Passover is a time of family get-togethers and celebration.
It’s a highlight of my year, but a busy time as well with all the preparation. This year, due to social distancing, we can’t have family or friends around, so it is just my wife and I. It’s encouraging us to focus on the essential and simple things in our lives and also to remember the past.
When I was growing up in Chester my parents kept a Jewish home but we did not keep the Sabbath strictly or all of the festivals. We did not go to the synagogue regularly. But one thing we did do was to celebrate Passover with its celebratory meal – the Seder.
The additional dietary rules for Passover specify that we should eat nothing that contains or has been in contact with yeast. The weeks immediately before Passover were really pressured for my mother. We had to swap over all of our crockery and cutlery for spare sets, kept in a cupboard in the garage. The cupboards containing the ‘rest of the year’ crockery and supplies were tied shut.
The Jewish community in Chester was small, so we had to travel to a store in Liverpool for our Passover supplies. My mother made special Passover recipes for her cakes (no flour made from grains allowed).
Two of the dishes that she used to make were eingemachtes – a beetroot relish or jam – and ingbers – a carrot and ginger sweet.
My father and I used to like bowls of eingemachtes with our breakfast, and we were allowed to sample it before Pesach. But one year, when I was a teenager, we ate the whole supply before the festival started. My mum was none too pleased at having to make another load!
We all loved the hard ingbers as an after dinner sweet, but making them drove my mum mad. She had to ladle out the boiling mixture from the pan onto a cold worktop, spread it out with a spatula, and if the consistency was not right, she had to scrape it all up and put it back in the pan to thicken up – and again and again. I only really appreciated the effort involved when I tried to make them the first year after I got married, with absolutely no success.
Jews are commanded in the Bible to remove all leavened foods (those made with yeast) from our houses before Passover. We are also commanded to educate our children in our heritage and encourage them to play an active part in the rituals.
As a young boy, I used to take part with my father the night before Passover in the traditional search for leavened foods. Beforehand my parents had hidden a piece of bread in each room, and my father and I would go round with a candle, dustpan and a feather (to be used as a brush) to search for the bread in each room.
The highlight was always the Seder meal on the first two nights. The first night was normally held in our house, the second at my paternal uncle’s down the road.
In our house we were joined by my mother’s brother and his family. We started off by reading the Haggadah – the traditional service. And right near the start was my party piece – asking in Hebrew the four questions on why this night was different from all others. This is an honour normally given to the youngest present and the rest of the service is a response to the questions.
After many traditional rituals – which we still keep today – we came to the meal that my mother had prepared. More than a meal – a banquet. After eating a hard boiled egg in salt water (yuck!) symbolising new life coming out of the bitterness of slavery, there was chicken liver pate, then chicken soup with dumplings, roast chicken, and various desserts. How we ate it all I don’t know – I couldn’t eat a meal like that now!
After the end of the meal but before the final part of the service, I and all the other children would chase round the house searching for a piece of unleavened bread hidden by my father. There was much shouting and fighting in the race to find it, for the winner got a prize.
The whole proceedings ended with a singsong of traditional tunes before we went into the living room for coffee, cake and…ingbers!
And the following night we did it all again at my uncle’s.
Over the years, as families drifted apart, the Seder changed to include just our immediate family, but the traditions remained the same. When my parents divorced, it was my mum, a friend and me – and I had to quickly learn how to lead the service and to prepare all of the ritual dishes for the table.
These are the traditions I maintain today.
But we are also encouraged to make the whole service meaningful and relevant to our circumstances today. So while the structure of the service varies according to who is around the table, I blend the traditional readings with a variety of more recent readings either focusing on the lessons of our sages for how we should behave towards others or on the Holocaust and other persecutions. No doubt this year coronavirus will be a topic at the table!
As my Rabbi said a few weeks ago, we are now being told to stay at home to avoid a disease. 3500 years ago, God told our ancestors to stay at home while the last of the Ten Plagues raged around them. Synchronicity?
Holocaust Exhibition & Learning Centre Volunteer