Passover isn’t an easy holiday to understand from an outsider’s perspective. It seems that Jews just eat large crackers and whine about constipation. And in a sense, that’s completely true. But there is so much of Passover that’s left unsaid between friends, Jews and Gentiles alike.
So consider me your Jewish friend who will get you through the Jewish holiday without feeling like a total schmo. Whether you are attending a Seder, or just deciding to avoid the weekly baker’s dozen, this guide will help you understand Passover’s traditions and decipher the difference between matzo meal and matzo balls.
Splitting the sea: Moses’ E! True Hollywood Story
The biblical story of Passover, told in Exodus, is one of the most fascinating and complex stories in the Jewish religion. In fact, it has been the key story of several movies including 1956’s The Ten Commandments (which is on television every year, and with a three-hour plus runtime, feels longer than the holiday itself). Of course, there is also 1998’s animated Dreamworks version, The Prince of Egypt, which is fun (Mariah Carey and Whitney Huoston sing on the soundtrack) but historically inaccurate (Moses looks barely over 30-years-old when he should be way older upon his return to Egypt).
The real story harks back to a time in Egypt when the Jewish population was growing at a steady rate, so much so that the Egyptian Pharaoh was concerned that the minority would possibly dissent. The Pharaoh declared that all male Hebrew born children be drowned in the Nile. Moses’ mother, however, kept Moses hidden and decided to put him in a woven basket in the Nile, and let him float away (with his sister Miriam watching from the shoreline). Moses was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who then adopted the baby as her own. He was given the name Moses because it means “drawn out of the water.”
Moses grew up unaware of his Jewish roots or his floating adoption. The situation for the Jews worsened as they became the Pharaoh’s slaves. One day, Moses witnessed an Egyptian soldier beating a Hebrew and killed the soldier before burying him in the sand. There was an eyewitness, and Moses fled, fearing that Pharaoh would sentence him to death.
Moses went on to become a shepherd in Midian, where he married his wife (Tzippora) and settled for about 40 years. Then, as Moses was herding his sheep, he noticed a burning bush that wasn’t being consumed by the fire. That’s when God spoke to Moses, telling him to take off his sandals, for he stood on holy ground. God told Moses to go back to Egypt and free the Hebrews from enslavement. Moses was intially reluctant due to a speech impediment he had since childhood, so his brother Aaron was sent with him.
At first, Moses and Aaron met with Pharaoh, saying the God of the Hebrews wanted Pharaoh to let them go. Moses proved God was on his side by transforming his wooden staff into a snake. Pharaoh, unimpressed, asked his magicians to do the same, which they did (using a trained snake trick). Moses was then told by God to inflict 10 plagues on Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, so that he would have no choice but to set the Jews free. The plagues started small, turning drinking water to blood, then inundating the city with frogs, then inflicting lice on the Egyptians and so on and so forth.
The 10th plague, however, was the most serious: the death of every Egyptian first born. The Jews were instructed to sacrifice a lamb, and paint their doorposts with its blood. This way, the Angel of Death would pass over the Jewish homes (get it? pass over) and only target the Egyptians.
After Pharaoh’s son died in the final plague, he decided to let the Jews go. Rushed to leave, there wasn’t time to let the bread rise for their trip, so the Jews fled with unleavened bread, called matzo.
By that time, Pharaoh had a change of heart, and decided to pursue the Jews. Having nowhere to flee, Moses split the Red Sea with his staff, and the Jews were able to walk through. Pharaoh and his soldiers, coming up from behind, were caught in the middle and ultimately drowned.
Later, Moses brought the Jews to Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments.
The Seder: I have a question, WTF?
The Seder is the special meal that happens on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday. The point of the dinner is to retell the story of Passover and to commemorate the pain and the suffering with food (very Martha Stewart in design).
Families read the Haggadah, a text with some tales, some songs, but most importantly, the story of Passover. You cannot begin a Seder until the sun has set and you cannot eat until the story is told. You’re in for a bumpy ride, but the rituals will keep your hunger at bay.
While retelling the story, you must eat certain foods: bitter herbs (maror) to remember the tears of the Jewish slaves as well as a sweet fruit spread made of dates (charoset) to remember the clay used by the Jews to bond bricks in their construction enslavement. These food items are generally placed on a plate with other symbolic foods, like a hardboiled egg and a shank bone. The evening is sort of like dinner theatre at the Segal Centre; you get a story about the Hebrews, a table full of kosher food and my grandmother asking when the intermission is.
Then the four questions are asked by the youngest at the table (amidst hand washing, and other matzo splitting rituals). Recited in song, the child asks why tonight is different from all other nights, and the family answers. In short, it’s because it’s Passover. Now let’s eat already!
Floaters or sinkers: food traditions that give you pause
A debate that has raged within my family for years is whether matzo balls should float or sink when placed in soup.
Matzo balls are literally balls of crushed matzo (or matzo meal) combined with egg and oil, which are then boiled and served in soup. Jews eat the unleavened bread, matzos (pronounced mat-zah), on Passover to remember the struggles of the Jewish people in Egypt while also symbolizing freedom. We eat matzo balls, however, because they taste damn good.
Now, the density of these matzo balls is a point of contention. My paternal grandmother believes they should float (being nice and fluffy), while my maternal family believes they should sink, as they are denser and more compact. Either way, I wouldn’t turn away a matzo ball on Passover.
Cooking during the holiday is extremely difficult. You cannot bake anything with chametz, meaning no wheat, barley, rye oats or spelt allowed. So no bread, cake or beer are consumed, which is a big downer considering that all your Christian friends are looking for chocolate in the shape of eggs in their backyards. Moses is great and all, but his food doesn’t have a gooey cream center like Cadbury eggs. Just sayin’.
There is also debate about certain grains. For instance, Ashkenazi Jews (from Eastern Europe) don’t eat rice, while Sephardic Jews (from the Middle East) do. I’m half, so I indulge even though my mother disapproves.
As for the big assumption that everyone gets constipated over the holiday? It’s safe to assume that it’s not an assumption. Eating all that matzo, you will feel like you have a Batman action figure shoved up your ass. The trick? Eat some egg matzo, it’ll help you pull through.
Getting drunk and waiting for a prophet to show up
As the Seder progresses, the entertainment value increases.
Firstly, there is an obligation to drink four full cups of red wine during the Seder, and let me tell you, the Manischewitz (sweet kosher wine) can really go to your head fast.
The key is to make sure that whoever is leading the Seder is well equipped to drink a bucket-load of red wine. Otherwise, you end up with your uncle Marvin making not-so-subtle-sexual innuendos with your aunt. Suffice to say, I’ll never look at a matzo ball the same way.
Towards the end of the dinner, the door is left open for the Prophet Elijah, with a cup of wine awaiting him. It’s sort of like Santa Claus for Jews, but instead of milk and cookies we like to get our prophets drunk. Also, depending on your neighborhood, you may want to keep your doors locked. After all that wine, you’re likely to let any wandering stranger claiming to be a prophet walk into your home.
Avrashi matzo meal chocolate chip cookie recipe
Nothing will get you through the Passover holiday like my family’s matzo cookies. Seriously, I would not survive without this sweet treat. It’s so good, I’d consider eating it over regular cookies throughout the year (and that’s saying something).
1 cup matzo meal
1 cup sugar
1 cup matzo farfel (ground-up matzo)
1 cup chocolate chips
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup of oil
Combine ingredients in order given. Scoop ping-pong ball size portions of the mixture and place them 2 inches apart on greased baking sheet. Bake 350Â° Celsius for 25 to 30 minutes.
Makes about two dozen.