The company I work for–The Spur Group–embraces diversity and inclusion. Last week, they asked employees to share their Passover stories. Recalling the challenge I had finding matzah last year because the food chain was in a shambles due to COVID-19, I wrote the following:
I was the youngest of five grandchildren, and the only girl. At Passover, my cousins and my family would assemble at my grandparent’s bungalow in Burbank, CA. The week prior, my grandparents cobbled together several folding tables in their diminutive den so everyone could crowd around one long table, covered with freshly ironed bleach-white tablecloths, a wine glass at each setting, along with a kid-sized glass for tangy lemonade made from the sweet Meyer lemons that grew in their backyard.
Days before, my grandmother rolled dozens of matzah balls to hopefully bob and not sink in the clear chicken soup she’d be serving. She’d meticulously make two for each person. She also made itty-bitty meatballs—three for each person—that she’d later warm in a heavenly sweet and sour sauce. The soup and meatballs were served in small bowls, large enough to accommodate the table-wide crushing of matzah to sop up the sauce and round-out the soup.
There was also the gefilte fish course, one per person with a leaf of lettuce, and two slices of cooked carrot for garnish. We’d slather the gelatinous mounds of deliciousness with freshly grated horseradish, not to disguise the taste, but because Passover, and Jewish food in general, is about stimulating the palette: Sour pickles, bitter herbs, hard-boiled eggs and parsley dipped in salt water, crunchy matzah, and sweet haroset (grated apples, nuts, cinnamon, and wine).
And of course, the wine.
Before the guests arrived, my grandfather would sneak into the bedroom and pull out the nearly empty bottle of Manischewitz from the year before, believing it’d somehow mellowed with age. My grandmother was wise to his machinations, serving the newly purchased bottles of syrupy concord grape, kosher for Passover.
It’s no wonder most of my family are infrequent drinkers. The dreaded task of downing a glass of Manischewitz, let alone four at Passover, stifles the desire to drink wine for the rest of your life. Nevertheless, we obliged, happy to have something to drink, during the hour-long service, overseen by my grandfather and uncle.
As if the table wasn’t crowded enough with aunts, uncles, and cousins, there was always a setting for Elijah, a prophet who supposedly whooshes through open doors to partake in the festivities. I’d spend a great deal of the service and meal, watching Elijah’s glass of wine to see whether a ghost had indeed joined us.
Once we’d recited the Haggadah (narration of the Exodus), dipped parsley, fought back tears after taking a bite of horseradish sandwiched between matzah, lamented over the cooked lamb shank bone, hid the afikomen (piece of matzah eaten at the end of the meal after it was found), everyone dove into the food. The ubiquitous gefilte fish, sweet and sour meatballs, and chicken soup were necessary because my grandmother historically baked one chicken for five adults and five kids. And sometimes, other aunts joined the meal, further necessitating the parsing of the chicken. Supplementing the main course was dishes of dill pickles and carrot sticks, lightly cooked peas, and grated potatoes and onions baked in cupcake tins.
When I moved to Oregon, I attended seders at Gesher: A Bridge Home, an alternative synagogue in which a husband and wife, both rabbis, welcome unaffiliated Jews and intermarried families into their spacious home to celebrate the Sabbath and holidays. Their events spanned multiple rooms of tables with dozens of people, starting out as strangers when the first candle was lit and friends by the end of the evening.
I recall celebrating several seders at Gesher along with a particularly memorable evening, during Rosh Hashanah, nibbling on pomegranate seeds, chatting with the rabbi and several friends for hours after most of the guests had left.
Last year, with COVID-19 raging, I wanted to create a special holiday dinner for my husband. First on the list was sourcing matzah. I live on Whidbey Island, however, and by the time I started my matzah hunt, the handful of boxes on the shelves were gone. And the promise of them arriving in the coming days never materialized with the pandemic wreaking havoc on the grocery supply chain.
Without matzah, there is no Passover. It’s the central theme. When the Israelites left Egypt, there wasn’t time for their bread to rise. The unleavened bread, when baked, became matzah. Flat and crispy, matzah represents freedom and redemption, and the “poor man’s bread,” hence the need for humility.
Desperate, I decided to bake my own matzah. How hard could it be?
Humility. It’s what happens when you bake matzah that is the taste and texture of parchment!
Despite my matzah failure, Passover in the age of a pandemic was an opportunity to give thanks, remember past gatherings with friends and family, and a chance to commemorate my brave aunt whose china graced our holiday table. Having survived a concentration camp, she experienced the exultation of escaping from the horrors of bondage to the freedom of being able to recite Brachos (blessings).