Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about meals that express our connection to and appreciation for the earth. In keeping with this theme, I’ll start with Marge Piercy’s new book, Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own.
My interest in seders (the meal served at Passover) started when I was in high school and worked as a “hostess helper” for families who were hosting seders. Having been raised Catholic, I had never experienced a seder before, and was deeply moved by the beauty and ceremony of it. As someone who loves food and ritual, I was especially interested in the foods that were assigned special meaning on the Passover plate.
Recently, when I told my friend Rabbi Michael Feshbach that I was writing about this topic, he said, “The greens, which are the first item eaten, are seen as signs of spring. I think of the entire seder as the first multimedia teaching experience — you tell the message, you smell the message, you eat the message.”
For all of these reasons, when I heard that Piercy was going to be in Cambridge doing a reading from her new book, I cleared my schedule so that I could go.
Piercy’s book includes ideas for adapting the Passover holiday traditions so that they suit the interests and values of those in attendance, several readings (including some of her poems), suggestions for new traditions, and many recipes from various Jewish traditions from different parts of the world.
One of the aspects of the book that I like best is her emphasis on our ties to the earth, and on the idea that Passover is a time to notice and respect those ties. A related topic is the need to make time to notice everything that’s happening in our lives. She talks about the purpose of lighting candles and offering blessings, and how they mark the beginning of sacred time at the opening of the meal.
We spend time. We’re bankrupts of time, but there is no way to recoup our losses. Although the eternal is timeless, our time is short and it moves ever more quickly. So, to set time aside to heal ourselves, to explore Judaism, to renew ourselves and resolve how to live a more useful and less self-centered life, to be a better person, is not easy. Few Jews beyond the Orthodox really take a Shabbat [Sabbath] — but oh how we need it, not to sit still in a dark room but to restore ourselves and knit our closest ties stronger. We must forcefully take the time for holidays that are holy days. Without time, we cannot make them holy. We cannot make them meaningful.
So, lest we bring with us all the daily buzz of the media, and our worries, our anxieties, our vanities, our fantasies, all the flies that swarm our minds, we have ways of ending distractions and entering into focused time. Blessings are for those who bless, not for the Eternal. They are ways of calling attention to something so that we more fully experience it. Noticing what apples taste like. Noticing what irises smell like. Noticing the voice of someone you love. Noticing the way snow clings to the bark of a tree. Noticing, paying attention, for attention is something you pay as you spend time. We speak of these things as if they were losses, but if you truly concentrate on a blessing, if you experience what the blessing is celebrating, it is you who are at least momentarily blessed.
I think this passage speaks particularly to people who use their time and energy trying to make the world a better, safer place, especially those who work for overburdened non-profits and in the “helping professions.” The task is so large and the need so urgent that it can be very hard not to get caught up in the process, and we often end up neglecting our own needs and the people we love.
Part of the reason I am drawn to Passover is for the very reason Piercy mentions: it’s a ritual that forces us to take time to stop and notice and even — dare I say it out loud? — enjoy ourselves and appreciate our lives. It’s a way for our ancestors to whisper in our ears to slow down and take care of ourselves while we rattle around this over-stimulating mortal coil. It’s a reminder that we need to be good stewards of ourselves as well as of the earth. As I often have to remind myself, I am part of the ecosystem too, and my own health and well-being are not inconsequential or unrelated to the health and well-being of those around me.
Piercy graciously agreed to let me publish some of her recipes, and when I told her that I was especially interested in Passover’s ties to the earth, she noted, “Out here, way out to sea on Cape Cod, any damage to the environment on land and in the sea is very evident. I have seen the encroachment of garbage and plastic since I moved here 36 years ago. Walking by the sea, I used to see clamshells, moon snail shells, the egg cases of skates. Now I see the rings from six-packs, plastic wrappers, tampon inserters.”
Here are her recipes. I chose two vegetarian dishes, a Sweet Potato Kugel and Dried Fruit Betty. I also discovered in my cyber-wanderings that vegetarian households sometimes substitute beets for the shankbone on the seder plate. The red beets symbolize the blood of the Paschal lamb.
Sweet Potato Kugel
From Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own by Marge Piercy, Shocken Books, 2007
4 to 6 sweet potatoes, peeled (depending on size)
3 apples, cored
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup dates
1/4 cup matzoh meal
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
3 cardamom pods, or 1teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup chopped almonds
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Grate the sweet potatoes, apples, and carrots by hand or pulse them until minced in a food processor. Place in a large bowl, add the remaining ingredients, and mix together. Pour into a 9 x 9 inch pan and bake for 45 minutes, until the top is brown and crisp.
Dried Fruit Betty
Also from Pesach for the Rest Of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own by Marge Piercy, Shocken Books, 2007
“This is an adaptation of a Sephardic dessert. It’s pretty easy, even for me. I’m a great cook but a middling baker. My mother was the opposite.” — Marge Piercy
1 cup dried apricots, well chopped
1 cup dates, pitted and well chopped
1/2 cup raisins or sultanas
Enough sweet kosher for Passover wine to completely cover the dried fruit in a bowl
1/2 cup honey
1 and 1/2 cups matzoh cake meal
1 and 1/2 cups chopped almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts
4 tablespoons virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Soak the dried fruit in the wine overnight. Drain off any not absorbed.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Beat the eggs well. Add the honey, matzoh meal, nuts, oil, spices, and salt and mix well.
Add the fruits, pour into a 9-inch square baking pan, and bake for 30 minutes. It should be still moist but spring back when you test it. Cut into squares to serve. Makes 12 or 16 squares.