduate from high school, but in between making her list for what she will need for college and figuring out what classes she will take once there, she is still a killer frog thrower. Knows how to zonk one right on her dad’s forehead.
Those things hurt, you know.
They are small and plastic and surprisingly pick up speed, efficiently bypassing plates of chariest and half a rosemary-infused lamb. My husband may flinch at first impact, but he does what makes this night even more special, he laughs, and immediately throws one right back.
That’s all you can do. It’s a war zone of flying plastic frogs at our Seder. Attack or be attacked.
We keep a fresh supply of plastic frogs handy. Next year they’ll all come back again.
The best charoset is made by a Catholic woman who crosses herself instinctively when she passes by any church. Because you just never know. Growing up with the stern assurance that God is always watching has a way of sticking to your psyche.
This woman knows what it takes to make the celebratory sweet dish enjoyed by millions of Jews on this important holiday commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The holiday is one filled with rituals and symbolic foods and charoset, a sticky combination of dried fruit, apples, and matzoh, takes center stage in representing the mortar used by the slaves in Egypt.
She knows this, and has the patience and precision to, not just chop the apples, dates, and dried figs that go into the dish, but to mince them with microscopic, surgical precision, and, although not a mathematician by trade, she astutely calculates the proportions of dry ingredients with wet, incorporating the crispy matzoh with the cloying Manischewitz wine to produce the perfect blend of crunch with mush, tart with sweet. The end result has flavors of Biblical proportions.
Moses would be impressed.
I’ve actually never had her original charoset. I’ve sampled, through the years, her son’s, who is the man I married twenty years ago. He comes from a long, enduring line of devout Latin Catholics that was interrupted by the inquisitorial mind of one man who was studying to become a priest, and, unfulfilled by the answers he received from them, converted to Judaism.
This man went on to marry that woman, the charoset woman, whom must have loved him very much, because she, too, came from an extensive line of Catholics, and yet, together they built, not only an almost-completely Jewish home, but a Zionist home, sending all three of their sons to study in Israel. The youngest of these, the one I married, went on to stay there, living on a kibbutz and becoming an Officer in the Israeli Army.
Theirs was a life filled with colorful contradictions; the yin-yang of an enduring marriage woven from a kaleidoscope of beliefs and traditions that shines brightly in this family’s lexicon. The charoset my mother-in-law learned to make could easily represent the glue that bound them together, allowing each member the opportunity to explore, not only their religious identity, but their curiosity for the world, explaining why they ended up living in Mexico, Africa, Germany, Israel and the United States.
My mother-in-law lives meagerly in a small apartment in her hometown of Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Her children have long moved away and her husband, my father-in-law, passed away many years ago. She no longer feels the need to orchestrate an entire Passover meal. Which is why I am even more grateful she appeased that youngest son of hers, the one who was born inquisitive like his father, the one that grew up to become my husband, and showed him the culinary secret of a Catholic woman, who for the sake of her family and the importance of tradition, helped build an enduring and loving Jewish home. One charoset spoonful at a time.
10 ounces (1 2/3 cups) dried figs, diced very fine
12 ounces (2 cups) dried dates, preferably Majul, diced very fine
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced very fine
3 sheets matzoh
1 ¼ cups kosher sweet red Concord grape Manischewitz wine
In a bowl, combine figs, dates, and apple. Mix well. With your hands, crumble matzoh into the fruit mixture. Mix well. Add half the wine and blend with your hands. Add remaining wine and blend. Refrigerate until serving time.
Makes about 4 cups.
*Note: make this as close to time as consumption as possible, otherwise the matzoh will look its crunch!
I love the Jewish holidays even if I may not be the ideal spokesperson for Judaism. Not really lighting the candles every Friday night or going to the synagogue as often as I should, and that’s when I belong to a real hip temple that offers funky programs like Jewish Meditation and Sushi & Sake In The Sukkah. They even stream their services live, so I can join them in my PJs, if I wanted to.
The thing is, when it comes to religion, or really anything, I tend to take the food route.
So, yes, I don’t know the prayers.
I’d fail miserably on any Bible trivia question.
Okay, let’s face it, I’d fail miserably on any Bible question.
I didn’t grow up with this stuff, even though my father was born and raised in Jerusalem, which is also known as, The Holy City.
But man, have I got it down on what you’re supposed to eat when.
For Rosh Hashana, a two-day holiday which began at sundown yesterday and celebrates the Jewish New Year (5775, for those of you scratching your head, like I was) there are a few essentials:
The first, the must-have, the easiest, is apples and honey, the main focus being the honey, for its sweetness and to bring forth a sweet New Year.
So you start with that.
Really eating anything sweet afterwards works. Chicken with fruit is a tasty main course. If you are of Eastern European descent, you’ll go for a large serving of tzimmes, a candied stew made from carrots and dried fruit. Another favorite is kugel, a baked casserole using undisclosed amounts of sugar, butter, sour cream and some sort of fruit: pineapples or raisins or cherries. Most people have memories of a grandma’s unbeatable version of one of these two dishes. The lucky few have a memory of both. If you want one with a killer secret ingredient, take a peek at mine.
Yes, it’s all high in calories, but God sort of ordained it, so you’re good to go. Which means you’ve gotta put a crumbly, crunchy topping on that kugel, maybe requiring a wee bit more butter.
Desserts on Rosh Hashana are popular, for obvious reasons. There’s the prerequisite honey cake, maybe throw in an apple cake too, since you are already slicing a bunch of apples for the dipping-in-honey bit. And, of course, rugelach, the crescent-shaped pastry filled with chocolate, raspberry, or apricot is a staple at any Jewish event (and they balance perfectly on the coffee saucer, you know.)
Since you’re not focusing on how tight your pants will become in the coming new year, I’ll take this opportunity to discuss the bread you will be eating as well. It’s the Jewish go-to standard: challah, that addictive braided loaf of goodness.
I eat this every Shabbat (candles or no candles), often slathered in butter. On Rosh Hashana, the same bread will make its appearance in a round shape and served, you got it, with honey.
Round is big on Rosh Hashana. Theories abound: that the round loaf represents the cyclical nature of the calendar year, that it is smooth and seamless like we hope the coming year will be, even, that it represents a long life span.
The cool thing about Judaism, whether channeled in a progressive synagogue like mine or in a more traditional setting, is that there is always more than one interpretation for everything. We Jews love a good discussion. Multiple viewpoints are encouraged, almost expected. Pair that with a warm, honey-dipped slice of fresh challah and I’d say that is the start of a very delicious new year.
In a large bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the water. Let stand for about 5 minutes to dissolve the yeast. Stir in the salt, sugar, oil, and eggs until blended. Gradually mix in flour. When the dough becomes too stiff to stir, turn it out onto a floured surface and knead for 8 to 10 minutes. Come on, get into it. This part is like going to therapy without having to cough up $200 afterwards.
Place the dough in a bowl, lightly oiled, put a dishtowel over it and forget about it for a bit (aka, until it is double in size.)
This part is also fun: Punch down the dough. You heard me. Take off that dishtowel and sock it dead center, as if you were Mohammed Ali himself.
Okay, this part gets a bit tricky. The braided round challah requires a spatial mind, or, I am a blundering idiot because I can’t figure out how to do it. Seriously, I’ve studied it closely, it entails rolling out long snakes of dough (like a traditional challah) but then forming them in tic-tac-toe type settings and going all crazy on it, whipping strands under and over and around that would leave even the most agile weaver confused.
So, I’m sticking to the spiral version. Seriously, it may be silly, but there is enough stuff to stress about so I am not going to throw visual perception into the mix. And many folks actually prefer this loaf for symbolic reasons:
Spiral = smooth = circular = Rosh Ha Shana. I can work with that equation.
So, here we go for the round shape:
Divide your dough in two pieces.
On a lightly floured surface, roll first piece into a very smooth 24-inch long “snake” of even thickness.
Here’s a tip: round challah can be filled with sweet treats, namely golden raisins, although some über cool moms (I won’t name any names) have been known to toss in mini chocolate chips instead. In any case, if you want to go this route (maybe do one loaf plain and another loaded up) then you are going to want to roll out each snake piece with a rolling pin so that it is flat, sprinkle your desired add-ins and roll that snake back up into a strand so these goodies are nestled inside the dough. At that point, you go on to shaping it in its spiral shape. Got it? Good.
Bring one end around to form a circle that is about 5 inches in diameter. Continue winding the rest of the snake on top of the circle so that it spirals inward and upward, finishing in the center. Tuck the end of the snake into the center.
Do next loaf. (Remember, you’ll have to roll it out first if you want to fill it with raisins/chocolate.)
Place on a baking sheet and allow it to rise another 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Whisk together your wash ingredients and brush over the tops of the loaves. Sprinkle with seeds, if desired.
Bake for 30 minutes or until bread is a golden color and emits a hollow thump when patted on the bottom. "HUH?" you are thinking. Seriously, don’t panic. Just gently pick up your loaf, or turn it or whatever, and lightly tap it (like a criminal would lightly tap floorboards to determine where the hollow one holding the cash is.) When you hear that hollow thud sound, you’ll light up with happiness (like said criminal) because your fabulous challah will be done. Hey, don’t go breaking into anyone’s house or anything.
If you are like me you try to do things right. Have the best intentions, and all that jazz. Of course, there’s always a bit of the struggle. Especially when you are a bread lover/aficionado/obsessive-compulsive eater and you are a Jew during Passover.
This presents a challenge.
A tough challenge.
I overcompensate my anxiety over not being able to eat bread during Passover by hyperpurchasing. Hyperpurchasing means, instead of five boxes of matzo (the unleavened cracker one should replace bread for during the week of Passover) I buy twelve. Because I figure, if my counter (already cluttered with Lulu (my fabulous, hot red mixer) toaster oven, Magic Bullet, and blender (still waiting on the Vitamix gift, folks!) is crammed with an excessive amount of matzo boxes, then this will, in turn, convince me to make the bread-to-matzo leap for the seven allotted days successfully.
Now don’t get me wrong- I’m as excited about matzo as the next Jew. And in some circles, believe me, it’s reason to party. In this household, matzo and butter tango lavishly and decadently at least three times a day. Worries about hypertension vanish as exuberant amounts of salt get thrown into the mix. It is crunchy, creamy heaven, with lots of crumbs and no dog to lap up the mess.
Then there’s the charoset: that delicious mix of matzo, dates, prunes, apples and lots of wine made during the Seder to symbolize the mortar the Jews used when they were slaves in Egypt. That stuff is killer – especially if you are lucky enough to have my husband prepare his mother’s secret recipe. Slap some of that magic on a piece of matzo and taste buds go willy-nilly.
And of course, who can deny any child the delight of matzo pizza, which is as easy as pizza sauce (bottled, or in our case, homemade), cheese and a toaster oven? Is this not the quintessential American Jew snack come Passover week?
I still get restless. Antsy. Anxious. Perhaps it’s my Sephardic roots possibly placing me in Spain five hundred years ago. Have you had the bread there? Once in your DNA, well, no amount of pizza sauce will get it out.
So I continue toying with my twelve boxes. I make Matzo Brei, another favorite American Jewish delight: eggs, matzo pieces, cinnamon all mixed up and fried together then drizzled with maple syrup- it’s like a deconstructed version of French toast: I even get a bit fancy and add a splash of Port wine (or some leftover sweet red Manischewitz wine) or some orange zest to freshen it up.
But after three days of no bread I get cranky. Really cranky. I’m not nice when I’m cranky. I try and put it in perspective. . . I have it good- no need to worry about Pharaoh granting me freedom, changing his mind after agreeing to give it to me, or having to escape and take off in the middle of the hot desert only to be confronted by a huge Red Sea that I’d have no idea how to cross (don’t worry, for those of you not up on the story, Moses parts it and all the Jews get safely across.) These guys had it tough! Surely to commemorate my ancestors I could deal with a bread-free week?
So I keep getting creative with my matzo in hopes of compensation. My daughter suggests elevating the pizza snack into a formal breakfast and I eagerly acquiesce to this idea, scrambling some eggs and gently placing them on top before popping the whole thing in the oven. It’s a simple treat – buttery eggs meld nicely with the oozing cheese and the crispy matzo. The pizza sauce holds it all together, giving it all a Mexican breakfast burrito feel, but with a twist. We both gobble up two slabs of Breakfast Passover Pizza and I am feeling happy and full. My daughter looks over at our counter and eases away any bread anxiety that may still be gnawing at me.
“Thank goodness you got so much matzo, mom! I want this every day for breakfast!”
It’s gray and miserable and raining but all I am picturing is my lively outdoor dinner setting programmed for tomorrow night. I’m not sure how Mother Nature will respond; I, quite frankly, don’t care. With the bunch I have scheduled to come over for Passover dinner rain will stop, if it’s coming, of that I am sure. It is an eclectic crowd- the usual suspects who have slowly grown to become must-have attendees at the Martinez-Abbady Seder year after year after year. Most Jewish celebrations in this household really are all about the food with a sprinkling of Judaism for added decoration dusted on the guests without them even knowing about it. Pesach is no exception.
Passover in my childhood Venezuela was more or less flip-flopped on this principle: in a country with Roman Catholicism running steadily through its veins, my Israeli father saw it as principle to conduct an extremely rigorous and lengthy ceremonial rebuttal through the celebration of Passover. Every Israeli within a 200-mile radius seemed to be invited to our house for Passover. I was forced to wear a dress and gingerly placed between my mother and father where I pouted and longed to be in my regular hangout, the kitchen, with my beloved nanny Yolanda. And even though, I’ll admit so many years later, I always had fun (a combo of my charismatic father’s storytelling abilities and the endless supply of ridiculously sweet Manischewitz wine) those Seders where always long and the wait for food endless.
Fast forward to the Martinez clan circa 2003. With two young children in tow and an obsession with bright, silly cartoon characters, we found ourselves with the uncontrollable urge to purchase the 20-page Haggadah rendition of the annoying yet loveable television show “The Rugrats” popular at that time. We figured it would be good for a year or two- while the kids’ attention span with that of a hyperactive flea. What perfect way to retell the freedom of the Jews but with bright pictures detailing festive antics of siblings Tommie and Angelica hearing their grandpa Boris recount the story celebrating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt ? The whole event took seven minutes, ten, tops, if we had everyone read a line or two. Guilt for not being Jewish enough dissolved as laughter took over and we realized that the adults where enjoying this more than the kids! In between we added our own personal touches: parting the Red Sea (just as the Haggadah tells us Moses did) was a mandatory event: everyone had to rise from their spot and run through the slivered sea life shower curtain that hung on the open front door.
While reading about how the Jews marked their doorposts with lamb’s blood so that God would pass over them when killing the Egyptian’s first-born sons, everyone put down their books and ran outside to mark the front of our house which waited covered in craft paper.
It ended up looking more like a Jackson Pollock study on the color red, but, the kids (and again, the adults) had loads of fun.
The ten plagues discussed in the Haggadah included infestation of locusts and frogs and we offered plenty plastic versions of those- all readily and stealthily tossed at each other throughout the night.
The event went off with nary a temper tantrum and the next year, the same cast of characters (the majority of them not even Jewish) eagerly volunteered to return.
There was the usual courteous questions of what to bring, what did I need, but each participant ended their niceties with the same quiet question brimming with anticipation:
“Will you be doing a Rugrats Seder again this year?”
And so I found myself unable to say no. And the kids kept getting older. And older. And now, for crying out loud, they are practically teenagers, which makes us, well, ridiculously old and certainly past the expiration date for Tommie and Angelica. But Rugrats holds to the Martinez clan just as steadfast as matzo-ball soup in our Seder tradition. I wonder how many more years we can get away with it? Then I think, if I have enough bottles of Manischewitz wine flowing, I can get away with anything.