Passover Feast Knits Family Tighter

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN spring, when Passover and Easter holidays come around, and in December during Hanukkah and Christmas, I'm thankful for a foothold in two religious traditions. I was raised a Christian in a conservative midwestern city, and my husband's background is Eastern European Jewish by way of San Francisco.

When I was a child, my mother would help us dye eggs and make Easter baskets. The Saturday before Easter and church, she scrupulously cleaned house and cooked a meal that usually consisted of roast leg of lamb with mint jelly, mashed potatoes and gravy, peas with pearl onions, and some kind of Jell-O fruit salad.

For dessert, she made angel cake in a springform pan, which was cooled by inverting it over a cola bottle. The cake was iced in white cream frosting, topped with ''Peeps'' -- those marshmallow chicks covered in yellow sugar -- and displayed on Mother's glass cake stand like a confectioner's nightmare. We loved it.

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My husband, who, like his father, is proud of his Jewish heritage but is not drawn to organized religion, would tell me about the Passover seder -- a meal in which Jewish families remember the bitterness of slavery in Egypt and celebrate the freedom that Moses won for them in Biblical times. Passover marks the ''passing over'' of Israelite homes -- marked with lambs' blood to identify them - by God's emissaries, who afflicted the households of Egyptian oppressors.

A seder certainly sounded more exotic than my family's Easter dinner, and I was eager to attend one. I got my opportunity last year at my sister-in-law's home in New Jersey.

Like many things in Jewish tradition, seders are open to interpretation and adaptation. My sister-in-law asked us to bring readings to share during the seder. Thinking of the Biblical history that embraces Judaism and Christianity, I chose a Psalm. My husband, reflecting his secular-humanist approach, read a passage about solitude from Virginia Woolf's ''To the Lighthouse.''

Traditionally, the head of the family (my brother-in-law, in this case) tells of the Exodus, following guidance set down in the Haggadah, a liturgical text. The Haggadahs were improvisatory, and the rituals vary among countries and households. One of the goals is to pass history along to children, and this is done by their asking questions such as ''Why is this night different from all other nights?'' and ''Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread?''

What all Passover ceremonies have in common is the use of symbolic foods displayed on a seder plate. Generally, the arrangement includes baytzah (a roasted egg), which could symbolize rebirth, or an offering; karpas (a mild green vegetable such as parsley or celery) symbolizing new growth; maror (a bitter herb such as horseradish), which is a reminder of the bitterness of slavery; zeroah (a roasted shank bone) representing the paschal lamb that was sacrificed at the Temple; and charoset (a sweet spread of fruits and nuts) to symbolize the mortar slaves used to build Egyptian cities.

Before the main meal, these items are explained and samples of each are tasted, along with the matzo, or unleavened bread. Because the children of Israel left Egypt so quickly when Pharoah ordered them out, no Jewish bread had time to rise. (For devout Jews during Passover week, matzo takes the place of all foods made with flour or leavening.)

When the last blessing is said, the feasting begins. Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazim) are the largest group in the United States, and their dishes are the ones commonly associated with Jewish cooking, and therefore with seders: Chicken soup with matzo balls, gefilte fish, borscht, and potato kugel are all recipes from Eastern Europe.

Jews who settled in the Mediterranean (Sephardim) and those in the Middle East have a climate conducive to growing fruits and vegetables, and their cuisine is lighter as a result. Because of concern about the high fat content of some Eastern European foods, Jewish cookbooks include Sephardic dishes like spinach pie and matzo meat pie.

The meal at my sister-in-law's featured soup with matzo balls as an appetizer, a main course of tender roasted chicken, steamed vegetables, and a Sephardic dish made of carrots and raisins. For dessert, I contributed several dozen coconut macaroons.

If the cook is trying to stay authentic, even desserts must be made with some combination that does not involve flour or leavening. Macaroons, whose lightness is based on egg whites beaten until fluffy, are a good choice.

Next weekend, the family will gather at our house for the seder. Like my mother at Easter and Jewish homemakers at Passover, I will clean house and cook. I haven't decided yet what will be on the menu, but macaroons are a safe bet for dessert. With my sister-in-law's help, I'll add my culinary skills and renewed Christian faith to this double celebration of Passover and Easter. Both commemorate the darkest and lightest of human times, both bring anticipation of spring and the flowering of hope.

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