Planning for Passover

Joan Sullivan
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Passover, which begins April 8, is one of the three most important holidays in the Jewish year. Through blessings, psalms, food and customs, Passover observes the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and the eventual founding of the Jewish nation after 40 years of wondering in the desert. Passover rituals are inscribed with remembrance of the journey from slavery to freedom.

"If family members want to join together, it will be either the Jewish New Year or Passover," said Claire Frankel-Salama. "It's like Christmas - the same pressure, only in a shorter time."

The Seder plate is central to the celebration of Passover. - Photo by Joan Sullivan/Special to The Telegram

Passover, which begins April 8, is one of the three most important holidays in the Jewish year. Through blessings, psalms, food and customs, Passover observes the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and the eventual founding of the Jewish nation after 40 years of wondering in the desert. Passover rituals are inscribed with remembrance of the journey from slavery to freedom.

"If family members want to join together, it will be either the Jewish New Year or Passover," said Claire Frankel-Salama. "It's like Christmas - the same pressure, only in a shorter time."

The eight-day holiday is similar to Easter, as it is also pegged to the new moon (next year it starts March 30).

All Jewish holidays start at night, and the first two evenings include services at the synagogue. St. John's small Jewish community has been without a rabbi since 1987, so different members of the community present the different readings (a ceremony can last as long as 2 1/2 hours). But the main traditions of Passover are most deeply concerned with diet.

"In a traditional Jewish house, the house would be cleaned in the weeks preceding Passover," said Frankel-Salama.

And by clean, she means really clean. Kitchen appliances like fridges and stoves are gone over with Q-tips and toothpicks. This is to scour the house of the smallest crumb of chametz - leavened goods, like cookies or bread or anything made of grain. Grain alcohol and beer are also prohibited, because of fermentation, but kosher wine is fine. (Newfoundland has the only kosher winery in Canada - Rodrigues.) Then the cupboards are sealed.

Stores of some chametz, like flour, may remain. For these, the householder enters into a contract with a non-Jew, selling them the chametz for the duration of Passover. ("The Jewish religion is a very legalistic one," Frankel-Salama noted.)

And all utensils are cleansed.

"In former times you would boil cutlery in a pot. Nowadays, people just buy a second set, to use during Passover."

This is a lot of domestic work.

"But concentrating that much on what you are eating strengthens your traditions and strengthens your identity," Frankel-Salama says.

A little bit of chametz is reserved and burned in the backyard, a process that includes the children.

"It is very important that children are involved. All of us must yearn to be free."

Events become history very quickly, Frankel-Salama said.

"People have a memory for two weeks. I read in the media it's more like 48 hours. Everything then is ancient history and nothing to do with us, but this must be re-learned."

Passover activities are very structured. An evening meal is called a Seder, which means order. Everything on the table has meaning: the three layers of matzah bread, the four glasses of wine. Most notable is the Seder plate, which holds six items: a shank bone, representing both temple sacrifices and liberation; an egg that is roasted, a symbol of mourning and the cycle of life; a bitter herb like horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery; a mixture of dates or apples and water for the mortar of bricks the slaves wielded to build the storehouses in Egypt; and two dishes of greens, like parsley, in salt water, symbolizing both the tears of the slaves and the loss of the Egyptians who died pursuing the Israelites, to recall that there is no victory without victims.

The Seder plate is used by Jewish communities everywhere - Europe, North Africa, India. Beyond that, Jewish cuisine is often more a question of technique - long, slow cooking processes because no fire could be lit on the Sabbath, for instance - than ingredients.

People used what grew around them. In Poland, it was potatoes. In Yemen, rice. For the St. John's community, the Dominion Store on Stavanger Drive has been bringing in many of the foods needed for the Seder, and Frankel-Salama also receives packages of traditional handmade matzah from a rabbi who was stranded in St. John's after Sept. 11, 2001.

The Seder begins with readings from the Haggadah. "And the youngest child who is able to asks four questions. There are a lot of things for children to do."

Seder meals are late, so there are many little tasks designed to keep children alert and engaged, For example, part of one of the matzahs (afikoman) is hidden, and near the end of the meal, children search for it and then bargain with their parents for its return.

The local community has made its own adaptations for Passover.

"Newfoundland is the easternmost Jewish community in North America, so we have the right to begin the first Seder."

Other aspects of the holiday, such as the tunes everyone sings, are also often flavoured by local custom. For example, one of the Seder musical passages had been adapted by a local community member to the lilt of "I'se the B'y."

"There's nothing wrong with that," Frankel-Salama says.

At the end of the day on April 16, all the dishes will be put away.

"And I think the mothers probably go to bed," Frankel-Salama says. "But first we all say, 'Next year in Jerusalem.'"

Organizations: Jewish house, Dominion Store on Stavanger Drive

Geographic location: Egypt, St. John's, Newfoundland Canada Europe North Africa India Poland Yemen North America Jerusalem

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