15 April 2014
A night at an unconventional Passover Seder dinner involving Egyptian Buddhists, chicken soup and more matzo than you can shake a shtick at.
Like many Gentiles, I’ve had an long-running fascination with Judaism. The yarmulkes, the self-deprecating humour, the unbroken religious traditions of nearly 3,000 years, the stoicism in the face of systematic oppression, the love of complex carbohydrates, the strong traditions of performance that produced Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen – it all seems so much more self-assured and hermetically sealed than poor tragic old Catholicism that I was raised in. While Catholics spend years of their lives confessing for perceived sins, and buggering altar boys in between prescribing contraception bans to the Third World, Judaism carries on doing what it’s always done: enduring, thriving in difficult circumstances, and playing it safe with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. Somewhat at odds with its reputation as a recessive culture, there are the twin problems of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Madonna’s occupation of Africa with her Kabbalah schools, but we’ll leave those bad boys and girls for another time.
The history of London is to some extent the history of Jewish culture. The first Jew was supposed to have arrived with William the Conqueror in 1066, and Jewish financiers appear to have been the backbone of the economy until 1290, King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from England. The ban remined in place until the time of Oliver Cromwell, when a small colony of Sephardic Jews living in London was identified in 1656 and allowed to remain. A Parliamentary act to naturalise Jews was passed in 1753, as a reward for Jewish loyalty during the Jacobite uprising, but it was repealed the following year as an affront to Christianity. Full emancipation wasn’t achieved until the Victorian era, and in the late 19th century, London’s East End became a Jewish dispora as hundreds of thousands of refugees immigrated from Eastern Europe. Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister, was Jewish by birth (though like many families of his time, had assimilated into English culture by converting to Christianity). These days, the East End is more Pakistani and skinny-jeaned art school Trustafarian, but traces of the Jewish influence remain – the Bevis Marks Synagogue still stands, as do the bagel stores on Brick Lane and the Petticoat Lane markets (since renamed Middlesex Street). The Jewish tradition of fried fish is one half of the nation’s favourite fast food, and Yiddish vocabulary has schlepped slowly into the lexicon.
I’ve spent several years dropping very broad hints to Jewish friends about my desire to be invited to Passover dinner, which were all politely ignored. What gives? I’m polite, I’m neurotic, I look good in horn-rimmed spectacles, I’m an expert mother-charmer – I’m only a foreskin away from being the perfect Seder guest. Well, as Charlotte found on Sex and the City when she tried to become a Jew, one has to expect a few slammed doors before they’ll invite you in.
Last week, I was invited to a “reconstructed” version of Seder dinner, by Sandra, a therapist living in Hampstead Garden Suburb in North London. Knowing how much tourists like me want their walks on the Jew-side to be authentic and unadulterated, Sandra promised me readings in Hebrew, kosher wine, quarrelling relatives, free-range kvetching and not a gram of yeast in sight.
She delivered, mixing elements of the traditional with her own style and the most unconventional dinner party guest list I’ve experienced to years. As well as me, there were three other homosexuals, Sandra’s elder daughter and her 12 year-old son (sporting a fantastic Jackson Five afro), a German, two Spaniards, the neighbours from next door who’d lent Sandra a table for the evening, and an old friend who was the spitting image of Larry David from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Squashed into Sandra’s charming but smallish living room, things were cosy and occasionally chaotic, but somehow it worked.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Judaism, at least for an outsider, is that many of the major religious holidays – Passover, Purim, Hanukkah – are celebrated at home, making the family unit the primary community of worship. Synagogue is usually attended on the high holidays, particularly Rosh Hashanah (the new year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), as well as weddings, funerals and Bar Mitzvahs – though as I discovered from Sandra, you’d be a fool not to book your caterers at least a year in advance for the required post-synagogue party.
There’s an intimacy and immediacy to this celebration of ritual that’s in one sense hugely appealing. As a former altar boy, I spent years in a long frock with a tasselled belt swinging an incense ball and watching Catholic families half asleep in pews, quietly going through the motions of the service, but with a mostly passive involvement. (Things were apparently even more somnambulant when the Mass was said in Latin, until the Second Vatican Council reforms of the late 1960s). How bored and uninvolved everyone looked, and how deeply uninspiring it all seemed to be. Then again, my friends who were raised Jewish have pointed out that the grass is usually greener on the other side of the shtetl, and that spending every religious holiday with your family is frequently hell on earth (although Jews don’t believe in the hellfire-and-brimstone version of Hell). So maybe there’s some advantage in being able to escape to a church and disappear into the anonymity of a crowd.
I arrived at Sandra’s early, bringing tulips in an ecclesiastical shade of purple – the colour of Lent, betraying my Catholic hard-wiring. I’d flirted briefly with bringing kosher wine, which presented logistical difficulties – I don’t drink and South London isn’t exactly full of kosher delis – and had even considered making macaroons, but I was out of rose water and figured Sandra would probably be okay on the carb front. She was, though very grateful for the flowers, which we noticed matched the towels in the upstairs bathroom.
The evening’s most surprising guest was Sandra’s daughter’s Egyptian boyfriend. “They met at the Buddhist Centre”, Sandra explained in the kitchen, as we hunted for fourteen bowls. “Something tells me it’s your first Passover”, I asked the boyfriend later. “Uh-huh,” he said, smiling nervously. Given that the Egyptians don’t come out that well in the Passover story, his presence at tonight’s celebration took a lot of chutzpah.
We crowded around the table in Sandra’s living room, somewhat uncomfortably given the assorted long legs, and with a lot of very English “No, after you”-ing as to who should take the comfier seats. Sandra, who by this time had put on huge Bianca Jagger sunglasses and fingerless gloves (a coded Kabbalistic reference to Madonna, perhaps?), opened with the Kiddush blessing, after which we drank our first cup of seder wine – a sweet sickly red that’s a cross between Ribena and cherry brandy. We then performed the Urchatz, a ritual washing of hands in small bowls of water – the bowls would, Sandra said, be recycled later in the evening to serve the chicken soup.
It turns out you can never have too much matzo on Seder night. Matzo is a flatbread made from unleavened flour and baked like a cracker. Before baking, the dough is rolled with a special pinprick roller to stop it from rising during the baking process, leaving the surface flat and covered in hundreds of tiny holes. Most of Sandra’s matzo came in a box, though she proudly displayed an enormous home-made version that had been made by students at the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Finchley, and donated to Sandra and her neighbours.
Unleavened bread is a culinary throwback to the first Passover night. As described in the Book of Exodus (and filmed so dramatically in Cecil B DeMille’s schlockfest The Ten Commandments), God sent ten plagues to bitch-slap the Egyptian Pharaoh into liberating the Jews from slavery. In the last plague, the Angel of Death swept over Egypt in the night, killing the first-born males in each house. Moses instructed the Jews to smear lamb’s blood over the door frames of their houses, so the Angel would know to “pass over” their houses. It did the trick – the Egyptians, who by this stage must’ve been rather tired of lancing boils and sweeping up plagues of frogs and locusts, agreed to let the Jews go free. Such was the haste with which they had to skidaddle that they baked bread without yeast so they wouldn’t have to wait for it to raise. Off they went into the desert with their flatbread, where Moses found the Ten Commandments, someone made a golden calf and a whole lot of begetting went on. The golden calf didn’t stay around but the matzo did. Eaten now, it’s meant to remind Passover guests of life as a poor slave and to promote humility. Though our matzo was made industrially and came in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag, it’s extraordinary to think that it represents the foundational story of a 3,000 year old culture.
Back in North London, Sandra instructed us to dip a boiled egg in salt water, representing the tears shed by the enslaved Jews. (The original tradition, called Karpas, used raw vegetables rather than an egg). We then dipped our matzo into a series of symbolic crudités: Maror or bitter herbs (we used ground horseradish) that represent the bitterness of slavery; and Charoset, a mixture of apples, walnuts, currants, cinnamon and red wine, meant to represent the cement that the Jews were forced to make for Egyptian slave owners. The charoset was, we agreed, far too tasty to be a convincing reminder of slavery, and all it needed was some flaky pastry to make a marvellous apple strudel. There was a bloodied lamb shank on the ceremonial plate, the Z’roa, representing the Pesach or sacrifice that Jews were once required to make at the Passover festival.
“You all need to lean to the left!”, Sandra said suddenly – and so we all did, creating a fun domino effect. The leaning is a streamlined version of an older Passover tradition in which families reclined rather than sat up, representing their liberation from slavery. Given the size of Sandra’s living room and her cosmopolitan guest list, 14 people reclining could have rather fun, like a very intimate version of Twister, but cautioned prevailed.
The various dippings and leanings were interspersed with readings from the Seder Korban Pesach and a total of four cups of kosher wine, though I’m fairly certain the more disreputable guests at the other end of the table had more. Most of the praying falls to the men to recite, and it was here that the subtle genius of Sandra’s boy-friendly guest list was finally revealed. Larry David demurred, and so I was called on to read. “You’ve got a very soothing voice,” Sandra’s younger daughter said. “I could fall asleep listening to that.”
Sandra’s grandson was then called upon to ask the Four Questions, which are customarily asked by the youngest members of the group – a nifty means of ensuring that Passover traditions are passed down to the younger generation. Sandra’s grandson was primed with questions cunningly pre-printed off the internet, as follows:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights, we eat either unleavened or leavened bread, but tonight we eat only unleavened bread?
On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but tonight, we eat only bitter herbs?
On all other nights, we do not dip our food even once, but tonight we dip twice?
On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, but tonight we only recline?
I asked why the Four Questions actually counted five. “Following a question with another question,” Sandra said, looking at me for a moment through her big sunglasses. “Are you sure you’re not Jewish?”
One of the more intriguing customs in Passover involves the prophet Elijah, a humourless but influential patriarch who foretold the coming of the Messiah. At every Passover dinner, a place is set at the table and a glass of wine poured for Elijah, and at some stage the front door is open just in case he should make a guest appearance. Prayers from the Book of Psalms are then said to beseech God to pour His wrath upon our persecutors and oppressors. Elijah didn’t appear, but another guest did, apologising for being late, and clutching a handkerchief to her forehead after being knocked sideways by a kid on a bike. We collectively prayed that the little creep who knocked her over would fall down a well or get run over by a bus of retirees on their way back from Seder night.
After what seemed like hours (but was actually only around half an hour), Sandra tucked her prayer book under her home-made matzo square and said, “Let’s eat!” “Olé!” cried the Spaniards, as Sandra and her daughters struggled over folding chairs to get into the kitchen.
I’m pleased to report that the food was spectacular, despite persistent jokes about Jewish cuisine being bland, carb-heavy and unadventurous. We started with chopped liver from the local kosher butcher.
“My father wanted me to marry the son of our local butcher,” Sandra remarked as she opened yet another box of matzo to smear the chopped liver on.
“He had a point,” I said. “You’d have been set up for chickens and liver for life.”
Sandra paused for a moment. “Yes. But I would have smelled of chicken fat.”
Chopped liver has, I believe, been unfairly maligned over the years – especially by Jewish comedians, for whom the line “What am I, chopped liver?” seems to be as old and trusted a Jewish saying as “Yadda yadda yadda”. While it does, regrettably, look like a ball of poo on a plate, and the word “liver” is never a thrilling word on a menu unless you’re Hannibal Lecter, the taste is fantastic, and it’s an excellent source of absorbable iron. Bring it on, I say – though preferably with a crusty French baguette instead of matzo.
We moved onto chicken soup (aka Jewish penicillin), which was perfect for the chilly Spring night. I’m told that the traditional Passover main meal centres around brisket, and usually features the also oft-maligned gefiltefish (fried fish balls made from whitefish or carp). Possibly out of deference to the non red-meat eaters at the table, Sandra served two roast chickens, an enormous potato salad loaded with fresh dill, and a green salad. Though we struggled slightly with Sandra’s carving knife, which appeared to be made of rubber, everyone got the piece of meat they wanted, and even Larry David declared himself content. Though Jews may not believe in Heaven, the food was indeed divine.
For dessert, Sandra outdid herself, with a lemon almond and polenta cake, a flourless dark chocolate and orange cake (similar in texture to a Reine de Saba), and cinnamon balls. My recent forays into flour-free cookery haven’t been inspired, leading me to conclude that life without raising agent just isn’t worth it, despite gluten leading to candida and other social ills, but Sandra may have converted me.
By this time it was around 10.30pm, and things were getting quite merry, particularly down the other end of the table where the other homosexuals and the German were having a fascinating discussion about social housing architecture in Frankfurt. Elijah’s wine glass had been finished off and refilled several times, and the front door stayed open to let in some breeze. It had become like any other noisy overcrowded family event I’ve been at in my own tribe – too much food being pressed on people who were already full, words slurring from slightly too much wine time, the occasional passive-aggressive huff coming from the kitchen over dishwashing duties, hyperactive children bouncing off the walls after too much sugar, and no one remembering anyone’s name. Suddenly, I felt deeply and comfortably at home.
Off we schlepped into the night, pleasantly full of chicken and wine, and waited at the bus to take us back to East Finchley. As we rode home, I was struck and humbled by the realisation that on this night, millions of people all over the world were enacting the same ritual in their homes (though possibly with more reverence to the original text). We’d all been brought together for an evening and made to feel at home in the comforting way that only feasts can do – another reason, I think, for the enduring power of Jewish tradition in an age where rituals and gestures are continually being reinterpreted.
Though my one-night flirtation with Jewish culture was just that, Sandra seemed impressed by my sight-reading abilities and asked if I was available for a non-traditional Bar Mitzvah in June. I’m not, unfortunately, though I have been signed up for a fish ball-making lesson at the home of a prominent North London Jewess. I have yet to discover a food that isn’t made tastier by deep frying it, so I’m in.
The Seder dinner represented the best aspects of life in multi-cultural London. Sharing food is an easy and immediate way to introduce strangers to the richness of different cultures. How clever of the Jews to have made such an art of it. Shalom, y’all.