This is a divergence from my usual posts to write about an experience I really enjoyed recently. Although I grew up in a Christian home, went to church regularly and read the Bible, my first Seder dinner brought the story of Moses—and I think the spirit many religions encourage—into much brighter focus than I remembered it. With that, filed aptly under “eat” and “drink” tabs, this is the story of my first Seder.
The Seder dinner is part of a Jewish celebration of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), which is the Biblical series of events that culminated with the Jewish people getting out from under the Pharoah’s rule and, very importantly, out of bondage. I didn’t realize it until I was researching for this post, but I think the Seder is what you do at the dinner as opposed to the name of the dinner. It’s a detail I need to ask about. Quick note on the cover photo. It’s a cup reserved for Elijah. Given that Elijah lived well after the time of Moses, you might be wondering how he got a seat at the table. Here and (much more detailed here) are two explanations I found. Okay, I titled this post with the word Dayenu, which I understand translates into “it would have sufficed.” The reason I led with that is because this was a song we sung part way through the Seder and it captured something that, as an outsider looking in, I found refreshing (full lyrics in song here). This post will occasionally slide into the humorous and off-beat, but not just yet. What I found refreshing was the spirit of the song, which I took to be about being thankful for the good fortune we have. Let me back up just a minute and set the stage a bit.
We rode up as guests of two of our very good friends to one of their parents’ homes. Being invited inside a home always feels special to me because I believe that a home represents, in part at least, both a person’s hard work to make a decent life and a personal window into what a person values. So, I take it seriously whether it’s an apartment a small home or a mansion. This was made more special by the point my friend’s parents made explaining the core value of Passover. It’s a requirement that Jewish people sort of acknowledge those less fortunate as part of this event and, I think, all are supposed to be welcome. It’s been a week so I might be losing the exact detail, but I definitely had an ongoing feeling that concern for humanity was really important in the teaching. This was a highlight of the dinner for me, but of course as I tend to write about eating and drinking, I suppose I can turn to that, too.
Cutting right to the chase, this soup was great. If you took out the yeast in noodles and didn’t include chicken, it would be what’s left of a really good chicken noodle soup. Oh, I mean if you added in a big matzah ball in the middle. Matzah, as best I can figure, is what happens with bread when you don’t have time to add in yeast because you are fleeing for your life. Or maybe when you are stuck out in a desert for a really long time. Again, my memory is failing me, but its part of the tradition to only have unleavened bread and I believe I learned that’s because either the Pharoah’s thugs were hot on Moses’ trail or because they had to make do with what they had in the desert after they got away and were wandering. Either way, what survived was a delicious treat. Yes, technically that’s a bottle of Manischewitz wine in the background (and yes, that does appear to be Newark Mayor Cory Booker in the photo on the home page – I didn’t read enough to tell whether he is Jewish, but good for him, I think he’s a great leader).
Quick aside, our hosts were actually celebrating the 100th Seder in America – almost to the day – for their families. Think about that. Knowing that your grandparents got here with next to nothing but managed to preserve their religious identity while building a new life from the ground up is pretty cool I think. I am not able to address the foods in order – though a fairly regimented order did exist. But I can tell you we had several types of Haroset, which is a mixture of fruit, nuts, cinnamon and a few other spices. We had this one
And this one
There was a Turkish version, but I’m not entirely sure I tried it. The Persian was my favorite. The point of the Haroset was to be symbolic of the mortar the Jews used to build cities while enslaved in Egypt. It actually makes a lot more sense to me now why there were so many Jewish freedom riders during the Civil Rights era. If you grow up understanding the bondage of your ancestors and are commanded to help anyone else get out of that situation, it stands to reason you probably feel a real sense of personal obligation to do something. I realize I may be taking the best aspects of religious faith and highlighting them, but really what’s wrong with that? I’m not a scholar of religion, so I can leave critical analyses of all nuances of faith and practice to someone else. This is just about our dinner with a little side commentary. Throughout the meal this was sitting on the table but we also ate the ones at each place setting.
Each of these foods also carried their own symbolism. The one that stands out to me is the adding of the orange to symbolize all other cultures. We actually dipped the hardboiled egg in saltwater, which I have to say is a WAY better way to salt an egg than sprinkling the dry version. You get a better coat, not as much actual salt, but still get the flavor. It’s really something I’m surprised isn’t more widely done. At one point in the meal we were served some gefilte fish.
I can’t say too much for the gefilte fish. It is probably an acquired taste, though I did learn the version I had was homemade, which I hear it not easy. The red stuff on top is horseradish, given its bright color with the addition of beets or at least beet juice. I don’t really have space to go into great detail about the four glasses of wine that are a mandatory part of the tradition – but what a great part of the tradition! The way I understand it, you are supposed to drink your entire glass at each of four specific times during the dinner. Since it’s a religious custom that pre-dates cars, I can understand how that might have went over a bit easier in the early days. Fortunately, our friends gave us enough cues to know how everything was going to go and we didn’t have to drink all four glasses in any case.
The best thing about this affair for me was embracing a culture I hadn’t seen in this way before with a family who were happy to open up their home. In some ways it reminds me of how I feel when I show people around my neighborhood or parts of the city that aren’t on tourist maps. The lens through which I saw and experienced this Seder dinner is probably hard for people who do this every year to really understand. My friend whose home it was is one of the more decent guys I’ve met as an adult, so I had a positive bias going in. But I really felt like the whole custom was the kind of positive affair we should have more of. It’s hard to discuss the cultural custom separate from the religious one, but I guess I saw them distinctly. It was easy, as an outsider, to see the benefits of opening one’s door, ostensibly for Elijah, for anyone who needed a place to come. It was good to think about the value placed both on family and on compassion for others that seemed to be repeated. Yes, there were songs of retribution towards oppressors and the history of every people on the planet is a complex one with different versions depending upon your vantage point. But on this night I was grateful to share an experience that was both a dining experience and a cultural one that I’d never seen in this way. Thanks for stopping by.