Passover celebration traditions celebrate community

The traditional seder plate, with six symbolic foods, is an integral part of Passover. — Photo courtesy of NPR

“It’s a lovely celebration of renewal — of everything fresh and new and green,” Ljuba Davis of Vineyard Haven said of Passover. “The spirit of the holiday is one of freedom and redemption. It’s just delightful.”

Ms. Davis, who relocated from California to Vineyard Haven three years ago, always makes sure that the springtime Jewish festival is celebrated with lots of people — family, friends and even strangers. “I grew up in a very traditional Orthodox home,” she said, “We lived from holiday to holiday in the Jewish calendar. The favorite has always been Passover.”

Passover is the story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt. It is retold and celebrated at the Passover Seder, a traditional dinner, in many Jewish households around the world.

“Our home in Berkeley was very much like the Jewish community center,” said Ms. Davis, laughing. “We often had 50 to 60 people. We took all the furniture out of the living room to fit them in. I raised a family of seven children. I told them, ‘I don’t care where you live or who you’re married to, just be home for the second seder of Passover.'”

Although she doesn’t have that kind of room in the home she shares with Avi Lev, Ms. Davis will still be hosting at least one of her sons and his family, as well as a number of other guests this year. She was contacted by the local rabbi about some people who had no seder to attend, so she invited some fellow congregants. “There’s a saying. ‘Let all who are hungry come’,” said Ms. Davis. “You can’t say no.”

The date for Passover is determined by the astronomically based Jewish calendar. The celebration traditionally begins on the night of a full moon after the northern vernal equinox. This year, Passover starts at sundown on Monday, March 25, and runs through Tuesday, April 2. Both start and end dates are celebrated with a seder meal.

On the day before the first seder, Ms. Davis observes two traditional rituals. “We sprinkle some bread crumbs in specific place,” she said. “Kids search for the bread, find it and burn it. That demonstrates that the house is free of leavening.”

Passover is also called “the Feast of Unleavened Bread.” Chamez (leavening) has symbolic significance in the Hebrew faith, as do many of the foods prepared and eaten during Passover.

Removal of the chamez involves a thorough clearing out of all things containing leavening of any kind. Ms. Davis said, “We take everything out of the refrigerator, including bottles of pickles and condiments, and put them in an outside refrigerator. We clear all the shelves of everything that is not kosher for Passover and cover it over with newspaper and yellow hazard tape and signs that say, ‘Do not touch,'” she says with feigned seriousness.

The items with leavening are symbolically sold (for a nominal fee) to a non-Jewish friend. “That’s so that legally the stuff in the house that is forbidden no longer belongs to us,” Ms. Davis said.

Although she takes the traditions seriously, Ms. Davis, who teaches Hebrew school here, obviously finds the joy and good humor in the rituals and tries to make them entertaining, as well as instructive for kids and other family members.

“One of the things that was always fun with my children, and then grandchildren, was preparing some of the traditional food that was served at Passover,” she said. That included charoset, which is made with fruit, nuts and wine and recalls the mortar that the Israelites used to make adobe bricks.

The six symbolic foods on the seder plate are shared before the meal. “There’s a standard order of the seder,” said Ms. Davis. “Seder itself means order.”

The Haggadah is the Jewish text of the Passover story and also refers to the service itself. “It’s incumbent upon the older generations to make sure the story is told and taught to the younger generations,” she said. “There’s a specific way to tell the story using different foods.”

Symbolism extends to the seating around the seder table. “Everyone sits on a cushion of some sort,” Ms. Davis said. “Free men were able to recline on cushions. Slaves did not have that privilege.”

The telling of the Passover story is at the heart of the seder. The recital of the “Four Questions” by the youngest child at the table helps involve children in the story. “We are told that we must deal with each child differently according to his needs and comprehension so he really understands what the story is about and it’s not just an empty ritual.

“The whole idea is to make sure the story is recited yearly to our children to keep alive the memory that we were slaves and now we are free men. This is a holiday of freedom.”

Music also plays a big role in the celebration. Recalling seders from her past, Ms. Davis said, “One of the things that has always been so wonderful is the music. I’m a singer and a cantor. People would come sharing melodies from different traditions for the same prayer. There would be tambourines and drums and dancing in the middle of the room. To see my kids continue that tradition is just fabulous.”

“My background is Sephardic,” said Ms. Davis, explaining the origins of some of the songs and singing styles she uses. “I teach the kids songs at Hebrew School. It’s just a joyous time.”

Salate Patalajan de Emah Shirley

( Ljuba’s mother’s Sephardic eggplant salad)

2 large fat globe eggplants

1 red bell pepper

1 green pepper

2 Roma tomatoes

1 large Vidalia (or other sweet) onion

olive oil

red wine or cider vinegar

salt and pepper

Over a medium flame on a gas stove or grill, slowly cook eggplants on the open flame, turning frequently, until the eggplants have collapsed and are scorched on all sides. Place eggplants in a colander placed over a plate to let liquid drain from the roasted eggplants.

Meanwhile, cut up bell peppers, onion and tomato in to diced-sized pieces and put in bowl.

Cut eggplants in half and scoop all the pulp into a bowl being careful not to include pieces of the charred skin as the skin is bitter. Chop or mash eggplant with a fork. Add the diced vegetables, add 2 or 3 tbsp. olive oil and 1–2 tbsp. vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve as part of an appetizer along with matzoh.