The celebration of Easter and Passover this week is an opportunity for a cultural mash-up quite aside from the religious connections between the two important holidays. And though spirituality and religious traditions are most meaningful to the observant, it is around the table that many of us discover community, share in social lessons and feed our passions, all puns intended.
I headed to Lewiston, Maine to spend the Passover Seder with my eldest daughter, Nell, a senior at Bates College. And as much as I deeply treasure a visit with my daughter, a visit to Portland is a fabulous secondary benefit.
My rule of thumb in Portland is "Eat every 2 hours." (The other rule is book a massage with the finest professional on the East Coast, Ramon at the Portland Regency Hotel Spa. This serves to undo all the New York City stress I carry with me, which in turn enhances my Portland state of mind).
Easter is the dominant American holiday, and I had limited expectations of finding traditional Passover food, especially in Portland. When I visited Aurora Provisions (a first), I was quite surprised to discover a mouthwatering Passover menu posted on the front door. Inside, an impressive range of Kosher for Passover wines, along with tempting homemade Gefilte Fish and Matzo Balls in Soup were featured. There was Haroset -- the traditional Seder food symbolizing the mortar the enslaved Jews in Egypt used in building the pyramids. And while this Haroset was more chunk than mortar, it contained all the essential ingredients, same as I have hand-chopped and chopped until smooth in my wooden bowl at home.
Faye, the delightful young woman at the counter, invited me to an annual gathering held on Easter Sunday at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough, ME, where close to 100 people gather for East-Over -- a potluck combination of foodies of both faiths. The day is non-stop eating, with "tons of dogs and babies." Faye's dad, Glen, is the only one under 60. Add this to the 2014 calendar.
A nod to the holiday was also on the menu at the Standard Baking Co.: almond macaroons and a beautiful flourless chocolate cake. And they were delicious. No handmade matzo on the menu, though I can only imagine how fabulous that would have been. Down the street I met Perry, the local hot dog man of 19 years, who was preparing to close up early so he could attend Seder "at the Shulman's" he told me. I declined his offer of a hot dog and he insisted on preparing a grilled veggie sandwich for my last pre-Passover bread meal, complete with an authentic NYC Gus' half sour pickle. Perry stated that 10 percent of Portland was Jewish, so perhaps not a matzo-less city after all.
Next stop, Lewiston for Seder at Bates College Hillel. Every seat was taken as over 100 students gathered for an abbreviated service with an extensive buffet -- wise proportions! I was introduced to something new: 30minuteseder.com. (I bet our forefathers would have appreciated a 30minutewandering-in-the-desert.com.) It was a joyful event as the students willing observed the mandate to drink four glasses of wine while reading from a rather abridged Haggadah. Rabbi Yael Rooks-Rapport led the service, and infused contemporary concepts that resonated for the students. After reading the traditional 10 plagues, she talked about 10 Modern ones -- Hunger, Despotism, Lack of Clean Water, Bullying, Racism, Sexism, Intolerance, Greed, Death from curable disease -- each student adding their own for #10. (Gun violence?)
On the Seder plate, orange wedges were included along with the parsley, horseradish, Haroset, egg and salt water. Why an orange? From the Jewish Women's Archive, an explanation which in its telling suggests how traditions evolve.
Rebecca Alpert tells of a 1979 session on women and the Jewish Law presented to the Jewish Women's Group at University of California at Berkeley by the rebbetzin of the campus Chabad House. One student asked her opinion about the place of lesbians in Judaism. The rebbetzin suggested that it was a small transgression, like eating bread during Passover. Something one shouldn't do, but for which there were few consequences. Some time later, when the Berkeley students were planning their Seder, they chose to place a crust of bread on their Seder plate in solidarity with lesbians who were trying to find a place in Jewish life.
Others picked up this story, but struggled with the transgressive symbolism of bread on a Seder plate. Professor Susannah Heschel was responsible for substituting a tangerine as a symbol for gay and lesbian solidarity. She then went on to share the story, and as it spread, it changed. The symbol became an orange, and the focus shifted to the place of women leaders and rabbis in Judaism. Today, the orange is a symbol of inclusivity to all genders and sexualities.
That is just part of the beauty of Passover. It is rooted in communities and families coming together to celebrate ancient traditions and timeless memories, and creating new ones. And there is so much happens around the table -- as life happens around food. The memories enchant us and enhance our experience as days are spent shopping and preparing meals. At Bates, students from dozens of cities lined up at the sumptuous buffet, which probably mirrored tables across the country.
In a few days, the Easter feast will be presented in a similar fashion. The egg is prominently featured at Passover and is equally legendary for Easter. For these springtime holidays it symbolizes life and rebirth. Whatever your tradition, even if it is a Spring dance with the pussy willow or budding crocus, I hope we share a season of peace.