Passover by Ellen Fenster


Today we will hear from Ellen Fenster, a practicing Jew and incredible chef, which comes together to make her the perfect person to explain and describe the meal surrounding the Jewish holiday-Passover. She is a big supporter of the local chefs association and encourages everyone to visit their site and consider becoming members.

The Jewish holiday Passover will begin at sundown Monday, April 14, and lasts for eight days. As in years past this holiday evokes memories from my childhood, of family gathered together, tradition, ritual, and meaning.

Passover is a celebration of freedom as the Jews, under the leadership of Moses, fled from slavery in ancient Egypt. To help free the Jews, G-d sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians. The final and worst plague, the “angel of death,” caused the death of every first-born child. The Jews were instructed to mark their doors with lamb’s blood so the plague would know to “pass over” and spare them — this is how the name Passover is commonly explained.

Passover begins with a ritual dinner called a Seder. In Hebrew, Seder means order. The dinner is conducted in a specific order using a special book. Family and friends take turns reading and retelling this story of freedom. There are blessings, questions, rituals, and songs to sing. I have always derived a feeling of connection from knowing that Jews around the world were all creating the same experience for their children as my parents had for me.


The star of the meal is the Passover Seder Plate. This plate holds six foods, each with a special meaning. Not all the foods on this plate are eaten. There is the roasted lamb bone, which represents the lamb slaughtered for its blood. Many people use a beef or chicken bone for convenience. Then there is a roasted egg made by boiling until the water evaporates and the shell starts to brown. The egg represents a sacrificial offering from ancient times. (Don’t roast the egg in an oven. I learned that the hard way — what a mess we had to clean up!).

Then there is “Maror,” or bitter herb. Most people these days use horseradish. It represents the bitterness of slavery. “Charoset” is a mixture of chopped apples, nuts and wine for Ashkenazi Jews, or other dried fruits for Sephardic Jews. This mixture represents the mortar used to build the pyramids. Karpas, a green vegetable, usually parsley, represents the freshness of spring. Lastly, the plate holds salt water to represent the tears of the slaves.

Another plate contains three pieces of Matzoh or unleaven bread covered with cloth. Matzoh is the “bread of haste” since the Jews had no time to let bread rise as they fled. Another piece of matzoh, the “Afikomen” is hidden for the children to find after the meal. The adults pay a ransom to the finder and the children look forward to the hunt and their reward. A typical Seder dinner for Ashkenazi Jews will include gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzoh balls, potato kugel (pudding), and brisket. Small pillows may be placed on the table for participants to lean on, showing that we are no longer slaves and can rest at will. A cup of wine is poured left untouched for the prophet Elijah, and the front door is opened to welcome him into our homes as a blessing.

During the eight days of Passover, Jews do not eat “Chametz,” which means leaven. Leaven is any substance that causes the bread to rise, like yeast. Anything mixed with chametz — wheat, rye, barley, oats or spelt — must be cleaned from the house and thrown away or sold to a non-Jew prior to the holiday. Many also avoid rice, corn peanuts, and beans or anything fermented except for Passover wine. My mother was frugal and could not bear to throw food out so she would put all the chametz in a paper bag and hide it in the back of our linen closet to save for future use.

Many Jewish holidays are commemorated with food, but none so much as Passover — freedom from slavery, ancient traditions, family, friends, and fabulous food. Now that is something to celebrate!

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