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My grandma Zelda taught me many things about Judaism and preparing for the Jewish holidays. However, what she did not teach me was her recipes. In fact, in all the years I watched and helped her cook, I don’t ever remember seeing her follow a recipe or consult a cookbook. Whenever she cooked, she did it from memory.
For her huge fluffy matzah balls, I remember her telling me to mix together the matzah meal, schmaltz (chicken fat) and water. “If it’s too thick,” she said, “add more water. If it’s too wet, add more matzah meal.” There was no recipe to follow, just the steps she had learned from her mother, which were the steps she used her entire life and the same ones she shared with me.
Often she would tell me stories about what it was like growing up strictly kosher or what it was like living in a family of eight children.
Looking back now, I see that my grandmother taught me how to cook from memory. For the most part, if I learn how to cook something once, I can pretty much cook it again without the recipe. I know what “season with salt and pepper to taste” means, and I do not measure exactly how much goes in of this or that ingredient. When I bake a chicken, I don’t usually use a timer since I know how it’s supposed to look and taste when it’s ready. That is how I learned to cook from Grandma Zelda.
More than how or what to cook, much of what I learned from my grandmother was about how to build a Jewish home (even if I don’t follow the rules of keeping kosher in exactly the same way she did). I learned how to let Judaism be a framework for my life, how to follow the seasons and celebrate the holidays and how to make room within that structure for my own personality and creativity. I learned the value of taking the time to prepare for holidays—not just physically cleaning and cooking, but spiritually, too. I learned from her how to gather my family around me and how to make the observance of a holiday meal more meaningful. I learned how to open the door to those who come from other backgrounds and traditions.
This will be our first Passover since my grandmother passed away and my first time hosting Passover in my own home. It feels like an honor, a duty to carry on this tradition and a very large task for which I will need a lot of help. In large part, it’s about the food, but it’s also about the rituals and about the memories.
I know that our Passover seder this year will look and feel different from the Passover meals we used to have at Grandma Zelda’s. It will be the first time not being in her home and the first seder without her. I will think of her every step of the way as I clean my house and prepare for my guests. We will light her Sabbath candles on the first night of Passover, we will fill her Miriam’s cup and I will prepare and teach in her honor. I will cook with my memories, and I will cook from memory, just like she taught me.
This article was reprinted with permission from Jewish Food Experience.
Passover meant a big seder, with my grandfather chanting at the end of the table. My cousins and I would scramble around the house, hunting for the afikomen. Then my uncle would play the piano in the basement while we all sang. It was a wonderful holiday.
Passover also meant skipping my usual PB&J and taking buttered matzah to school, wrapped in aluminum foil. I remember how the butter would melt into shiny globules, and I’d rub them in with my finger. There was something nice about being “The Jewish Kid” in the class, with my special food. I loved the rituals. I liked the hyper-awareness of Passover, the symbolism of the seder plate. Mortar and tears—the sense that everything mattered.
And while we didn’t celebrate Easter religiously at our house, I did get a basket from my (Catholic) mom, filled with jellybeans and chocolate eggs. This was nice, too—that while I got to be “The Jewish Kid” I also didn’t feel totally left out of Easter. Sometimes there was a neighborhood parade and we made Easter hats from cardboard, glue and feathers.
Then came a year when the holidays overlapped. My parents were newly divorced, and not communicating well. My mom did her best with Passover. If memory serves, I took my matzah to school like usual. But then on Sunday morning… I got my Easter basket. Filled with bright jelly beans.
I tore into it, of course, mouth filled with sweetness, until I crunched through a blue candy shell into the crisp goodness of a malted robin’s egg. And suddenly, it hit me. Easter wasn’t Kosher for Passover! I spit the candy out into my hand, confused. What should I do?
For the next few days, my Easter basket sat on top of the fridge, waiting for me. I remember staring up at it, thinking about how it wasn’t fair, that nobody else I knew had to wait to eat her candy. But the truth was, my dad wasn’t there to enforce the rules anymore. It was all me. I had put the basket on top of the fridge, and I felt conflicted, but also firm in my resolve.
Years later, as an adult, the holidays overlapped again, and remembering the basket on the fridge, I did a funny thing. I assembled a Kosher-for-Passover Easter basket for myself. I did a good job, hunted down fruit-gels and made chocolate-covered matzah. The basket looked lovely.
But you know what? It was no good. It didn’t make me happy at all. Staring at that basket of fruit slices and jelly rings didn’t feel the same as waking up to an Easter basket. Not remotely. It felt… wrong.
I think sometimes, in the interfaith community, we seek to smooth the ruffled feelings, to reconcile all our conflicts and contradictions. We want to believe that we’re creating families in which everything can blend, fit and make sense. But here’s the thing—some things are distinct, even mutually exclusive. Some years, choosing to keep Kosher for Passover means not eating Easter candy. And that’s annoying, but also OK. Things don’t have to be easy to matter.
In a way, I feel like I undermined the essence of each holiday in that Eastover Basket I made. For me (and I can only speak for my own experience), Passover is about the restrictions, the rigor. Passover feels powerful because of its deprivation. And for me, Easter baskets are the opposite—about abundance, sheer pleasure.
This is fine! These two holidays don’t have to blend. Each holiday holds a special place in my memory. Easter and Passover can co-exist without merging. And you know what? The truth is that all the most meaningful experiences of my life have included conflict. Every deep relationship I’ve had has been imperfect, particular and occasionally inconvenient. Often, rituals matter most when we have to wait for them, or forego something else. Sometimes, conflict serves a purpose.
When I was a kid, I stared up at my Easter basket on the fridge and thought about both holidays. I owned them both and recognized that they both mattered to me. That year, for the first time, I truly decided to keep Kosher for Passover. It mattered more than it ever had before. And then a few days later, I decided to eat my robin’s eggs.
They were delicious.