Every year, around this time, it starts; emails start rolling in, all “I’m dating a Jewish guy and he’s taking me to his family’s Passover seder. What do I do?" “What is 'the frog song' my kid is asking me to sing?” ”Do you have a good matzah ball recipe?” and “Four cups of wine at a seder is REQUIRED?” And while I dash off quick (but ostensibly informative?) answers, a lot of them have been similar, and so I decided that this year, I’m finally going to put together a proper Ask A Jew: Passover Edition post.
Some of these are a few years old, and some of them are brand new (after I solicited questions from Twitter earlier this evening), but it’s my hope that this post will arm you with everything you need to know about Passover.
Before we begin, my standard “Ask a Jew” disclaimer: I am not an expert, nor do I claim to be perfect in my observance. This is my understanding and my interpretation. Yours may be different, and we can all learn something from each other and still be right in our own ways. In fact, I’d LOVE to hear if you know of a different explanation, or have a question, but please be courteous.
What is the actual Passover story and what is the thing with blood ?
Okay, until I had received this question, I didn’t realize that this actually IS a very blood-intensive holiday, because my immediate thought was, “wait; WHICH blood thing”? This should be a fun explanation. First things first:
For those of you who have not seen The Ten Commandments( and subsequently developed inappropriate crushes on Moses/Charlton Heston WHAT I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT), Passover celebrates the Jews' exodus from Egypt a frillion years ago. At the time, the Jews were enslaved by an evil pharaoh who refused to free them, and God -- through Moses -- brought the Ten Plagues upon the Egyptians (giving Pharaoh multiple chances throughout to free the Jews, before bringing on the subsequent onslaught of plagues). Finally, he relented and the Jews were emancipated. Yes, just like Mimi. The focal point of the holiday’s celebration is the seder (more on that in a minute).
As for “the thing with blood,” well, this can be one of a few things. The first of the Ten Plagues was blood, wherein all the water in Egypt turned to...blood. So, that’s Possible Blood Thing #1. Possible Blood Thing #2 is that the last of the plagues was, um, death of the firstborn (SO CHEERY THIS IS), and so, in advance of it, God commanded the Jews that, in order to be spared, they should sacrifice a lamb (I AM JUST REPORTING THE STORY FROM THE BIBLE, YOU GUYS), make a feast, and paint the doorposts of their homes with the lamb's blood so that he would literally pass over their houses when the plague, uh, swept on through. (And, yes, God is omnipotent, but this was less about him, and more about it being a test of faith for the Jewish slaves.) And finally, Possible Blood Thing #3 is…Blood libels? In the Middle Ages? I guess? If so: I PROMISE, YOU GUYS. WE DIDN’T DO IT.
Why don’t you eat bread on Passover?
At the time when Pharaoh told the Jews to leave, Egypt was basically PLAGUEVILLE, and he was anxious for them to leave. The Jews tossed their bread dough in their packs and hit the road, and as they made their way out of Egypt and into the hot desert, the dough baked into hard, flat cakes. We give a nod to that by not eating bread, and any type of food that has yeast and/or is fermented during the holiday.
Much of our diet during this time revolves around matzah, a large, square cracker-y thing that’s supposed to be akin to the aforementioned Hasty Desert Dough Crackers. No grilled cheese, no cupcakes, no pizza. I’ll be honest with you: it’s not super easy by any means, but another, more positive explanation (which I’ve mentioned in a prior post) is that matzah is plain, bland, and flat; it symbolizes our humble beginnings as slaves, and reminds us to be grateful for our freedom, and not be “puffed up” (metaphorically speaking) like bread and other leavened products. Which leads me into the next question…
Why am I seeing “Passover kosher” labels on food in the grocery store?
So, I’ve covered the general concept of “kosher” in an earlier post; for Passover, however, here, there’s the added challenge of finding not only kosher food, but kosher foods whose ingredients comport with the” no fermentation/yeast” thing. Fortunately, there’s a huge market for (and abundance of) kosher-for-Passover stuff, at least where I live (New York).
Do you have a good matzah ball recipe?
No. I mean, I did, but lately, they’ve been kind of dense and leaden. I’ve turned matzah ball making duties over to J, who’s some sort of matzah ball zen master. I have grand plans of recording him in action, cooking show-style, to learn his secrets.
My granny just told me about a matzah/caramel/chocolate/almond recipe (frozen). Do you know of such a thing?
INDEED I DO. Some of my favorite Passover food memories involve making this with my mom when I was a kid. We just called in “matzah candy,” but I much prefer Deb’s name, Chocolate Caramel Crack(ers). Her recipe for it is phenomenal, and yes, this treat tastes fantastic when it’s frozen. Enjoy!
What happens at a Seder?
The seder is the big festive meal that kicks off Passover. I should point out, though, that before you get to the actual meal part, there is A LOT OF TALKING AND POSSIBLY SINGING. It’s not bad, or anything, I’m just trying to manage any expectations you may have of eating quickly. (On the bright side, drinking four cups of wine is an integral part of the seder. Score!) The seder revolves around the retelling of the story of the exodus from Egypt, and if there are children present, prepare yourself for hearing all of their Passover songs and stories from school.
I hope that covers it. Happy Passover!
(Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it in!)