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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 Passoverseder 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!
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.
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…”
Colbert introduced the segment – an interview with author Jonathan Safran Foer – with a joke that the only Jew in the audience chuckled at (a reference to the four questions).
But the interview itself was fun and included some good questions for the author of the New American Haggadah. Watch for yourself as they talk about the tradition of retelling the Exodus story each Passover, and what Safran Foer hopes people will experience with his new haggadah (hint: he hopes it makes you “feel” not just “read”).
Of course, Colbert being, well, Colbert, he couldn’t resist a jab or two: “You think you can improve on Moses?” He continued, “You got some matzah balls, buddy.”
Having recovered from that Shalom Sesame video (or maybe to help you recover?), check out the Passover Martini on the Gloss. (I’m not sure why there’s so much Passover cocktail action this year, but the first post also had cocktails.)
There are great resources for kids on Uncle Eli’s site, but be warned: it hasn’t been updated since the late-90s, so be prepared for frames and music!
For the more social justice inclined, a hodgepodge can’t be complete without mention of two more resources. COEJL (the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) explains the value of Hunger Seders, “to celebrate the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, introduce the challenges our nation faces in regard to hunger and nutrition, and present opportunities for action and advocacy opportunities to combat hunger.” Then there’s the Uri L’Tzedek Food and Justice Haggadah Supplement, as reviewed on Jewschool. The supplement, featuring 26 articles and insights about food, justice and Pesach, is available via free download.
Ok, so maybe the last Passover Hodgepodge didn’t contain everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Passover, but it had a lot to offer. Still, there was more I could have shared.
On the Reform Judaism blog, Ben Dreyfus approaches a seemingly simple question: how many days is Passover, 7 or 8? “When does Pesach end? Why do some calendars say it ends April 25 and others say April 26? The answer in most Reform Jewish communities is April 25, but the history is complicated….”
It’s been a while since I’ve rounded up some favorite links, but what better excuse than Passover? There’s something for everybody!
Let’s start with Passover and Easter in a Box. For your convenience, you can now get Passover standards (matzah, a seder plate and grape juice) packaged with Easter treats (candy, chocolate bunnies and Easter cookies).
Sweets aren’t your thing? Is that skewed a little young for your tastes? There’s always the Sipping Seder, a seder in cocktail form! If this isn’t a great way to introduce Passover to your friends and family (of legal age), I don’t know what is.
Looking for the 2011 version of the Passover story? Check out this video:
I have to confess: I expected not to like Our Haggadah, the new book by Cokie and Steve Roberts.
But I did. I like it.
I’m doing a lot of confessing about the Robertses. Last week I confessed to envying all of the publicity they are able to garner for their book, and some regret because they are known for observing both of their religions in their home, exposing their children (now grown) to both religions, and not to raising children to identify with one religion or the other. As I said then, we don’t say the Roberts’ approach is wrong, or bad, it’s just not the approach that we recommend to interfaith couples.
Having now read the book, I was wrong to suggest that for the Robertses, the seder is not exclusive to Judaism. It is clear from Cokie Roberts’ introduction that she completely respects the seder as a Jewish ritual. She explicitly says she is not trying in way to “Christianize” the seder. In fact, it’s clear that the Robertses started conducting their seders at her insistence, which happens with many other interfaith couples and is something we want to applaud. Including partners who are not Jewish, and others, in experiencing the seder is of course something that InterfaithFamily.com also applauds.
I also want to credit Steve Roberts for saying that “many young Jews are marrying outside their faith, but at the same time, they are eager to preserve and nourish their ties to Judaism. Cokie and I have long argued that organized Jewry needs to embrace these couples, not reject them, and that is clearly beginning to happen.”
We still have differences in our approach to interfaith family life, but I don’t have any reservations about recommending Our Haggadah to interfaith couples. I share in the Roberts’ concluding hope that their Haggadah will inspire interfaith couples to celebrate their own “great heritage.”
Cokie Roberts, who I love as an ABC News commentator, and her husband Steve Roberts, have published a new “interfaith Haggadah”–Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families.
I have to confess to very mixed feelings about this. I don’t like feeling envy, but I do.
I’m envious because as celebrities, Cokie and Steve Roberts command a lot of attention. Their book is getting pretty extraordinary publicity for a Haggadah – have you ever seen another new Haggadah featured on MSNBC or ABC News? Or the subject of a book tour, with stops in Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and I’m sure pretty much all over?
Now Steve Roberts is Jewish, Cokie Roberts is Catholic, and they’ve been married for 45 years. Their approach to interfaith family life, as best I understand it, is to observe both of their religions in their home, to expose children (their children are now grown) to both religions, and not to raise children to identify with one religion or the other.
We don’t pass judgment here at InterfaithFamily.com. We don’t say the Roberts’ approach is wrong, or bad. But it’s not the approach that we recommend to interfaith couples, and I’m envious of the publicity their approach is now getting.
In our camp, we think engaging in Jewish life is a wonderful source of meaning and value that is available not just to Jews but to their partners too, and we do what we can to invite interfaith couples to try it in hopes they will like it. We don’t say the religious traditions of the partner who is not Jewish should be hidden or forgotten. But in the surveys we’ve done for the last seven years, interfaith couples raising their children as Jews do participate in Christmas and Easter celebrations, but not in the religious aspects of the holidays. That’s the approach we recommend.
It’s wonderful that Cokie Roberts participates very fully in her family’s seder and appears to have been the driving force in starting the tradition in the first place. But according to ABC News, the Roberts’ Passover traditions “have evolved into a unique multi-cultural celebration that is exclusive to no faiths.” I think that’s sad. The Passover seder is exclusive to one faith — to Judaism.
What our camp needs is an interfaith couple with celebrity on the level of Cokie and Steve Roberts, to write a book about how an interfaith couple experiences Passover as a fundamentally Jewish, not multi-faith, holiday, as the story of the redemption of the Jewish people that is meaningful to both Jews and their partners. And then go on TV and a national book tour. Any takers?
I think it was Jewschool that tipped me off to the Idelsohn Society Passover Mix Tape. It’s not a tape, really, it’s a sound file with all kinds of music on it. It has Socalled on it and I really love that stuff. (It’s a little hipster-ish, but we like to be hip, right?)
When I tweeted yesterday’s Passover roundup post, I really won the jackpot–Esther Kustanowitz invited me to be a beta tester at haggadot.com, a project her roommate Eileen Levinson, an artist and graphic designer, is masterminding. If you are the kind of person who knows what beta testing means, write to Eileen at email@example.com. For a lot of interfaith families, the Passover seder is best when you put together your own service. There are a lot of great resources out there to do this, but this one seems to put the emphasis on the pretty. I’m hoping that next year, this site will be available to everyone to make really personal haggadot that fit your family.
FREE TIBET WORLD TOUR: MAN PLUS BIKE TO SAVE TIBET IN 8 MONTHS
A Tibetan American Goes Solo, Leaves Job, Family, to Alert World of his People’s Plight
At 40, Lhakpa has never been to Tibet. As he brushes his teeth, photos of escaped prisoners, their flesh rotten, race through his mind. Despite protests over human rights, China was awarded the honor of hosting the Olympics. It is sports, many said, not politics. Remind you of 1936 Olympics in Germany, anyone? So he left his job and family to ride his motorcycle from the UN in New York on March 10, around the world on a shoestring, modern nomad style to talk about Tibet, hoping pressure changes China’s behavior. He plans to return by 2011.
I spoke with Julia on the phone. First she explained: Lhakpa is her husband! She said she was surprised at how supportive her Russian Jewish relatives were of his quest to publicize the plight of Tibetans. They saw a parallel between his people’s situation and what had happened to their families in the Second World War.
This is a good interfaith story for Passover, when Jews celebrate emerging from slavery to freedom. In this case, the 40 years in the desert are going to be eight months on a motorcycle.
We are gearing up for the holidays here at IFF, planning travel for Passover and Easter, and doing a little last-minute brainstorming about how to make our seders more accessible. At home, my family is getting stressed out (about the cleaning) and excited (about the seder.)
I’ve been following TweetTheExodus on Twitter. My husband found it last night and shared it with my 7-year-old son, who was fascinated that @TheTenPlagues have their own account. If you want to see the story of the Exodus acted out in 140-character tweets, get over there and watch it!
Yesterday, I shared with my son an album I found in our house–Benjamin Lapidus on Herencia Judia. I wanted him to hear the rhumba version of the Four Questions. Most of the album is Caribbean musical settings of Ashekenazi tunes, except the first track is Sephardi, half in Ladino. I cannot believe how much fun it is to hear these tunes that are so familiar to me in this setting.
I wrote a short piece for Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies CJP Family Connections newsletter, Passover for Children, with some tips I’ve used with my family, including the books we used last year for our second-night, kid-focused seder. Not that all seders aren’t focused on teaching our children–no matter how old the children are.
This is probably the last possible minute for you to buy a variety of awesome seder-enhancers from haggadahsrus.com. You might have the bag of plagues or the Sedra Scenes (little plays you can use to act out the Passover story) at your local Judaica shop, but if you don’t–you can get them shipped directly from the land of my forefathers, Cleveland. Come comment here if you have a favorite hagaddah you want to recommend, or a Passover picture book you love.