My Turn to Make the Passover Meal (with Grandma’s Potatoes)

  
Baby Helen Rose

My mother with baby Helen Rose Castaneda

Passover is approaching. The stores in my neighborhood have begun the process of taking the chametz (bread) off the shelves and replacing the inventory with matzah or other kosher for Passover items. This is a tradition and it is Jewish law. Because Moses led the Jews in escaping Egypt and the bread did not have enough time to rise by the time they needed to escape, they ate unleavened bread. This is why the shelves are lined with different colored paper at my house. I switch the dishes to have Passover dishes. The night before the Passover seder I burn the bread on my mother’s front lawn. 

My mother hands me the Passover shopping list with a coupon for Cascade soap pods and a white envelope filled with crisp green twenty dollar bills. It’s been a rough month. A few weeks ago my brother’s kids (two twin boys almost 9 months old) got the flu. I was recovering from bronchitis. My mother had an upper respiratory infection. My 6-month-old baby girl Helen Rose had a cold with a fever. Then a relative passed away and my mother slammed her finger in a glass door and almost cut her whole thumb off. She’s having surgery right before the first seder.

But maybe all of this was a sign. This is my first year as a new mother and so as a new mother with my own mother recovering from her hand surgery, I will make the first seder meal alone. I am excited and nervous and as always, I am thinking of my Grandma Rosie.

My grandmother only owned one pot. It was the Russian immigrant in her, the memory of when people were fleeing the Pogroms. She learned what it was to take only what you can carry, that your feet are faster than history when they run toward the future. Every Passover my Grandmother cooked brisket in that pot. She lined her colossal charcoal colored pot with potatoes. They dripped with oil, paprika and onions. They were salted with her tears and the memory of an everlasting childhood. She turned the meat over and when it was ready she brought it to the seder table.

As a child those potatoes were my favorite dish. Flavored with the grease and fat of the brisket and the smokiness of the past. I piled mountains on my plate and pushed aside other delicacies for my simple peasant supper. Because Grandma Rosie only cooked once a year, her fridge usually only contained Ginger Snaps, Canada Dry tonic water and Tanqueray gin. She would sit at the kitchen table and instead of cook she would read the stocks. As a child of the depression she hid money under her mattress and never threw anything away.

When Grandma Rosie passed I found her holiday recipe book in my mother’s kitchen. One of the first recipes has an instruction of “crack 40 eggs.” I thought that was hilarious. It’s like a book if you’re cooking for an army. But I furiously searched those pages for her potatoes asking myself the whole time the pages crinkled beneath my fingers why I had never thought to hold her shaky hands and learn about her yesterdays through food. Why had I not thought to chronicle for my own daughter, named after her, the first steps my Grandmother took to survive in a world filled with Pogroms?

My Grandmother began each Passover holiday with a greasy finger. I understand now why it was this holiday she cooked for. It was the lesson of Passover she wished to pass down. The book we use on Passover is called the Haggadah. It is the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.  It says “We were once slaves in Egypt…” But the lesson is that we can be slaves at any time to anyone, even now. History always repeats itself.

Daddy and baby

My husband Adrian and Helen Rose

My daughter is Jewish on her mother’s side and Mexican Catholic on her father’s side. We speak Spanish at home, English at my mother’s house and most recently we put Hebrew letter magnets on the fridge. The world is changing. She will face many obstacles and I will lead her back to the lessons of the Passover seder. I will teach her the Jewish proverb that says, “I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.”

I’m about to leave the house to finish the rest of the shopping before the big day. I look to my menu I made on white loose-leaf: parsley, hard-boiled eggs, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, brisket, Grandma’s potatoes.

The Twelve Days of Interfaith Holidays

  

With not quite 12 days between Hanukkah and Christmas this year (depending on just how you count), I thought I would dedicate this post to that persistently ambitious Christmas carol (which also has more than one Hanukkah-themed version). In no particular order, here are some memorable moments from this December’s interfaith holiday season:

1.  Learning and sharing holiday baking traditions always crowns my list, from my spouse’s excellent latkes to Christmas cookies to the gingerbread people my spouse’s family favored at this time of year, and chuckling at his always-remarkable excitement over indulging in my family’s Christmas morning tradition of having pigs-in-blankets for breakfast.

2.  Learning and re-learning with my children the story of Hanukkah, from the Maccabees to the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), from dreidel to gelt, and learning and re-learning, how to share the stories of Christmas with them as well.

3.  Making a list, or two or three, and checking them at least twice, to make sure we have a good balance of gifts to spread across eight nights and one festive morning.

4.  Making sure that list of gifts includes opportunities to remind our children that the holiday season is as much about giving as getting (and this year, giving each daughter a tzedakah box as an opportunity to think about giving).

baking cookies5.  Baking “just one more batch” of cookies after we’ve already made four, this time chocolate peppermint buttons, because I am a compulsive holiday baker who likes nothing more than giving away platefuls of cookies.

6.  Answering the persistent queries from my children’s great-grandparents about what to send their great-grandchildren, and do they have to send gifts for Hanukkah, or is it all right to give them a Christmas gift, too, since they know we’re raising our kids Jewish? (Answer: gifts are always welcome, and we love you no matter how you figure this one out).

7.  Soothing my 6-year-old daughter’s tears as she mourns the eighth-night end of Hanukkah, by reminding her of all of the many holidays and festive days that we’ll enjoy between now and next December.

 

Holiday dishes8.  Worrying that hegemonic Christmas is overtaking Hanukkah in our home’s holiday decorations, as this year we brought Christmas-themed dishes onto our holiday table, and asking my Jewish spouse for what feels like the 50th time if he is sure he is OK with the Christmas-themed dinnerware, and all of the other Christmas-y things that have festooned our house, like the bough of pretend holly which now winds up our staircase, and gives great joy to our daughter who shares the plant’s name?

9.  Smiling as he reassures me that he really likes the new dishes, because the bowls have holly on them and the plates have a cute little village that reminds us of a favorite place where we once lived.

10.  Laughing with my spouse as I tell him that I think it would be fun to have special Passover plates too, not because I want us to be particularly frum, but because I enjoy holiday dishes, and wouldn’t it be fun to mark Passover with special dishes too (and throw a bit of kashrut into the mix without even meaning to)?

11. Continuing to read Hanukkah books to my daughters many nights after all nine candles have long since burned down to their holders, and smiling at my spouse over our elder daughter’s head as she insists on singing the song “Hanukkah O Hanukkah” all by herself.

12. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as Christmas Eve approaches, and realizing that somehow, again, I’ll have made it through another festive and yet frenetic holiday season.

Wishing all of you a happy, festive and joyful holiday season!

Baby Namings and the Flexibility of Tradition

  

When I was pregnant with our first daughter, my husband and I were living in the mountains of North Carolina. We spent the first several months of my pregnancy worrying that we’d need to bring in a mohel from who-knows-where, if we happened to have a baby boy. Would we have to ask someone to drive in from Atlanta, three hours away? Or perhaps Charlotte, a mere two-and-a-half?

When we found out that the baby would be a girl, we breathed a sigh of relief on that score, at least. Understanding what happened at a baby naming, though, seemed much more complicated than the task assigned to a mohel.

I had dozens of questions for my husband, though, about baby namings for Jewish girls. What happens at them? Did it require synagogue membership, or a rabbi? Were there set prayers or actions to follow? The lack of clear guidance on what to do in such a ceremony baffled me, given my greater familiarity with baptism and the UU baby-welcoming tradition which often feature a rose in addition to water. Our nearest local Jewish community at the time consisted of a dozen wonderful retirees led by a retired cantor and an active layman who served as the group’s unofficial rabbi. We attended Friday night services sporadically in the fellowship hall of the local Catholic church. The Jewish community had just celebrated a milestone by purchasing a Torah, housing it in an ark-on-wheels in the priest’s personal study.

When Laurel was born several months later, the community was thrilled to host her baby naming. I seemed to think that a naming needed to happen soon after a baby’s birth, so we scheduled ours for a few weeks after she was born, despite her somewhat premature arrival. Relatives from both sides of the family poured in from across the country to celebrate the arrival of their first grandchild, first great-niece, and newest second cousin once-removed (etc).

baby-naming

At the baby naming ceremony for our first daughter

We held her baby naming during one of the Friday night services. It happened to be the 99th birthday of the community’s oldest member, and everyone’s eyes were alight with wonder at this dual celebration of someone at the very start of their life, and someone else whose life had lasted for a remarkably long time, and who remained quite spry besides.

The ceremony opened with an affirmation of our choice to raise Laurel in the Jewish tradition (see, I didn’t think I was mistaken), as well as our identity as an interfaith family. In the ceremony, we expressed our desire to welcome Laurel into the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. The congregation said the Shehecheyanu, and Ben and I said a Brachah for bringing her into the covenant. We wrapped Laurel in her grandmother’s tallit as L’Dor v’Dor (From Generation to Generation) was read. There was not a dry eye in the room, from Laurel’s Catholic great-grandparents and Jewish grandparents on her father’s side to her Episcopalian grandparents on her mother’s side.

After the formal blessings, we brought out one of our menorahs, a brass, silver, and bronze affair with arms that could be arranged in a row, or in a circle. We arranged the arms in a circle, and relatives from all sides of the family read pre-assigned passages from the Hebrew Bible about light coming into the world, as if to emphasize the new light that shines with the birth of any baby.

Several years later, our second daughter was born, even more premature than the first. We didn’t hold a baby naming ceremony for her until almost six months after she was born. We were not yet affiliated with any synagogue in the area, so we held Holly’s naming at home, and conducted the ceremony ourselves. It hadn’t occurred to me that a rabbi could come to our home to do the ceremony, but my Jewish other-half assured me that really, we could just do it ourselves – say words and prayers that would enter her into the wider Jewish community of the covenant. Relatives who lived far away “attended” via Skype, and one set of maternal grandparents sent a pre-recorded video to play during the ceremony. Instead of meeting in a Catholic church’s fellowship hall, we met in our living room, guests scattered on couches and folding chairs.

second-baby-naming

We had the baby naming ceremony for our second daughter at our home.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that we changed very little of the first ceremony for the second. I’ll never forget when Laurel quickly rushed through her own words of welcome to her still-new sister—“I-love-you-Holly-I’m-so-glad-you’re-my-sister”—in front of her assembled relatives. The main difference was that we asked each guest to say a few words of welcome to Holly as they lit a tea light, rather than the pre-arranged readings using the menorah. We also chose a version of L’Dor v’Dor taken from the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.

Looking back on it, I am glad we held the ceremonies in the way that we did. Both ceremonies upheld our decision to give our children a Jewish identity, and I did not feel too strange about not doing something ritualistic to include each baby in Unitarian Universalism. After all, it was difficult enough to coordinate the schedules of so many scattered relatives for one ceremony, that I cannot imagine how we might have tried to fit in a second baby-welcoming ceremony in another tradition as well!

As someone with an enduring academic interest in ritual, it feels right that we held ceremonies for welcoming our children. If learning about Jewish baby-naming ceremonies taught me anything about ritual, they gave me an appreciation for the flexibility of tradition. Our ceremonies reminded me of the ways in which something (like religion or ritual) that can seem hallowed by time can actually be quite ad-hoc, adapted to the moment, while still feeling like something time-honored.

Does Interfaith Mean Anything at Age 6?

  

FamilyThe other day, Ruthie and I were talking about one of her favorite topics—her cousins. She ticked off each one’s name, and talked about something special about them, or what they did the last time they were together. Then she started talking about some friends who are like family—she often brings up this topic of what to call her friends who are like family but who aren’t blood relatives. In speaking about two sisters in particular from a family that we often celebrate Jewish holidays with, she changed the subject a little bit.

“So,” she asked me, “which one of their parents wasn’t Jewish when they met, the mom or the dad?”

I smiled.

“Actually,” I told her, “they both were Jewish when they met.”

“Oh,” she said, and kept talking.

This was not a monumental question to her, but it gave me pause. Neither good nor bad, but it gave me pause. To her, the question was completely logical. First of all, there was no judgment in it. It wasn’t good or bad if they were or weren’t Jewish, it was just a normal question to her about families.

In Ruthie’s Jewish family (my side), most of the pairings in my generation are interfaith. In fact, of my three siblings and six first cousins, only one person has married someone from a Jewish background. This does not stand in the way of our lighting Hanukkah candles together or sharing the Passover seder. What’s more, an openness to mixed faith couplings has brought seven fantastic people into our family, seven more adults who nurture and support our foursome.

Because of this, Ruthie really hasn’t been exposed to the idea that being Jewish necessitates having two Jewish parents. It is just not part of how she understands her identity. While I spend time every month blogging about navigating a somewhat new path in embracing multiple forms of Jewish identity, Ruthie thinks our family is completely ordinary within our religious community.

When she asked the question, my mind started embracing the 21st century outlook for interfaith families. I went to an exciting place: That maybe because of the work of community leaders, generous rabbis, individual families who choose love and acceptance and, of course, InterfaithFamily, our girls won’t ever know to feel different. They will know that we are Jewish through our actions. As they grow up they will understand that they have a choice about spirituality and connection to a religious community. If we are successful, the girls will understand that our goal as parents was to show them our choice, in the hopes that they’ll love it, but also in the hopes that they understand the benefits of choosing to make space for these connections in their adult lives.

Another interpretation might be that Ruthie is 6. I wasn’t raised in an interfaith family myself, so for all I know every 6-year-old thinks that all families must be like their own, religiously or otherwise. Perhaps 6-year-olds with interfaith parents have been asking this question for generations; I have just never encountered their stories.

So, earth shattering or not, I have a new inspiration. To hold onto the kernel of celebration that I felt in that moment. To hold onto the idea that I can raise my girls in an environment where their Jewish identity is about our actions, and not about a rule that would prohibit the loving home Eric and I have created as a couple. To create a place where they can relish the heritage they carry on through the multiple traditions from both sides of their families, but also firmly choose a path of spirituality and connection that is personally fulfilling to them. And, ideally, to imagine a time that feels not that far off when being interfaith will be an important part of how we understand, respect and love our extended family, but won’t be a significant facet of our Jewishness.

A Charoset Blended Recipe

  

My grandmother, Bless her Soul, made the most amazing dishes.  Sadly, all the recipes disappeared when she passed away because she would never reveal any of her secrets.  She was born and raised in Egypt and emigrated with the Exodus of the 1950’s.

One dish I remember LOVING as a child was her charoset, a staple of the Passover Seder.  I used to steal the walnuts with some of the sweet dip during the Seder.

My grandmother lived (with my father’s family) in Italy for a while and from my research, I think her charoset recipe is a blend of a traditional Egyptian charoset and a traditional Italian charoset.

It seems fitting since my husband’s parents were both born in Italy.

I don’t have amounts, so these are approximate and then you can adjust based on taste.

The recipe:

  • 1 Cup dried dates, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon raisins
  • one apple (shredded) or 1/3 cup of apple sauce (I think the applesauce gives the charoset the flavour that I remember)
  • a bit of sugar (if you’d like it even sweeter)
  • a pinch of cinnamon or ground ginger (if you like that flavour)
  • a splash (or three!) of sweet wine or grape juice

Put the raisins and the dates into a saucepan with some of the wine (or grape juice) and some water and simmer gently until everything is softened and the liquid is gone.  Add all the ingredients together and blend.  Enjoy!

What charoset recipe do you use?  Was it a traditional recipe in your family (or country)?

My Son’s Circumcision

  

When our second child, a boy, was born, my (Jewish) husband was adamant that he be circumcised. Everyone has their own baggage, and I’m far from exempt from that.  I grew up without a dad; I was dead certain that I wanted my children to have an active, involved and dedicated father.  I didn’t want them to have just one parent, so it was vital to me to respect him as a parent.  This was his son as much as he was mine, and it was that absolute for him.  He would be circumcised.

It’s one thing to blithely agree to something and then realize how incredibly hard it’s going to be.  Like daycare – of course, my kids would go to daycare and I’d work full time, right up until I actually HAD a child and the thought of leaving them for eight to nine hours a day was devastating.  It was the same situation with the circumcision.  Yeah, sure, we can do that, right up until I’ve got this tiny little boy – AND YOU WANT TO CUT OFF HIS LITTLE PENIS?!?!  And if I was struggling with the concept, explaining it to my non-Jewish family was even harder.  The whole idea of having a party where we’d cut off the tip of his penis and then have bagels was beyond their comprehension.

But cut it off we did.  I reminded myself over and over again that this was my husband’s child as much as mine.  That I had to respect Marc’s traditions and his right to make decisions for our child if I truly wanted him to be an equal parent with me.

First let me back up.  My son was a challenging baby.  To this day, six years later, I know of no other child who was as miserable as my little baby was for the first several months.  Colic and reflux were a part of it, but part of it was just who he was, he doesn’t like change – and the whole concept of starting his life here just made him furious.  He cried all the livelong day, unless he was nursing.  Or in the swing – he loved his swing.  But mostly he cried and nursed. He only slept when I held him, and only stopped crying when he nursed.  He was horrified if anyone other than me tried to hold him, screamed unmercifully if people looked at him for too long, and being the center of attention made him nuts.

So I was a wreck on the day he was going to be circumcised.  To put it mildly.  I was an experienced mom, he was my second baby, and I’d had literally decades of childcare behind me – but I was worn out, sleep deprived, and out of mind with confusion and frustration and this overwhelming love for this boy child.  Voluntarily hurting him (and that’s the only way I could see this) was so hard.  So incredibly hard. My mother, sister, stepfather and cousin had all come early to our house.   We lived in a second floor apartment, and it was literally the hottest day of the summer so far that year.   We had no air conditioner, and the apartment was wall to wall people.  I couldn’t stop crying.  The baby couldn’t stop crying (because the mohel didn’t want me to nurse for the two hours before the ceremony, and he was furious at the thought of a pacifier).

All of my husband’s female relatives assured me that I shouldn’t be there, the mothers never watch.  But I couldn’t NOT be there.  This was my child.  This was my baby, and if I was going to allow this to happen to him, I couldn’t let him do it without me there to support him.  So I sat in the room just off of the dining room, where everyone had gathered.  My father-in-law held the baby, and my poor confused stepfather gave him little bits of a sweet wine and it was over super fast.  They handed him back to me immediately, and he stopped crying the instant I touched him.  He nursed gratefully and went immediately back to sleep.

The man who performed the circumcision passed away a few months ago.  It wasn’t that I knew him well, I had never met him before and only saw him a few times since then.  But he was there, on one of the most challenging and painful and ultimately rewarding days of my life.  You know how sometimes you bond to your baby the first time you meet them, and sometimes it takes a bit? I loved my baby from the beginning, but on the day that he was circumcised, I knew absolutely and without question that I was his mother and he was my son, and that when he hurt, I felt it more than I could have imagined.  It was the beginnings of a relationship that, to this day, continues to shock and amaze me, to teach me and stretch me and astound me.  Rest in Peace, Stuart Jaffee, and thank you for your part in my son’s life.

That being said – when we found out that our next baby was a girl, the first thing I thought in the ultrasound room was thank God we don’t have to have her circumcised.