Yom Rishon shel Pesach

It's All About the Food
April 15, 2022Susan C. Bass WRJ Immediate Past President

This week’s Torah portion revisits the pivotal moment in the exodus from Egypt, when Miriam and Moses led the Israelites through the Sea of Reeds, to safety on the far side before the waters closed in, trapping and drowning the pursuing soldiers of the Pharoah. There, they experienced the first “taste” of freedom from the prior years of slavery, singing and dancing on the shore. Of course, today’s “taste” of that freedom begins with the modern-day interpretation of their unleavened bread, matzah.

Passover, as we called it in my childhood home. Preparations for the seder started almost two months beforehand, beginning with the invitation list, then the menu planning. Well, neither was exactly a mystery. In addition to the usual family members, Jewish students from a local university were included at our table. The menu? The “usual” assortment of dishes – albeit from a variety of sources. The matzah ball soup was amazingly consistent. On the morning of the seder, my mother took her 12-quart stock pot to the local deli, plopped it on the counter, and said, “Fill ‘er up!” Every year, there was a “new” dish, sort of an audition for future menus. The most memorable one was the addition of an apple farfel. It was added after one of my early Speakers Bureau visits to the sisterhood in Macon, Georgia, which included a “Passover Pot Luck” meal, held roughly 6 weeks BEFORE seder (thus allowing attendees to taste potential new recipes for their own meals). Ask a Jew anywhere about their strongest Jewish memories, and you will likely hear about a seder or two. 

Chanukah. Remember the delicious, satisfying crunch of a latke, fresh off of the paper towels where they were put to drain and cool? Combine that with the (pick one) cold sweetness of applesauce, or the sharp tang of sour cream….and achieve instant happiness! Sadly, it also meant that the whole home smelled from burning oil for 8 days – was THAT the actual purpose?? ;) LOL! Who knew that jelly-filled Munchkins were a Jewish ritual food??? Savoring the sufganiot (picked up that morning from the local Dunkin Donuts) is an annual favorite of children everywhere.

While other holidays and festivals have special foods connected to their observance, some based on tradition, some based on rabbinic interpretation, these seem to be the most widely loved. 

However, as much as we think about a particular food’s connection to a holiday or festival, there are times when we are told to REFRAIN from food. The Jewish calendar names six Fast Days. Two of these, the “major” fast days require fasting from sundown on one day until sundown on the next. The remaining four “minor” fast days require fasting only from sunrise to sundown. The characterization of these can be viewed as an overview of Judaism itself.

The two major fast days are Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), and are considered white (Yom Kippur) for creating a pure soul or a clean slate for the New Year, and black (Tisha v’Av) commemorating the destruction of the Temple. Black and white. The minor fast days include the Fast of Esther, observed the day before Purim. In the Book of Esther, we learn that Queen Esther fasted the day before she petitioned the King on behalf of the Jews of Persia. Also, the day leading into the first seder, the 14th of Nisan, is the Fast of the Firstborn, commemorating the sparing of the Israelite firstborns during the Plague of the Firstborn, as discussed in the traditional seder text. Only the firstborn are required to fast….

Delicatessens are a staple in cities around the world. Bagels have become ubiquitous, with many non-traditional flavors finding their way into bakeries and freezer cases. Seriously, blueberry bagels…sundried tomato bagels? Hmmm. During the 1960s and 1970s, a popular marketing campaign insisted, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread.” It featured images of people of different ages, ethnicities, and professions enjoying a slice of Levy’s rye bread. Today, delicacies from delis across the US can be shipped right to your door, for a price, of course!

Food, or abstaining from food, seems central to the experience of being Jewish. To that end, perhaps the next time a Pew study is crafted, focusing on the number of Jews and their identity or affiliation to the various streams, perhaps a new option: Gastric Jew. Who might that include? One who enjoys traditional Jewish foods, of course!

 

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