Last weekend my cousins visited our family on the Vineyard. I had many fun activities planned, but it was my 10-year-old son, Gordon, who had the genius idea to hold a family Seder Saturday night, despite it not actually being Passover for another week.
Our cousins, a family of five with three boys — the same family makeup as mine — drove up from Waterbury, Conn. The children and grownups are all very close, despite only seeing one another a few times a year. My cousin Glenn had a religious upbringing, and could singlehandedly lead a Seder on the fly, no problem.
The only issue was that Gordon did not offer up this idea until Thursday, and I was substitute-teaching Friday and had little time to plan the big meal before the family’s arrival Friday evening.
On my way home from teaching Friday afternoon I needed to shop for the holiday meal. I should have had an inkling of the task ahead last Monday while substitute-teaching in seventh grade social studies. My lesson plan for the day was covering the differences between Judaism and Christianity — which really impressed me as a school topic. During the lesson I asked one boy, “What is Passover?” And he answered, “A religious leader.”
So on Friday after school, I first went to Stop and Shop in Vineyard Haven looking for a box of matzoh and a box of matzoh meal for soup. Plenty of Easter supplies, but no matzoh. I asked the man at the customer service desk, “Do you have matzoh?” And he replied, “We only carry that seasonally.” I said, “Well, this is the season — the holiday is next week.” Then another employee had a question and he lost interest in me.
Then I went to Bunch of Grapes looking for a children’s book about the story of Passover that I could read at the dinner table, and they only had one; it was a baby book called My First Passover, which didn’t help my ages 6–16 crowd.
On I went to down-Island Cronigs, where I asked a woman at customer service, “Do you have matzoh?” And after her quick blank stare, she asked me, “Does it need to be refrigerated?” She then asked another cashier, and enunciated the word “matzoh” as if she had never heard the word before. Luckily the other cashier had no issue, and pointed to the end-aisle display of some Passover items — which did include matzoh.
I bought the matzoh and many cans of matzoh ball soup (please don’t tell my mother I did not make the soup, but there was no matzoh meal mix) and happily went on my way.
Once back on the road, I realized I forgot to get a bone for my Seder plate, which symbolizes the sacrificial lamb, so I popped into Up-island Cronigs. Off-Island, I can go to a meat department and the butcher will just hand over a bone. The woman helping in Cronigs, however, pointed to the meat display case at two enormous bones that a Bengal tiger would have enjoyed, and I politely said, “Umm, no thank you.” So I bought a package of chicken legs to cook and from which I could extract a bone.
Last stop was Al’s Package Store in Edgartown, where I entered and sheepishly asked an older gentleman, “Do you sell Manischewitz wine?” To my delight he not only did sell it, but had two flavor choices: grape and blackberry. Bonus points for the gentleman saying, “Passover is coming up next week, isn’t it?”
I grabbed two bottles of grape so I would have enough to also use for making charoset, a Passover delicacy made of chopped apples, sugar, cinnamon, walnuts, and sweet wine, and $11.90 later I was headed home.
Saturday afternoon the dinner prep began, and my cousin Tina generously offered to peel and chop all of the apples and make the charoset. I worked on setting the table, filling the traditional Seder plate, and getting the dinner into the oven. We were also celebrating the birthday of my youngest son Walter, who turns 8 on April 3, so I used our “Happy Birthday” tablecloth and put presents at each child’s place.
I had a bit of fun and cut out blue paper yarmulkes and taped them to the top of six chocolate Easter bunnies, setting one at each boy’s plate. In retrospect, that was not the best idea, as the younger boys had trouble restraining themselves from biting into bunnies during dinner.
Glenn began the Seder, and we had such fun. The youngest boys, Walter, Brady, Kellen, and Gordon, read the four questions. Glenn asked the children why we eat bitter herbs dipped into salted water. One boy said it was to represent the tears from leaving slavery; we all laughed and Gordon corrected, “No, it was to symbolize the tears from being slaves.”
Next during the discussion of the 10 plagues, which is what God was said to have released on the ancient Egyptians before the Pharaoh would release his slaves, Glenn said in a game-show-host voice to his son Jey, “Naaaaame one plague.” We then went around the table with the kids like that, and Glenn said, “I feel like we are on Family Feud!” My husband Darrin was next, and after getting some whispered intel from Gordon he shouted, “Hail and eternal darkness!” When he got to me I said, “Show me: Locusts!” And we all had a laugh.
At the Seder’s close, Cousin Tina gave Gordon the “Super-Jew” award because he knew the answers to all of Glenn’s questions. Very impressive! Glenn and I reminisced about the time his mom accidentally put dish soap into the matzah ball soup, and the family saying at the table, “Does this soup taste funny?”
Despite being a week early, it was a time to enjoy being together, having family around the table, and to celebrate the coming of spring.
The Passover holiday
The holiday is an important Jewish festival that celebrates the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. It lasts seven days, but Seders are traditionally held on the first and second nights.
God helped the children of Israel escape their slavery by inflicting 10 plagues upon the ancient Egyptians before the Pharaoh would release his slaves. During the Seder, diners are asked to dip their finger into their glass of red wine and mark 10 dots on their plate as the 10 plagues are recited. The 10 plagues were:
Blood The waters of Egypt are turned to blood. All the fish die and water becomes unusable.
Frogs Hordes of frogs swarm the land of Egypt.
Gnats or lice Masses of gnats or lice invade Egyptian homes and plague the Egyptian people.
Wild Animals Wild animals invade Egyptian homes and lands, causing destruction and wrecking havoc.
Pestilence Egyptian livestock is struck down with disease.
Boils The Egyptian people are plagued by painful boils that cover their bodies.
Hail Severe weather destroys Egyptian crops and beats down upon them.
Locusts Locusts swarm Egypt and eat any remaining crops and food.
Darkness Darkness covers the land of Egypt for three days.
Death of the firstborn The firstborn of every Egyptian family is killed. Even the firstborn of Egyptian animals die.
The 10th plague is the derivation of the name Passover, because while the Angel of Death visited Egypt, it “passed over” Hebrew homes, which had been marked with lambs’ blood on the doorposts.
The freed slaves were in such a hurry to leave that they did not have time to wait for their bread to rise, or leaven, so unleavened bread — now matzoh — is eaten in place of bread for the duration of Passover.
The Seder plate
A traditional plate is assembled for decoration on the Seder table to mark the cornerstones of the holiday. The items are:
Maror, or bitter herbs Horseradish is widely used to signify the harshness of slavery.
Charoset A sweet brown mixture that represents the mortar the Hebrew slaves used to build the storehouses or pyramids of Egypt.
Karpas A vegetable such as parsley that is used during the Seder to dip into salted water to represent the tears of the slaves.
Lamb bone To symbolize the sacrificial lamb.
Hard-boiled egg To represent mourning.
Three whole matzohs To symbolize the yeastless bread eaten after the Hebrews were set free. The middle matzoh is cut in half and hidden as the afikomen for the children to find later.
The four questions
The four questions, really one question with four answers, are asked and answered aloud by the youngest children.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights we eat bread or matzoh, while on this night we eat only matzoh.
On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables and herbs, but on this night we have to eat bitter herbs.
On all other nights we don’t dip our vegetables in salt water, but on this night we dip them twice.
On all other nights we eat while sitting upright, but on this night we eat reclining.
Most important, Passover is a celebration of spring. The holiday begins Friday, April 3, at sunset. There will be a Community Passover Seder at Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center led by Rabbi Caryn Broitman, Saturday, April 4th, 5:30 pm. Seating at 5:15. A complete kosher meal will be served. Reservations are required. For more information, please call the Hebrew Center office at 508-693-0745. Also, the Unitarian Universalist Society will hold a Passover Seder Potluck this Saturday evening. If you wish to join in, call 508-693-8982.