Published: The California Aggie. April 12, 2017. View here.
As the sun goes down and the first night of Passover begins, Jewish people everywhere try to convince themselves that the next eight days will not be as terrible as they remember. For the next eight days, all of our favorite foods – bread, cake, cookies, pasta, etc. – will be banished in place of literal cardboard (aka matzoh). From someone who has partaken in seemingly-endless Passover seders and opened countless boxes of matzoh for 18 years, here are a few semi-annoying yet endearing quirks that make Passover, Passover.
- Consuming the tears of our ancestors
Like any comparative literature class, Passover is overwhelmed with an abundance of symbolism. During Passover, we remember the enslavement of the Jews under the Pharaoh in Egypt and the totally historically-accurate events that occurred – the plagues, the parting of the sea, the burning bush, etc. According to Scripture, the Jews were enslaved in Egypt for about 400 years, which is roughly the length of how one Seder feels. In the Seder, the foods we are allowed to eat are representative: We dip parsley – that green, throw-away garnish – into salt water to represent the bitterness of the conditions and the tears of our ancestors, and then we eat it. Another classic combination is a Hillel sandwich – two pieces of matzah filled with charoset — an apple and nut mixture— and horseradish. The taste may not be anywhere close to enjoyable, but the sandwich symbolizes the bitterness of oppression and the sweetness of freedom.
- Matzoh is the worst
When I was younger, I would bring my matzoh PB&J sandwiches to school and everyone around me would demand to try my enticing, exotic new food. Without fail, every sampler would make the comment, “This isn’t so bad.” I would watch my friends try the smallest nibble and then return to their sandwiches, made with real bread, and shake my head. And after eating matzoh for eight days, clothes become covered in a thin coat of matzoh crumbs. The only possible solution to avoid the hailstorm of crumbs is to eat it over the sink – yum, sink matzoh. I am convinced that the only way to make matzoh edible is by drowning it in caramel and chocolate. Without any of this Matzoh Roca on hand, dessert options are narrowed down to compressed coconut ball – macaroons – or the colored, gelatinous semi-circles known as the infamous jelly fruit slices.
- The inedible gefilte fish
Without fail, as the food is finally brought out for Seder, there will come a beautiful ceramic dish only used for special occasions upon which slimy patties of mystery fish slide and slither to and fro. I could write many odes about my hatred of gefilte fish. It does not have an appealing look and at first glance it appears to be a kind of dumpling or bread (but wait, it’s Passover, we can’t eat bread!). Only by looking at the ingredients do you realize that this is indeed fish — gefilte fish is sold in large jars of a mysterious, murky liquid, and is always plated with carrot slices to signify that yes, this is indeed meant to be edible. I would contend that gefilte fish could very well qualify as the 11th plague. It is, simply put, a cold lump of gummy fish parts.
- Passing over the troubling parts
The aspects of the Passover story that are either unbelievable or completely horrifying are often quickly passed over. For example, the ten plagues are a range of graphic and gruesome nuisances and terrors. The more traditional plagues range from disease to wild animals to darkness and dramatic weather, and become a little more creative with lice, boils, locusts, frogs and, of course, the classic death of the first-born son. The water supply turning into blood is just plain disturbing. Thankfully, we are not forced to eat foods symbolizing each of the plagues — instead, to recognize the plagues, we quickly dip our finger in grape juice or wine and mark our plate for each of the 10 plagues. If we really consider the Passover story, not only did the Jews in ancient Egypt have to deal with enslavement, but also tons of frogs falling from the sky and bloody water. The Jewish people likely became pretty nonchalant with the endless bouts of seemingly random plagues that, by the time they left Egypt and the sea magically parted, it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.
- Down with the patriarchy
Many older Haggadahs – the guide used for the Passover Seder – use strictly male pronouns in the retelling of the story of Passover. During my family’s Seder, my Mom will always make a point of adding in female pronouns because, surprise, women were also very much present in the schlep out of Egypt. During a Seder, a door is left open and a cup of wine is left out for Elijah; more progressive Seders leave out a cup of water for Miriam, an empowering female figure in the Passover story. Additionally, a less traditional finding on the Seder plate is an orange. Some believe the story of the orange has to do with the denouncement of women in Judaism, but the real story behind the orange has to do with the denouncement of lesbians and gay men in Judaism; therefore, the inclusion of the orange represents inclusion in the Jewish faith. Additionally, spitting out the seeds of the orange is said to represent spitting out the seeds of intolerance.
With food that is both crummy and crumb-y, Passover is by no means an extremely enjoyable holiday — but it is an important holiday. The Passover story is about freedom from an oppressive regime. This Passover, I will be thinking about presently oppressed people around the world and what actions I can take to raise their voices.