Religion, tradition, ceremony… All things I was exposed to more at school than at home, unless you count Neighbours, baked beans and a Cadbury’s family-size block (not that there’s anything wrong with that, right)? So it was an extreme honour when I was invited into my boyfriend’s family home to celebrate the Seder, the Jewish ritual feast that is held annually to mark the beginning of Passover. Literally meaning “order”, the Seder is known as “The Feast of Freedom” and is a series of symbolic proceedings that lead up to the main event, the meal. Focused on family, blessings, prayers and, most importantly, the food, the Seder is steeped in tradition and very important in the lives of both practicing and non-practicing Jews. Marking the moment when God’s people finally escaped from slavery in Egypt, it is celebrated worldwide, (even Obama got in on the action this year, having hosted his own Seder at The Whitehouse with family and friends).
The focal point of the ceremony is the Seder plate, comprising several symbolic elements. Zeroa (a roasted shank bone, often substituted with a fresh beet in vegetarian homes), symbolises the Pesach sacrifice of a lamb in the Temple, Beitzah (hard-boiled egg), symbolises mourning, maror (typically freshly grated horseradish) and chazeret (bitter herbs), represent the bitter experience of the Hebrew slaves, haroset (a mixture of apples, nuts, raisins, spices and wine), symbolises the mortar used in building for the Egyptians, and karpas (parsley, celery, or another green vegetable), which is dipped into salt water, symbolises the tears shed during enslavement. The table must also have three pieces of matzah, held in a special pouch and used ceremoniously during the Seder.
Throughout the evening, there are 14 steps that represent different phases of the Seder. These include the washing of hands and eating of bitter herbs during the ceremony, as well as various prayers and activities that take place. Traditionally, the night is about the passing on of family customs and confirmation of faith, and hosting the Seder is a privilege and great responsibility. With a newly-wed couple at our table, there are several mentions from the elder generations of the absence of children at our Seder, and it is noted that it’s always more fun participating in some of the games and pre-dinner activities when there are little ones around. Goes to show, pressure from hopeful grandparents-to-be isn’t exclusive to any religion.
Each person in attendance gets a copy of the Haggadah, which leads the service. Filled with writings, songs and prayers in both English and Hebrew, each person around the table reads an excerpt until the rite is completed. As it is my first Seder, I am sure I am going to forget how to read and quietly hope for the immaculately carpeted floors to open up and swallow me whole, until I become absorbed in the stories of history, suffering and sacrifice (aided also by the mandatory Jewish wine which accompanies some of the stages from the book). Having sat through my fair share of religious services, tonight’s narrative of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt reminds me of religious education classes from high-school and the nostalgia in the room reveals centuries of stories, ancestry and observance. The blessings end in “L’shanah haba’a bi Yerushalayim!” meaning ”Next year in Jerusalem!”, and expresses the hope that next year Passover will be celebrated in Israel. With my boyfriend moving to Chicago my hope is instead to be able to join him for Passover in the Windy City l’annee prochaine, but I am happy to go along with the rest of the passages and the topping up of my glass with some incredible Ashbrook Estate Shiraz to ease into dinner.
Perpetually conscious of my dietary requirements, my boyfriend’s mother has arranged for me a special chickenless broth for the traditional Matzah Ball Soup. Made from various herbs and spices, garlic and salt, there isn’t a chicken extract or unfriendly ingredient in sight in this pre-packaged “chicken” stock, and my first taste of matzah ball soup is one to remember. Around the table there are several conversations detailing the individual preferences for the dish, and I hear different variations often get labelled as “floaters” or “sinkers”. In this case, the matzah balls are fluffy and made to perfection, and are clearly going to be hard to beat next I get the chance to sample some (or if I am ever inclined to make my own, gulp).
As is customary when there is a special occasion and 20 + people to feed, the experts are called in and the rest of the meal is catered for by a husband and wife team and professional chef. Alleviating stress and enabling the respective hosts to enjoy the party along with the guests, the families at our Seder have been doing this for years, and it works. While the matriarch of the family has prepared the traditional Jewish elements of the meal, the caterers have arranged an Heirloom Tomato Salad, Roasted Vegetables, Paprika Aioli and various other morsels for the meat-eaters. By the time we get to dessert, including Coconut Balls, kosher for Pesach Chocolate Brownies, Almond Meringues and Almond Horseshoe Cookies, I think it isn’t possible to eat another mouthful, until our waiter comes around and asks which of the 8 or so gelato flavours I’d like to try, compliments of one of the families in attendance who are behind the Bondi pizza and gelato empire Pompei’s (I have Ferrero Rocher and raspberry, and would HIGHLY recommend you do the same, given the chance).
A 30 year-old bottle of Courvoisier helps wrap up the proceedings. As the party vacates, behind is left a trail of kosher crumbs and a couple of empty pill-packets, remnants from the 88 year-old couple who have enjoyed the meal seated either side of a carer who is now permanently responsible for their well-being. With so many years of tradition, family and love between them, it’s a beautiful reminder of what the night is all about. Left feeling a little smaller than the much bigger, older and wiser spirit of Passover, I am lucky to have been given an insight into what it’s all about. That, and a reinvigorated motivation to create customs and traditions for my own family, whatever they may be, and to have something meaningful to pass from one generation to the next. L’shanah haba’a bi Yerushalayim (or Chicago, Sydney or wherever your heart desires) and happy Pesach to all!