It was the day after our little chosen family Seder on Monday evening, the first night of Passover, when the New York Times ran a story about a major gefilte fish shortage.
Why is this year unlike any other years? The reporter cleverly posed. Because of what he called the 11th plague, the polar vortex, the unremitting chill that has caused up to four feet of ice to be lingering still way into spring on the lakes that supply the white fish, which is turned into that grayish mass of seafood so beloved by some. It has been as much a part of the Seder meal as matzo ball soup since the Middle Ages when it was discovered by German Jewery to be a way to stretch food and have a meal on the Sabbath, when no cooking is allowed.
Even in its present skinless jarred form, which at least one Brooklyn fishmonger compares to the taste of cat food, it is much beloved: it is the real stuff, it is Passover.
I had already made it known to my guests (and my Facebook friends) that I had no intention of serving gefilte fish — or ladling up matzo balls. If I was going to go solo in preparing the first night’s ritual meal (with welcome contributions of kosher wine and OK for Pesach ice cream), I would make what I liked and more important what I could manage. The stakes seemed high: the first time in nearly 20 years that my modest Seder was IT. Ironically, it had been the later in the week community Seder in my Unitarian Universalist home congregation that had previously overshadowed any home observance. For this, I was only expected to bring one dish: sometimes a salad, sometimes a vegetable dish (no beans, no corn). The rest of the feast was put together by others, part pre-ordered, part potluck.
Growing up a non-Jewish Jewish family, we did not have a Seder. I attended my first one as a young adult and mother, at the home of an Israeli family who lived opposite us in Albany, California. We may have been assigned something to carry across the street. I asked my husband, who had been raised in a barely observant Reform Jewish family, whether his mother had ever cooked the Seder dinner, or even contributed part of the food. No, he answered, I don’t think so. It was his matriarchal aunt who hosted and singlehandedly fed the extended clan.
Shopping for all the elements was challenging enough: a several day exercise in making lists, crossing out items (a Costco chicken, a big piece of brisket, crushed tomatoes, matzo meal, parsley, enough eggs) and searching for others: horseradish seemed hard to find and the jar I finally did buy was searing hot. I had decided to forgo the lamb shank — I do not eat baby animal meat — for a common contemporary substitute, a roast beet, only to have to beg a store manager to sell me only one for religious purposes. Instead of having to buy a huge bunch at what seemed to me to be an outrageous price.
I had leafed through my former mother-in-law’s sisterhood holiday cook book from 1979 in search of choroset and kugel recipes, finding a perfectly plain Ashkenazi apples and walnuts version for the former, and a replete with peppers, onions, garlic, and frozen spinach one for the latter. I peeled, pared, chopped, and diced. I hard boiled eggs, runnier than need be. I worried over the timing of the brisket — the size of heavy pot needed for searing and then slow cooking it.
I felt like a balaboosta, an aproned, harried stereotype of a Jewish homemaker, fretting about the enormity of her role as provider of THE MEAL. My entire focus for at least 48 hours was the run-up to the seven o’clock hour when the production would begin. This on top of my self-assumed role as Jewnitarian minister cum worship leader, ordering from a dear friend his brand new Humanist version of the Haggadah, hoping I could get through the large amount of Hebrew, however transliterated, worrying that its a-theistic tone would completely offend (or at least bother) my theistic spouse and/or our assortment of non- Jewish guests.
And then a longtime Jew-hating, Grand Wizard Klansman opened fire in a town just outside Kansas City, first in front of a Jewish Community Center, and then a Jewish assisted living home, an act one columnist called part of this sick man’s bucket list — to do his part in obliterating us. In his randomness, he murdered three Christians who happened to be in his range of fire. Nonetheless, it was made clear to law officers that his intention was otherwise.
In that day between the shootings and the time we all sat down around in our cramped dining area to begin the Seder, my concerns, my fears had shifted — from anxiety over the doneness of a piece of beef or the lack of fish and chicken soup — to an ancient agitation around the literal survival of my tribe.
Nothing changed outwardly in this thousands of years re-enactment, remembrance of a story — a myth about our delivery from bondage — except when we came to the part about Elijah’s cup. In this year’s chosen Haggadah, written by my good friend and colleague Rabbi Jeff Falick for his Birmingham Michigan Temple, he reminds us that the custom of not only pouring some wine for the prophet but symbolically opening the door to invite him in originated as a response to those who spread evil lies about Jewish customs. Who tended to be most zealous in their anti-Semitism Christmas and Easter weeks (and Passover week). Opening the door, Rabbi Falick writes, revealed to the world that nothing nefarious was taking place at our Seders.
I had written my morning haiku that day in response to the Kansas attacks:
After the killings:
The old man’s cowboy hat
Our door will stay closed.
I opened the door, as was expected, but in that act I felt the weight of centuries of danger. And at the same time gratitude for the safety I felt as our meal was completed.