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.

Mysticism and My Newborn



Adrian with the baby

Adrian checks out the snow with baby Helen Rose


I believe in the mystical. Tarot Cards, Ouji boards, even the woman on the corner of Ocean Avenue who stares at me with one blue eye and one gray eye and says “you have a purple aura” when I walk by. Yes, I believe in her too. As I watch my newborn grow and change every day I wonder what magic I will teach her. What mysticism will her father share with her?

The Hebrew word for Pregnancy is Herayon. In Hebrew every letter is paired with a number and the letters in the word Herayon add up to 271. This is because a woman’s pregnancy generally is equal to 271 days. Here is another interesting Kabbalistic fact about Herayon: Har, the first part of the word in Hebrew, means “mountain.” This is because a woman’s belly is shaped like a mountain. I try to explain this to my significant other, Adrian. We compare notes on magic.

The month before my daughter was born I went to the Judaica store in my neighborhood and bought Channa’s book of Prayers for Jewish Women. I was nervous about delivery. I was looking for a magic spell. I called Adrian’s mother on a regular basis. “Señora,” I said, “Is it very, very painful? Is it unbearable?” She did not lie. She said it was. My own mother told me the truth as well and then she added, “But the pain doesn’t matter. In the end you get a baby.”

But I needed magic! I needed the Zohar to whip me up a flying carpet and deliver me from the agony of childbirth. More than this I wanted my newborn delivered into the world safely and with the prayers of both my Jewish background and Adrian’s Catholic background.

I thought of the word Tzirim. The Hebrew word “tzirim” means “contractions” or “labor pains” but there is another literal translation as well. “Tzirim” can also mean “hinges” like, door hinges. This is because a woman is opening a door for her child to exit through during childbirth. The Kabbalah compares contractions to snake bites and when this happens the woman gets ready to push the baby out of the womb and into the world. Snake bites make me nervous. Again, I needed magic.

Adrian is from Puebla, Mexico. In his small village his parents speak a language of the Aztec empire. They speak Spanish but they also speak a language called “Nahuatl.” It is an indigenous language. It is a dying language. It is the Hebrew of Mexico.

The Nahuatl people believe that when a boy is born his umbilical cord should be buried on a battlefield and when a girl is born her umbilical cord should be buried in the field because the cornfield is where tortillas come from.

But the birthing process for both cultures, for both religions is the same. In ancient times Jewish women gave birth in tents surrounded by other women. The same is true for Nahuatl women. In fact, when I spoke on the phone with Adrian’s mother she told me that she had birthed all seven of her children in her house surrounded by her female family members and one witch doctor.

I asked to speak to the witch doctor but I never could get a hold of her. My pregnancy began to take on an artistic form in my head. In my imagination, my giving birth began to look like Frida Kahlo and Amedeo Modigliani had lunch together and then had a painting competition. I saw myself painted slim across a canvas with a dark red background and serpents coming out of my nose. My imagination was winning over my mysticism.

Here is the truth about birth: It hurts. It hurts, but it is the one true visible sorcery. I had been so concerned about what my newborn would learn, how she would grow, what she would believe in. What I didn’t realize is that SHE was pure wizardry. On every contraction I felt the hinges inside swing back and forth. On her long entrance into the world I asked Adrian, “Can you see her head?” he nodded yes. I asked, “Is her hair black?” he nodded yes again. She arrived black haired as the raven, audacious as the eagle and breathtaking as an Aztec monarch.

The Hebrew word for love is ahava, and its numerical value adds up to the number 13. There are other words that add up to the number 13 as well. Zeved, for example, means “to gift” or “to bestow” and its letters add up to 13. To whisper or meditate is Hagah in Hebrew, also a numerical value of 13. Even the number 1 in Hebrew, which is Echad, has a numerical value of 13. Thirteen plus 13 is 26. In Hebrew, the letters in G-d’s name add up to 26. Love is a gift, love is a whisper, love is one and so is magic in any culture or religion.