Spring is springing, sunlight hits the frontal lobe and we remember we are alive. Passover is currently passing and ends this Thursday, Easter was Sunday and the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims just so happens to be happening.
It won’t be for another 33 years that the big three religions of the world get to share the holy month of April.
Religion has always intrigued me. As a teenager, I went to the Hare Krishna temple in Boston to hear lectures and get free food.
After hitchhiking across Canada at 23, an adventure, inspired half by my Canadian girlfriend and half by Lowell native Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” I found myself at the Sikh Temple in Vancouver, listening to Hindu tales of spirituality and redemption while also conveniently eating free Indian food.
I’m not sure if it was my sense of spirituality or my stomach that guided me, but both were appeased. When I moved back to Boston I found myself in the apartment of Lama Migmar, a re-incarnated Tibetan Master, listening to ancient scripts and lectures but unfortunately not eating anything unless we visited the now defunct Tibetan restaurant in Central Square.
After reading the autobiography of Malcolm X at 18, I decided to observe the fast and didn’t eat anything until sundown for the entire month. Growing up Catholic to me meant Easter egg hunts and chocolate bunnies before and after mass. All building to the obligatory ham dinner with some form of potatoes and asparagus on the side.
An ex-girlfriend once brought me to her family’s Yom Kippur meal in Berkeley, California, but other than that I realized I had no knowledge of the awesome springtime ritual/meal enjoyed by millions and known as Passover. Religion might be better and less offensively told through food and drink, so grab a glass of Manischewitz and take a chill pill
I was lucky enough to sit with Rabbi Eve of Congregation Agudat Achim and learn a little about this ancient tradition and try to gain an understanding of Judaism and Passover. We spoke for over an hour and the following is my paraphrasing. Formal questions quickly turned into a casual conversation as the rabbi not only answered my questions but dug deeper into the rabbit holes I had laid out.
The rise in anti-semitic violence nationally is all over the news. Robert Kraft’s 2.4% blue square initiative was on my mind as I asked the following questions.
S&E: Thank You Rabbi Eve for taking the time to meet with me and answer a few questions. Where are you from?
Eichenholz: Long Island. Before coming to Leominster I had a synagogue in North Carolina. I started here in 2019 and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This was our first Passover feast since COVID.
S&E: What is it like being Jewish in Leominster
Eichenholz: Leominster is an amazing community. I began my work here right before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 so there have been many challenges. This Temple has been lucky enough to engage in youth outreach work. It was surprising that almost every youth in our congregation has experienced hate in some form. One student told of an incident where a whole bus had been airdropped images of the holocaust. This depicts not only anti-semitic images but ideas that are troubling to many groups.
Rabbi Eve reminded me that the Nazis were anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-Black, in addition to being anti-semitic.
S&E: How does the feast work? Do you cook or is it a potluck?
Eichenholz: Seder is both a feast and a ritual. It is the first or first two nights of Passover. There are many rules to be followed as to how the food is prepared and who can prepare it. This year our Temple had to source all the way to New York for the brisket and Connecticut for some of the side dishes. Everything that has “Chametz” had to be removed from the synagogue.
Eichenholz explained there are five ingredients that are considered “Chametz,” but many more that may contain it. The five main ingredients are wheat, barley, spelt, oat and rye. Chametz is removed from most Jewish homes, but especially from the synagogue during Passover.
“We have members who eat pork or consume meat and dairy together but during Passover Jews are encouraged to follow the stricter guidelines,” Eichenholz said, which include not eating pork and staying Kosher, the practice of keeping meat and dairy separate.
Pareve ingredients, the rabbi explained, are neutral. “Pareve items can be eaten with either meat or dairy, but dairy and meat cannot be eaten together.”
“The centerpiece of the Seder feast is the Seder plate and this plate contains three things that can be eaten and three that cannot,” Eichenholz explained.
First, there is the hard, the uneven. This can be a lamb shank or a turkey bone. It’s not to be eaten and is for show. So is the roasted egg. It shows the circle of life and is there for symbolism.
Lastly is the bitter herb. Endive or radicchio are commonly used. The bad one you don’t eat. There is also a good one that you do eat.
There is also a green herb that should be eaten after it is dipped in salt water first.
At this point, I couldn’t help but point out that, to an outsider, it sometimes seemed like a lot of rules and that sometimes the rules were hard to distinguish.
“Think of it as a spectrum,” Eichenholz instructed me. “There are rules that must be observed, but those rules are interpreted by each community depending on their needs. Sometimes it is socioeconomic like with baklava. In wealthier communities, it is made with pistachios but in most others, it is a more common and less expensive walnut that is used.”
Items that are allowed with the Seder meal start with a vegetable. Parsley is the most common, but in the middle of March it is still too cold to plant even a sprig of parsley. Potato is a cold winter substitute that grows everywhere and offends no one. Even my Irish ancestors knew that.
A blessing is said for the vegetable and it is then dipped in salt water. The saltwater signifies the tears cried during the exodus. Next comes the unleavened Matzoh.
Unleavened might be better translated as unfermented. Leavening agents such as baking soda may be used but it is the fermenting that is forbidden. This mixture has 18 minutes or less to get cooked. And, although this is a celebration, don’t even think about leftovers.
One of the principle tenets is the idea that you only make what you need. In ancient times, families would be encouraged to only slaughter what their family needed. If livestock had made the most of their short life and outgrown the meager family needs it was encouraged to share with a neighbor or neighbors until the feast was done. Not only were leftovers forbidden, those who refused to throw away their excess were not only shut off but spurned by society.
So only make what you need. A good rule at any time. We have two items that can be eaten on the Seder plate after the Matzoh.
First is the bitter thing. Didn’t we just do a bitter thing? Yes! And that’s the point. Life was rough for the Jews and this feast is meant to fill you up, but also make you remember to, as the rabbi said, ask questions.
Horseradish is common on the good side of bitter things to eat. The rabbi mentioned that her family chose more bitter things than horseradish. Seems fitting for a rabbi’s family. The less strict option goes great with brisket but it’s hard to find a direct correlation.
Lastly is the Charoset. This combination of apples, walnuts, cinnamon and sugar is meant to offset the bitterness of the herbs. It is also meant to signify the enslavement of the Jewish people by the Egyptians.
Passover, after all, is a holiday to symbolize the mass exodus of those peoples from Egypt and their freedom. Making the feast as tasty as possible is not a requisite but it does seem as though certain rules can be bent In the name of flavor. Yum might be a Yiddish word.
I have been invited to a full Seder dinner next Passover and can’t wait to share a recipe at that time.