While many Jewish outlets and friends have been answering the central question of Passover, “Ma Nishtana…?” — “Why is this night different from all other nights?” within the sphere of the coronavirus (see: Zoom seders, or “Zeders”!), for me and my family of two, the answer is separate from today’s pulsing pandemic.
For several years now as a mostly-grown-up person on my own, I’ve honored the holiday by purchasing one token box of matzah that sits nearly full in my cupboard until the next year when I try to determine if there really is such a thing as stale matzah. Sure, I’ll eat a piece or two with some tuna salad, maybe even soften some butter to slather it and eat with my morning eggs, but that’s really the extent. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to several seders (the traditional Passover meal) over my years as a wandering Jew — from a 4-hour long one with amusing, hard-of-hearing relatives one-upping each other vociferously and with Eastern European accents about the horrors plane travel to a child-friendly seder replete with plastic finger-puppets and frogs to throw at one another during the recitation of the plagues that befell the Egyptian people.
But, for me, the days of a “family seder” are long-past since my parents parted in my late teens. My mom has made her efforts of seating folks around a collapsible table in her Manhattan studio apartment and my dad had enjoyed his seders in the company of his soon-to-be ex-wife’s family, but these all took place 3,000 miles from their California-rooted daughter.
And so it was, with not a little trepidation, that I undertook the creation of a seder of my own this year.
Those familiar with the holiday know the layers of family tradition, family bloopers, and family reminiscences that weave throughout the making of this “dinner.” You know the arguments and boasting about the best consistency for a matzah ball, about the trials and lamentations of roasting a brisket to moist tenderness, and you know the general air of activity and festivity that emanates from a home where seder is being prepared.
And while J, a goy, can’t tell me whether his family falls stalwartly in the dense or airy matzah ball camp, I can surely tell him that the right way is dense — and he cannot contradict me!
I wasn’t altogether sure what my observation of the holiday would be as I walked into the local kosher butcher last week, replete with face mask and latex gloves. But, as I walked the teeny aisles trying to not freak out about others’ proximity, I picked up a few items and a few memories of seders gone by. I picked up items that I put back, imagining that, no, I wouldn’t be attempting aforementioned matzah balls — too risky — and deciding I wouldn’t subject J or myself to some staples of my own childhood seders, like the ubiquitous chocolate-covered jelly rings or jelly-suspended gefilte fish.
That said, I did come out with some “gesture” Passover foods: matzah (egg, of course), chocolate-covered matzah (dark, of course), and coconut macaroons (no, not those French sandwich cookies!).
I set them on my mantle at home, took a stylized photo to send to family and friends, and captioned it my “nod to the holiday.”
But, as day turned to night and day again, I wondered if I myself could cook a holiday meal after all. My chief hesitance was that the food wouldn’t turn out well, but with only J and me to choke down whatever #epicfail would result, why the hell not?
And so, I looked up recipes for Instant Pot brisket and Instant Pot chicken soup, and went Sunday morning back down to the butcher for a 3-pound kosher brisket(!) and a box of matzah meal. I bought an honest-to-god horseradish root as stores were completely out of the prepared kind. I googled “How to make your own prepared horseradish” and “How to make your own charoset” — and I did my best to find recipes that most closely resembled how my mom used to make them.
And finally, on Wednesday morning, the first day of my Spring Break from teaching and the day of the big night’s meal, I opened the Haggadah. It’s one my mom mailed me a few years ago with cartoon illustrations and transliteration — plus it’s super short, which I knew would please the husband (and myself if I’m being honest!).
I flipped to the back where it very nicely taught you “How to set a Seder table” and began to assemble the pieces I’d need for the seder plate, gathering the smallest bowls we own to set on the largest plate we own.
And I began to cook.
The seder itself was lovely, my husband and I taking turns reading from our one copy. Him calling “A-mein!” whenever I poked or eyeballed him at the end of a prayer. Us pretending to wash our hands in non-existent water (swish swish drip drip). My hiding the afikomen from him but giving a too-obvious hint! There were “oops”es like the omigod-too-salty horseradish, and when I forgot to leave the cup for Elijah at the start of the seder, like my dad did. And telling J, also per my dad’s tradition, to retrieve the cup and drink it on the way back to the table, pretending innocently that Elijah the prophet really did come and drink it!
Over the meal, we shared answers to Passover-related questions: What habits, of mind or body, do I want to be free from?; What has changed since last year’s seder (Hint: We got married!); and Where do we still see a lack of freedom in the world and what efforts will we take to help rectify it?
As the candles died down and our can-I-say delicious meal digested in our bellies, I felt a pride of accomplishment that I hadn’t known before. I was, for the first time, a real Jewish wife. I was a balabusta.