Special Diets + Passover = Stress

What to eatFollowing a special diet can be a challenge. Most of us have followed a diet in the past to lose weight, or for humanitarian or health reasons. Some of us are on one right now. In my own small circle of family, friends and colleagues, almost all of the major diet categories are covered. We have gluten free, low fat, dairy free, sugar free, vegan, vegetarian, Kosher, high protein and low carb. Passover is coming and my diet-centered world is about to short circuit. What kind of meals can I make if I have to eliminate gluten, fat, dairy, sugar, eggs, meat and all of the items that are not consumed during Passover from the list of acceptable ingredients?

There can be some confusion about how to make our choices about what to eat during Passover. Tradition plays a strong role for religious Jews and can influence the decisions we make in our modern interpretation of our holiday observance. Jews from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazim) refrain from eating Kitnyot (KIT-NEE-OT) during the eight days of Passover. Kitnyot are grains and legumes such as, rice, corn, beans, soy, peanuts, string beans, peas, lentils, mustard, seeds (sesame, poppy, sunflower, etc.), and their derivatives which can be found in corn starch, corn syrup and soy sauce. Jews from other lands (Sephardim) do eat Kitnyot during Passover. Why is there a distinction?

The Torah tells us not to eat leaven (also called Chametz) during the holiday of Passover. Chametz consists of “five grains” from wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye. In ancient times, a strict observance of this commandment caused the Jews in lands where these grains were grown to be extra careful. All grains were stored in the same type of sack and could be easily mixed up or misidentified. The only way to be sure of not eating the five grains was to avoid any foods that could possibly have a similar appearance. Sephardim did not have this tradition because the five grains were not grown in their lands.

A little research on the Internet results in some obscure and interesting items to avoid during Passover. Who would have known that organic lipstick may contain wheat or oat flour? We must also avoid eating anything that contains vinegar like ketchup, mayonnaise, and pickles, anything with glucose or dextrose, such as sugar alternatives, and decaf coffee and tea, which are processed using an additive called Maltodextrin, which is made from starch. Whisky and beer are also prohibited because they contain wheat or barley.

There are some very good menu and recipe suggestions available if one is willing to dig around a bit on the web. Daniella Silver has a list of Healthy Gluten/Dairy Free Vegetarian Passover Recipes that look very yummy. I am definitely going to try the Garlic Sweet Potato Rice and the Triple Chocolate Hamentaschen. My favorite site is from Shana Lebowitz called 34 Healthy Passover Recipes and it is full of interesting Passover relevant twists on regular dishes. Try her Grain-Free Banana Bread (it does include eggs) or the Bitter Herbs Salad that she found in a 2012 New York Times post.

It is a highly personal decision to change our diet for eight days. Whether or not you give up just bread, bread-like foods, or choose to follow all of the ancient traditions is up to you. Please share your favorite healthy Passover recipe with our readers so that we all have more food options to consider as we decide what our own unique celebration will entail.

Chag sameach (Happy holiday)!

Creating Thanksgivukkah Memories with Beyond Bubbie

This is a guest post by Dina Mann

Turkey brined in Manischewitz. Check.
Sweet potato latkes. Check.
Cranberry dreidel mold. Check.
Pumpkin Donuts. Check.
Thanksgivukkabob. Check.

Thanksgivukkah has been the butt and the pride of the media in the past few weeks. From Conan O’Brien’s Dreidel Turkey to the worst Thanksgivukkah foods on Bon Appetit to Stephen Colbert’s denouncement of a two holiday solution. There was even a show that combined Chanukah and Halloween in a spoof worthy of a good chuckle.

Thanksgivukkah has highlighted the endless possibilities in combining two holidays that give a great amount of civic pride to Jews in America. But now that the table is set with the dynamic duo’s crimson and blue settings, how will your family do something a little different to not only capture the wonderful foods but also the spirit of both holidays?

I propose bringing Bubbie into the conversation. Beyond Bubbie, that is.

Beyond Bubbie is a website that shares photos, recipes and stories from the people who made us who we are. Every Bubbie has a recipe and every recipe tells a story. Thanksgivukkah is the perfect time to share those stories and recipes at your table. Better yet, why not cook and bake the classic treats.

At a time in life when it is so hard for extended families to get together, make this Thanksgivukkah meaningful. Instead of simply going around the table asking, “What are you grateful for this year?” ask everyone what their favorite food memory is from your family. Pre-Thanksgivukkah, ask loved ones to share their recipes on Beyond Bubbie, tag your family name and have a place where your whole family can log-on for that cranberry brisket recipe or that Hanukkah lasagna.

Knish off

At the Beyond Bubbie Knish-Off in San Francisco

Looking for an activity for kids while the turkey is being basted? Grab Bubby Ruth’s Sugar Cookies and have a bake-off. Pre-bake the cookies. Display an array of various frostings and sprinkles and have kids go to town creating dynamic cookies and memories. Have the elders in your family judge the competition.

Not into football? Ask everyone to bring an old family photo and set up a quasi-gallery in your living room. Give grandchildren the opportunity to digitize these memories by taking photos with your smart phone. Photos and stories can then be shared on Beyond Bubbie.

There is no time like the present to give the present of culinary memories. Making the foods that warm your stomach is one thing, but making food that pulls at your heart strings elevates this once in a universe occasion to a whole new level.

Dina Mann is the National Marketing and Outreach Coordinator for Reboot. Please email Dina@Rebooters.net with any questions about Beyond Bubbie and ways to bring it to your community.

It’s Raining Coconuts!

CoconutsI have some really strange memories of childhood and unusual events. One of these memories is about the celebration of the first fruit on Rosh Hashanah. The custom is to enjoy a new fruit to celebrate the New Year and say a special blessing (Shehecheyanu) recognizing the blessing of arriving at this moment.

Our family would stay at my Grandmother’s (Gran) for Rosh Hashanah and eat our meals there. My mother always made sure there was a new fruit at the table so that we could say the Shehecheyanu. The tradition is that it should be a fruit that you haven’t had in many months.

One year, the new fruit was a coconut. With the chaos of five kids and several meals, my mother didn’t realize that we didn’t have any way to open the coconut. One of my brothers decided it was a good idea to throw the coconut from my Gran’s balcony onto the busy street. The rest of us thought this was a great idea. One of us went out to the sidewalk to make sure there was no traffic coming to give the “OK.”  (About now, you may be wondering where our parents were at this time and I have no idea, but I am sure they were busy with something.)

“All clear!”

“One. Two. Three.”

BOUNCE with a thud and a roll into the street!

The coconut didn’t break! We couldn’t believe it. We were laughing and watching for traffic. I come from a very determined family, so we threw it back up to the second floor balcony and tried again two more times with the same result. On the fourth time:

“All clear!”

“One. Two. Three.”

CRACK!

We did it! The coconut broke open into several sections. I don’t remember how we cut it up but I assume it involved some sharp knives and minimal supervision. Our parents may have been paying attention at this point but thought the whole scene was clever and funny. When we sat down for dinner, we said our Shehecheyanu blessing giggling and smiling the whole time. I’m not sure if Gran knew what we had done but she never said anything.

Every year after this inaugural event, my mother bought a coconut. Each year we hurled it off the balcony, laughing while watching for traffic. I love this memory and so do my four siblings. It reminds us of family, holiday and custom. The Jewish holidays have some customs that you may think are a little wacky in our American culture but the wackiness is what creates the memories. My siblings and I all laugh at our respective homes when we eat our “first fruit” of the New Year…especially if someone has a coconut.

To this day, I must admit I really don’t like coconut. But I do try to make every Rosh Hashanah out of the ordinary in hope that it becomes an “extraordinary” memory for my family.

I wish you an extraordinary holiday season with many wonderful and wacky memories. Share your wackiest below!

Sliders and Moon Jars Oh My…

If you have never taken your children to visit the Chicago History Museum, June 9 is your day. The Chicago History Museum is a gem for us in Chicago. Visitors of all ages will find  stories, information about their city, and fun and interactive exhibits. The museum is featuring a very special exhibit at this time called Shalom Chicago.

Shalom Chicago features more than three hundred artifacts and images organized into three main sections:

The early community takes you back to the German Jewish community that began arriving in the 1840s. Rare artifacts from pre-fire Chicago and first-person accounts help tell their inspiring stories to a new generation.

The next phase takes us to the 1910 garment workers’ strike, a kosher food interactive and a rich array of ritual objects.

The last part called “New Challenges and Opportunities” introduces visitors to Jewish Chicagoans who protested against Hitler and served in World War II. There is a concluding video which features members of today’s community.

On Sunday June 9, starting at noon, InterfaithFamily/Chicago is partnering with the museum to offer a Family Fun Day. All can enjoy an outdoor barbeque, play games and participate in meaningful craft projects. Whether you come by outside to make a “moon jar” (come to see what this is!) and grab a slider or feel you have the bandwidth with young children to go through the actual exhibit that day or not, a question to consider is:

This exhibit features the history of Jewish Chicago, but what is the future of Jewish Chicago?

Without a doubt, interfaith families are a major facet of the future of Jewish life in Chicago. As interfaith families, how do you wish our communal organizations from synagogues to community centers to Jewish learning programs looked and felt, and what do you wish they focused on? What do you wish rabbis, educators and Federation leaders knew about your interfaith family and your commitments to bringing Jewish living and ideals to the rhythm of your life? Where could you use support and understanding? You are the future of Jewish Chicago!

We hope to see you Sunday, June 9. Come by and meet InterfaithFamily leadership and enjoy a great family day.

Let us know if you think you can make it at: arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Has This Product Solved The December Dilemma?

Let me set the scene. David Levy, Managing Editor of JewishBoston.com, declared:

If Manischewitz can market Chanukah gingerbread houses, I declare the “December Dilemma” officially solved.

What do you think? Will this kit, complete with white and blue icing and decorations, solve your gingerbread house needs? Would you make one with your family? Would your in-laws approve?

Just between you and me, I kinda love it. And maybe wanted to buy it a few months back when I first saw it in stores. And, because I’m a bit of a Jewish nerd, I love that the kit includes a mezuzah to affix to the vanilla cookie home’s doorway.

And, for the next day or so, JoyOfKosher.com is giving away a kit to one lucky winner. Enter now!

Hanukkah for the Whole Family

It’s that time of year: Hanukkah is nearly here and you’re looking for new ways to share the holiday with your family.

With the help of some friends, we’ve got you covered.

Games
Boston area parent Emily Sper is back with an expanded Hanukkah offering. Her Hanukkah Coloring & Activity Book, includes a basic history of the Hanukkah story, relevant Hebrew terms (and a handy pronunciation key on the back cover!), games and activities (don’t miss the checkers game with a dreidel twist), and more. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of both Ashkenazi customs (descending from eastern Europe) and Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese descent) and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) — it’s not just latkes but jelly doughnuts too, and there’s a coloring page for a Moroccan menorah. Some activities are geared at older kids, but there’s at least something for everyone, ages 4 or 5 and up.

If colouring isn’t your speed, or you’d like to give a Hanukkah spin to games your kids likely already know, Emily’s Hanukkah Card Games are for you. $10 gets you three card decks (one each for go fish, crazy 8s, and rummy) plus a small handbook that contains a glossary and an explanation:

Playing cards on Hanukkah is an old Jewish custom. Some decks had Judah instead of jacks, Hannah and/or Judith instead of queens, and Mattathias instead of kings. Other decks had the 31 kings of Canaan (Joshua 12).

Who knew playing card games was part of the Hanukkah tradition?! The decks come with concise explanations of the Hanukkah story and customs, Hebrew names for the numbers so you can learn to count while you play, and each suit depicts a different Hanukkah icon (dreidels, candles, etc., instead of spades, hearts, etc.). A nice and easy gift for kids and families — you can play some cards after enjoying some latkes (potato pancakes).

Crafts
Over on JewishBoston.com, they reviewed Kiwi Crate’s Handmade Hanukkah. What is it?

“A monthly subscription program designed around fun themes and filled with all of the materials and inspiration for hands-on projects. We know that getting creative with your kids can sometimes be overwhelming (where to start? what to buy?), but this program takes care of the guesswork for you and even includes activity cards that tell you the messiness level, grownup involvement necessary and things to think about to engage parents and kids in conversation.”

Kali, JewishBoston.com’s Community Manager, was clearly excited and impressed by this product — and your family likely will be too.

Food
When we think of Hanukkah foods, many of us think of latkes or sufganiyot (doughnuts), but if you’re looking for more options for your family, check out Maccabee Meals: Food and Fun for Hanukkah, by Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler. More than just a cookbook, the Hanukkah story is included, along with trivia, instructions and blessings for lighting the Hanukkah candles, ideas for Hanukkah decorations and crafts, and party etiquette.

More than just the standard fried foods, there are suggested menus and recipes for brunch, afternoon tea party, Shabbat dinner, winter picnic, open house, after-school snacks, pajama party, and Rosh Chodesh (new month) twilight supper — all Hanukkah themed! All recipes are clearly marked as meat, dairy, or parve (neither meat nor dairy), for families that keep kosher. Additionally, so that kids can help in the kitchen, the difficulty level is included with each recipe.

Is There a Jewish Prayer for Thanksgiving?

There’s a great feature on JewishBoston.com called “Ask A Rabbi.” And you needn’t be in the Boston area to benefit from this column! Today’s seem particularly apt to cross-post to our blog, given that the question posed was:

My wife grew up Christian. For her family, Thanksgiving always starts with a prayer. I’ll be joining my in-laws for Thanksgiving this year, and they’ve asked if I’d like to share a Jewish prayer. I want to pick the right one; what should I say?

Here’s how Rabbi Baruch HaLevi responded on JewishBoston.com:

Dear Friend,

Great question and obviously a timely one for us all, since the majority of us have family members of other faiths and will likely break bread with them this Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is perhaps the perfect intersection of our two great religious traditions in Judaism and Christianity. Unlike Christmas vs. Chanukah or Easter vs. Passover, where there are clear theological conflicts and a myriad of real-life complications, Thanksgiving is conflict-free (unless you talk politics, in which case you’ll probably need more than prayers to navigate that terrain with grace and peace).

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, contains the best of what it means to be an American — gratitude for abundance, inclusivity in our society and around our table, open hands, open arms, open hearts. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the summation of the heart of both Judaism and Christianity — faith, gratitude, peace and brotherly love.

Too easily, however, it turns into just another meal, another family gathering, another seemingly ordinary day. The religious mission, however, is to elevate the mundane into the sublime, to remind us that the ordinary can and should become the extraordinary. That is one of the reasons we might choose to bring religious readings to the table and something I applaud you for doing.

created at: 2012-11-20

There are so many prayers in both of our traditions which bring to light these themes of gratitude and abundance, welcome and compassion. With that said, I think it’s important to choose some that bring you a sense of integrity. One should never speak words in prayer or in life which don’t reflect your beliefs, your integrity, your soul. One should also take into consideration both the nature of the day and the others around the table. In this case, with your in-laws being Christian, there are plenty of prayers to be drawn from our shared tradition of the Hebrew Bible, specifically the latter part of the Hebrew Bible, known as “the Writings” and “the Prophets.” I encourage you to peruse these sections of the Bible — but most likely you will end up within the Psalms.

The Psalms, attributed to King David, express a soul’s longing for God, gratitude for living, uncertainty about the future and the quest for faith, compassion and goodness.  Here are some Psalms you might want to consider, though I’d encourage you to read through them all and choose what speaks to your soul the most. Also, there are many different versions of these, so Google until you find a translation that speaks to you.

Psalm 118 – Thanksgiving Day Prayer: God is Good

Psalm 100 – Thanksgiving Psalm: Praise

Psalm 111 – Thanksgiving Psalm: Nourishment

Psalm 30 – Thanksgiving: Give Thanks Forever

Psalm 28 – Psalm for Thanksgiving: Let God be Your Strength

Psalm 150 – Thanksgiving Day Psalm: Every Soul Rejoice

Beyond the Psalms:

Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Maralee Gordon

A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy

A Thanksgiving Prayer (author unknown)

We Pray For Children by Ina Hughs

In addition, here are a few more “edgier” but interesting selections (tread lightly with these at your in-laws’ table):

Pray For Peace by Ellen Bass

Love Is The New Religion by Brian Piergrossi

Hope this helps. Enjoy your turkey. Watch your football. Stuff yourself with pie. Talk politics if you must. But above all else, remember that love and peace, and gratitude and celebration, are what this is all about. Thank you for reminding us that this holiday is an expression of the great Judeao-Christian ethic upon which this great country has been built. Eat, drink and be merry, and read some Psalms as well.

Customize Your Hanukkah Celebrations

Our friends over at Jewish Holidays in a Box just posted this to their blog. And, because it’s now November 1, and, because there’s less than 6 weeks until Hanukkah, and, because the post is filled with great ideas for all sorts of families, we’ve decided to cross-post it here. (It was written by marketer/teacher/writer Ellen Zimmerman, who founded Jewish Holidays in a Box to support families who want to lead more joyous home holiday observances with less stress.) Enjoy!

Making your own Hanukkah menorah can be easier than you may think!

Our expanding, diverse family just expanded again. Mazal tov to the newlyweds! So as each Jewish holiday rolls around, I wonder what this huge mix of ages, interests, and backgrounds might enjoy.

For the first time at Rosh Hashanah dinner, for example, we used Bugles (the salty, crunchy snack food) to pretend that we were blowing the shofar, through a series of tekiahs, shevarims, and teruahs. Everyone at the table, except the baby, played along.

One Passover, we wrote new lyrics to a popular tune (“You Are My Sunshine”) as a welcome-to-our-Seder song, then played it on banjo and guitar. We handed out song sheets, so everyone could sing along with us at what might have been the first-ever bluegrass Seder.

As you think about celebrating Hanukkah this year, what does your family care about most? And how can you draw on their talents and interests to create a rich, multi-textured holiday? Do you have:

  • Avid bakers?
  • Younger kids who love to color?
  • Older kids who can make truly fabulous decorations?
  • Photographers and videographers?
  • Woodworkers?
  • Lego-loving kids and adults?

There are endless ways to draw on their unique abilities – from simple, quickie projects to more complicated ones. In bringing them into the preparations through their passions, you add to the joy.

Hanukkah cookies, quick or fancy

If you have bakers in your group, find a recipe for classic Hanukkah sugar cookies or just slice some rounds from ready-to-bake cookie dough. To decorate, use blue and silver sprinkles, a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, or colored sugar.

Or use the fun and easy stained glass painting technique: mix egg yolk with a little water and add a few drops of food coloring to small batches of the yolk mixture. Provide new watercolor paint brushes for each bowl and watch the creativity bloom. After the cookies are painted, pop them into the oven.

Got ambitious and experienced bakers? Try making your own jelly-filled doughnuts, sufganiyot. (Try this yummy-sounding recipe for sufganiyot.) [For those of you who follow my blog, you’ll know that this is far above my current abilities. One day. Maybe.]

Capturing the moments

Ask family photographers and videographers to preserve holiday prep, candle lighting, and games. For example, budding videographers can capture, then edit a three-minute show featuring baking, table setting, drawing, and present wrapping. Invite them to present their show one evening after you light the candles.

We haven’t gotten organized enough to do this ourselves, but I want to start getting a group shot at family gatherings. The key is planning ahead to identify a place in the house where everyone can fit into the shot, get the camera and tripod ready, and review how to set the timer. Is the best moment at the beginning, before the flow of food and games and candles? Or with everyone surrounding platters of hot latkes, just before they’re served? If you have a technique that works for this, please share. I love the idea of taking an annual shot that becomes a Hanukkah history of your family.

Building with Legos and wood

If you’re a Lego-loving family, check out these two posts from the remarkable Joanna Brichetto to make a lightable menorah and a flameless menorah.

Do you have a passion for woodworking and some tools? You can make your own wooden menorah. My husband experimented with a prototype using a piece of red oak, but you could make it from a piece of a 2 x 4. Here, he drilled holes for the nuts with a Forstner bit, then glued nuts into the holes. To create the shamash (the higher candle), he used a piece of 7/8-diameter wooden dowel. First, he drilled a 7/8” hole in the wood to hold the dowel, then glued in the dowel, and finally, drilled a hole in the top of the dowel for the nut. (NOTE: This prototype is far from perfect. And I apologize to my husband for showing it here. See how one of the holes cuts into the beveled edge? I didn’t, but he sure did. Still, you get the concept. He donated the other, more perfect menorahs he made to soldiers serving abroad.)

Want some other ideas? Just do an online search for “make your own menorah.”

Decorating for Hanukkah

All of these are ways to call out the artistic spirit of your family.

  • Coloring pictures
  • Making a huge banner
  • Creating a centerpiece
  • Assembling a long, colorful paper chain
  • Stringing colorful ribbons around the room

In our Hanukkah in a Box , we provide coloring pages, plus orange, blue, and white curling ribbons to make your home festive, as well as other decorating ideas. We also include Hanukkah napkins. Just dressing up your dinner table with these says, “It’s a party!”

In our Hanukkah Games Box , we have a menorah cut-and-color activity that little hands can color and “light” every night. There’s also a design-your-own banner that can end up a dramatic six-foot-long piece of art, suspended from ribbon. It can be decorated simply, just with crayons. Or it can be masterfully designed and layered with fabrics, buttons, glitter glue, holographic papers, origami, markers, or any other design tools that your artists prefer.

Musicians lead a songfest

If you are lucky enough to have singers or musicians in your midst, you can do a little advance prep and get them a CD of Hanukkah songs or sheet music. Music teachers will often help recommend music at the right level of complexity. Or explore www.jewishmusic.com. I’ve purchased some of my favorite books of Jewish and Israeli music from them, like “Harvest of Jewish Song” and “The Ultimate Jewish Piano Book.”

Your musicians can then lead the group in singing the classic tunes and introduce you to new songs.

Got songwriters? Ask them to come up with new lyrics to a tune everyone knows or pen a whole new creation to unveil.

Bottom line: you can showcase many of the talents in your family to make this a DIY Hanukkah, filled with warmth and bright memories.

For more free holiday ideas, sign up at www.JewishHolidaysInABox.com.

Responding to a Recent Article About our Parenting Class

Chai Wolfman, a contributor to OyChicago, recently wrote about the online/in-person class we just offered, Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.

She wrote that the great thing about having the material online is that she could come to it in five minutes here or there and get a nugget of content to ponder. Even though this class has ended, the material can still be accessed online. If any Chicagoland interfaith families with young children would like to learn more about this class, just email me: arim@interfaithfamily.com.

Chai also wrote about whether it is possible to get to know the other families in a primarily online class, which was one of our goals. I think families learned from each other's posts, but building friendships can only happen if they see each other for shared experiences. To that end, I will continue to share opportunities for our community to meet in person, like the JCC’s Got Shabbat or PJ Library programs.

The last point she made was particularly interesting: What does the term "interfaith" imply? I'm not sure how many kids use this term to describe their own family. Interfaith families run the gamut from families who want to incorporate both religions and traditions, to those in which one partner converts and they still feel that they are "interfaith" because they have extended family that isn't Jewish, to those in which one partner does not feel they have (or were raised in) any faith. When both partners are on the same page religiously they may feel that they are "just Jewish" or whatever other labels they give themselves. When families in similar religious situations can participate together in a program, it often leads to meaningful conversations about ideas that came up, what other people do, etc., and families often feel that having these affinity-type groups is meaningful. Congregations and communal organizations do wonder, though, what the best term is to use when wanting to reach all families across the interfaith spectrum. One congregation, temple-har-zion">West Suburban Har Zion, uses the term “multi-culti.” Whatever the term, I look forward to hearing from Chicagoland families who have a partner who is Jewish and one who didn't grow up Jewish or isn't Jewish: let us know what you are interested in, what challenges, if any, you have, and how we can better connect with you.

Chai mentioned wanting to find a welcoming congregation. Check out the amazing congregations from an independent minyan like Mishkan to all of the Humanist, Reform, Reconstruction, Conservative and other congregations in your area on our Chicagoland community page.

Lastly, as for requesting gluten-free challah as a pre-requisite for a congregational fit, this blogger is in complete agreement! Maybe fellow gluten-free families should have a challah-making group every Thursday afternoon. Or better yet, let's just meet at Rose's in Evanston! 

All interfaith families with young children in Chicago, who want meaningful Judaism and spirituality in your lives, there are so many options and resources for you. Help us get to know you so we can point you in the right direction.

Gefilte Fish

We recently asked readers for their gefilte fish stories. We didn’t really say more than that, hoping for as broad a response as possible. Because, really, if there’s one odd part of the Passover seder to pick out, one bizarre element to explain to your friends and relatives who’ve never experienced a seder before, gefilte fish is as likely a target as any. Most other elements of the seder have direct explanations: they stem from the elements of the Haggadah, the story read at the seder that retells slavery in Egypt, the Exodus.

But gefilte fish? Stretching for a plausible answer, I once heard a desperate Hebrew school teacher explain that gefilte fish honored the fish of the Red Sea, which Moses parted allowing the Jews to cross, escaping the Egyptians. I’m not so sure of that one…

About ten years ago, debating a career change, a friend suggested I start a Jewish cooking show on television. And, in his words, he would be my ever helpful “gentile sidekick, asking such important questions as, ‘why is the fish gefilted?’”

Deb M. of Massachusetts sent us this in response to our request:

Still trying to figure out exactly what it is… No stories for me. Sorry, just yuck for now!

So what is gefilte fish?

A patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. Typical main ingredients include fresh water fish like pike, carp, and, most commonly, whitefish. Gefilte fish gets its name from the Yiddish for “stuffed fish” and is commonplace to have on festivals and Shabbos. Some say that gefilte fish became popular due to how it’s made: the deboning meant some Jews who don’t want to break the rules of the things you shouldn’t do on Shabbos would feel more comfortable having the fish, because they weren’t “choosing” not to have the bones. Also, the addition of breadcrumbs or matzo meal meant they could make the fish last longer.

Whatever the reason, many of us will be seated at Passover seders next week enjoying gefilte fish (often served with a side of horseradish – to help (or hide) the flavor).

To help get you ready for this culinary adventure, we received some interesting tales, often humorous, involving this Passover seder staple. Share yours in the comments!

Julie G. of Montreal, QC:

Back in 1990, my brother was 6 years old and a very picky eater. My parents had tried almost everything to get him to eat a variety of foods, to no effect. But what my brother wanted, more than anything else, was a Nintendo. So one night, in a fit of despair, my father made a deal with my brother: “If you finish the gefilte fish on your plate, I’ll buy you a Nintendo!” He knew that this ploy would fail, as so many of his ploys had failed in the past.

Wouldn’t you know it, in less than 30 seconds my brother’s plate had been wiped clean, and he stared up at my father with the excited, hopeful eyes that only exist in small children who know they’re just about to get everything they ever wanted.

My father bought him the Nintendo. My brother still loves gefilte fish.

Rebekah M of Philadelphia, PA:

My last semester of college, I made friends with a bunch of freshman that joined the fencing club. We were hanging out and some of my new friends, who were Jewish, were saying that they missed home and Jewish food. So I promised to make them lots of food. Between the 3 of them, they decided they wanted matzah ball soup, brisket, latkes, challah and gefilte fish. My friend David was quite insistent that there be gefilte fish.

The following Friday I went out and bought all I needed, including a jar of gefilte fish. I had everything set out when everyone got there, but I couldn’t open the jar of gefilte fish, nor could my dorm neighbors. When David arrived, I told him that I had bought the gefilte fish but he’d have to open it if he wanted any. He was also unsuccessful. People arrived sporadically over the next few hours; everyone that came in was told that they had to try and open the jar of gefilte fish. No one could. As the night went on, we forgot to tell people to open it. Every once in a while David would remember and loudly lament the fact that no one could open the jar of gefilte fish. Four hours later, it was still unopened and I made him take it with him back to his dorm.

I don’t actually know if he ever got the jar open and ate the gefilte fish.

@MarjorieMoon on Twitter:

Grandma would buy fresh pike & keep it in the tub till ready. I thought every grandma did this! Homemade and super yummy.

Karen K of San Francisco, CA:

My assignment for the seder was to bring the gefilte fish. Which meant going to the store and buying two jars, which I did. Of course I then had the task of placing the fish on individual plates to be distributed to each the guests. I was a young mother who enjoyed cooking and brought a chocolate sponge cake for dessert but never even entertained the thought of cooking the gefilte fish, I wasn’t even going to eat it!

So there I was in the kitchen of the host family, finishing the first jar and opening the second when a second layer of scent enveloped me. I peered into the open jar and saw a short brown something. The smell reminded me of my grandfather — not surprising since he led the seders of my childhood. But this scent wasn’t a seder memory. It reminded me of the nights when he invited his cronies over for pinochle. I was swept away by a vivid memory of those sweet old men gathered around the table, laughing and smoking their cigars!

Oh boy, it was a cigar in the top of the jar! My mind flashed to an overworked man on the assembly line in the Manischewitz factory angrily putting out his cigar in the tub of fish. There was little appetite for jarred gefilte fish that night, but there was a new discussion on the additional workload of the laborers who made all the kosher for Passover food for us.

David D.:

I won’t do the story exactly, but a cousin’s friend’s father, Jim, was touring Israel. He was on a boat on the Sea of Galilee with other tourists including a Christian bible study group from the American Midwest.

A middle-aged women was discussing all the fishermen they saw and said to her friends, “I wonder what they catch here?”

Jim, ever helpful, volunteered, “Gefilte fish.”
“Oh”, she said, “I’ve heard of those. What do they use for bait?”
Jim explained, “Little pieces of cooked carrot.”
“Oh, how odd…”