To be honest, I’ve only really vaguely heard of Passover and I’ve never tasted any of the classic Jewish dishes that I’ve heard of like Gefilte Fish or Chicken Soup with matzo balls.
So when my Jewish friend Lisa, from New York, started telling me Bible stories, I was hooked.
Remember, Jewish is not just a religion but also a culture, so whilst Lisa and her family are secular Jews, one thing her family always celebrated was Passover. They celebrate Passover because it’s a celebration of freedom, freedom for the Jews but also people all around the world who are oppressed. The full “Seder” or religious passover meal, has many symbolic rituals such as the eating of eggs to symbolise new life, bitter herbs to remind you of the bitterness of life as slaves, and spring greens to celebrate new life and freedom. Lisa will not cook the full Seder for us but will cook many of the traditional dishes that she ate as a child. In fact she told me that she used to make gefilte fish with her grandmother – her mother never made it herself.
The condensed story behind Passover goes as follows, if you want a reminder of Sunday School or your Old Testament, or even the Quran, where there is a mention of the plagues:
The Jews were slaves in Egypt. They were subject to many persecutions such as the slaughter of the first-born sons – which is where we get Moses baskets from – and were continually trying to escape. It took the 10 plagues (which many scientists now believe is historical fact) to get Pharaoh to let them go. It was the last plague, the plague of the firstborn Egyptians, that led to name Passover – as the “avenging angel” or whatever passed over the Jewish houses. “Let my people go” the old Negro spiritual, must have roused a lot of empathy with those modern-day slaves. Because Pharaoh kept changing his mind, when he agreed, the Jews fled Egypt, into the desert, with nearly no preparations. All they had was the flour made from the first harvest of wheat, and because they were wandering around in the desert, they did not have the ability to bake bread. So they made an unleavened bread, like crackers, which they baked in the sun. Today, these Matzo crackers (still made from the first wheat harvest), are still traditionally eaten at Passover, in fact leavened bread is specifically forbidden in the Torah for passover. Actually those Jews got pretty hopelessly lost, because apparently they were wandering around for 40 years...
And her stories reminded me how interconnected Christianity, which is what I was brought up with, Judaism and even Islam are. Why do Passover and Easter co-incide? because “the Last Supper” was actually a Passover meal, a Seder. If you’ve ever taken holy communion – I used to wonder why the bread was flat not puffy. Now I know. (By the way, Da Vinci got it wrong, he painted Italian bread!)
The 13th April has the last evening of Passover this year. “All who are hungry can come and eat” is the translation of an Aramaic prayer (I heard Aramaic actually spoken in Syria, it still survives there as a spoken language in a town called Maaloula). Although we only have 14 spaces, and cannot feed the 5,000, we can celebrate the freedom we have and think about those people who are not free (Lisa thinks of Jews in Belarus and Moldova where there is little religious freedom, no doubt we will also think of the Syrians and Iranians too)
This is the menu Lisa has proposed:
Gefilte fish balls with horseradish sauce and Matzo. Horseradish is one of the traditional “bitter herbs”
Chicken soup with Kneidlach (Matzo balls)
Passover Spinach Pie (with Matzo pastry). Spinach will be our “spring green”
Carrot Tsimmes with Charoset – Candied carrots with Apple/Walnut chutney
Salmon with Dill Beurre Blanc
Garlic Herb & Lemon Chicken
Broccoli and potato kugle
Selection of Passover Desserts:
Macaroons made with almonds and rosewater
Flourless Chocolate cake
Flourless Ricotta cake
It all sounds delicious – please e-mail us on firstname.lastname@example.org with bookings, it will cost £40 of which the usual £35 will go to help oppressed people who need medical care via MSF.