A Passover Seder and a Last Supper
In past years I’ve joked about the kind of Passover seder I might host employing the “Two-Minute Haggadah — A Passover Service for the Impatient” and the “seder plate” my daughter made at school when she was a mere seven years old.
A “seder” is the traditional meal centered around retelling of the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. The haggadah is the book from which the retelling of the story is recited. The seder plate is a platter on which the various paschal symbols are arranged: a roasted egg, a bit of parsley, “charoset,” a lamb bone, horseradish and “matzos.” In this case, the plate is plastic on which my daughter drew in markers the various symbols — a grammar school project when she was younger (It’s become a family treasure.)
Charoset is a mixture of apples, nuts, wine, honey and nuts spiced with cinnamon — and other things depending on the recipe of choice, that symbolizes the mortar (or mud used to make adobe bricks) which the Israelites used when they were enslaved in ancient Egypt. The word “charoset” comes from the Hebrew word “cheres” or “clay.” Charoset has always been top of the list of Passover treats and making it gives me particular delight. The recipe I use is traditionally Ashkenazi (with walnuts) while Sephardi style adds pears, raisins, figs, orange juice and pine nuts. No matter what recipe you use, it’s delicious, particularly on matzo with a bit of horseradish. (As I write this, I am munching on this very concoction and making a huge mess on the desk with the matzo crumbs and red horseradish!)
This year there was only one Jewish friend interested in putting together a seder, so in spite of the small number at the table, we decided to go all the way. “All the way” meant putting together a traditional meal, reading from the haggadah and getting drunk on the obligatory four glasses of wine.
Like any Parisian setting out to put together such a meal, I headed over to rue des Rosiers to find “gefilte fish” — an Ashkenazi dish made from a poached mixture of ground boned fish, such as carp, whitefish or pike, which is eaten as an appetizer with horseradish (“raifort” in French). The young man in a “yarmelke” (a skullcap worn by the Orthodox or Conservative Jewish men) at Panzer (at number 26) almost read my mind before I asked and dropped into a bag a jar of gefilte fish along with a little tub of red horseradish — the milder kind with grated beets. Just those two items were a whopping 15€!…but what the hell…it’s Passover!
My grandmother used to make gefilte fish from scratch. I can remember vividly the big carp she’d buy and the process that took all day to turn it into oval-shaped balls. Like she served it, I placed them on a bed of lettuce, added sliced beets and set the horseradish in a bowl nearby.
At the market, matzos were easy to find, particularly in the markets of Le Marais which remains the home of the Ashkenazi community even though it was virtually annihilated during World War II. I squeezed the various kinds of apples till finding the hardest and crispiest and bagged a healthy amount of unshelled walnuts. My friend picked up a roast chicken from the rôtisserie on rue de Bretagne and frozen asparagus from “Picard” packaged with its own sauce, chestnuts and mushrooms that took 10 minutes to sauté and serve. (We opted for a ten-minute preparation instead of a two-minute haggadah!)
On the bookshelf, with a little searching, we rediscovered about a dozen home-printed “haggadahs” leftover from a past community seder at the American Cathedral in Paris that funnily enough had passages about Passover from the New Testament printed on the back. We set the table with a bottle of French wine, hard boiled eggs (symbolizing the mourning over the destruction of the Temple), the seder plate, horseradish and gefilte fish, lit the candles and began our service.
We sang the prayers in English and Hebrew, we took turns reading the passages and we ate and drank until we were full and drunk. This is not meant to be a lesson in Judaic tradition, but I will tell you that for the first time in my life, regardless of how many Passover seders in which I have participated or hosted, I fully understood and took to heart the story of the freedom of the Israelites and how it relates to the political quandaries of our day. In the process, we were fascinated and enlightened by various aspects of the story:
While the Israelites rejoiced in their freedom when crossing the Red Sea and the waters closed around the Egyptians, they recall that God said, “How can you sing when my children are drowning?” — meaning one should always remember that lives are lost to give freedom to others. We should never forget and forever be remorseful.
And of the fours sons, one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who doesn’t know how to ask a question, we learn that what is most important is that they are all taught to question, rather than obey, regardless of who they are or what they ask.
Passover begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, on the night of a full moon after the northern vernal equinox, and lasts another seven days. Tomorrow I’m heading to Nice with a box of matzos in my suitcase to remind us all of the holiday and to welcome in the upcoming Easter weekend with close friends (of various religious persuasions)! Hopefully, however, like someone else we all know who celebrated Passover a couple thousand years ago, Easter Sunday dinner won’t be my ‘last supper!’
A la prochaine…(Happy Passover and Easter…from Nice)
Editor, Parler Paris & Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC
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