Sunday, March 29, 2015

Passover: The Un-Bread Holiday

Passover in four parts: What it is, why it is, and what it means to me, followed by questions that have started to haunt (plague?) me since beginning the bread quest, which coincides almost exactly with a significant interest in religious language and studies.

Part 1 - A quick synopsis
Passover is the week-long holiday that we start with the annual retelling of the story and a celebration of the Ancient Israelites' quick liberation from Egypt and slavery. Pharoah finally sends them away at the last of the 10 plagues (the last so unimaginable that there was wailing throughout the land), a story with the famous, perhaps first, labor demand of Let My People Go! We ask the four questions, thank God, discuss ministering angels, sing songs, drink wine, eat matzo and bitter herbs, and enjoy an awesome meal with family gathered from far and near.

The whole point of a seder, the ritual and meal, is to tell the story and discuss it. There's two seders, one on each of the first two nights. 

The rest of the week we do not eat any bread, but ingest lots of only-on-Passover foods. For Eurpoean Jews (or descended from them), the custom extends to a ban on beans, corn, rice, foods that in some way expand. (Quinoa is, mysteriously, allowed, as are potatoes.) Do not question; this does not make sense. If you are lucky - meaning you like matzo - this is a great holiday from start to finish. It is a challenge for a vegetarian, I'll admit.

Part 2 - The meaning of the un-bread holiday
With its parallel universe of different dishes, foods, tablecloths, glassware and even ideology, Passover is at home in a Jewish tradition that reminds us of the fleeting nature of life, our vulnerability, and the thin veneer of culture. Like some other Jewish holidays and even the Sabbath itself, we forgo the everyday, carving out time to remind ourselves of God, ritual, and history and to consider ourselves links in that historical chain. 

With Passover, the themes of freedom from slavery and treating the stranger well are front and center. Whether one accepts God as the change agent or not in this drama is a different question. Telling the story of the exodus from Egypt is a commandment. And throughout our sacred texts, the obligation to the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan are always described as familiar - because we knew what it was like to be strangers in a land not our own, because we are always close to being without all of the protections and comforts of home.

Part 3 - Rituals I love
In millions of homes, on the seder nights, haggadahs (or, in Hebrew, haggadot) (the book, in many, many versions, read at a seder) are opened, children are singing the four questions, families discuss or or speed through the reading, and beloved foods are oohed and ahhed over before being eaten.

As a child, I would wake up to a kitchen transformed, cleaned of anything leavened or anything that co-existed with it throughout the year, with different dishes, glasses, and the Passover tablecloth. And with the morning before the ritual of the first of two Seders would begin the breadless week of matzo, which I love, and meals we would have only during those days or only on the most important holidays. Matzo brei, bubeleach, gefilte fish, and piece after piece of whole wheat matzo, always my favorite.  

After my children were born, I did the same for them, from the cleaning through the treks to family, to our beautiful seders. I enjoy the zen state of taking each book out of each bookcase, each kitchen item out of each cabinet, and culling through stored food, to ready the house. Each year at our seders, crossing lines of religious observance from atheist to nutcase (did I say that?), half of the family discusses the story, the interpretations, at length, and the other half begs to go faster so that we can get to the meal already.

Part 4 - Questions and bread
In the last couple of years I have begun to question. One question was pointed out to me: How can matzoh be both the bread of affliction during slavery and the bread of liberation? But other questions are my own: There were hours before the Israelites fled Egypt and they took many possessions, so why did they not bake some bread? 

In terms of bread, the Jews left Egypt with, among other things, such as animals, their kneading bowls, suggesting that they were already making bread, which, at the time, surely meant that they were either using old dough or a replenished sourdough culture, or both. The Egyptians created not only a great civilization - sans the slavery - but culture in both its artistic and culinary senses. They invented the fermented staples of beer and bread. Read Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History, one of my favorite books (warning: no recipes). 

The author, H.E. Jacob, posits that the holiness of the liberation from slavery rejects - for one week a year - bread as the centerpiece of that culture, though there is a theory that the bread-less celebration pre-dated the holiday. But this is just one way that Judaism harkens back in its cycle of holidays to our nomadic, pre-urban, civilization. Baking needs an oven; a dough needs to sit, undisturbed, to rise. These practices, happen with agriculture, with culture, in many senses of the word, and with being rooted in one place. 

18 minutes? And why did an 18-minute rule for making matzoh develop? That's 18 minutes from mixing flour and water through baking. Since the ancients lacked both kitchen timers and clocks, surely this is a somewhat modern development. And since any bread maker knows that a sourdough culture takes hours, at the very least, to begin fermentation, and far longer to actually raise a dough and make a respectable bread, why such a short time as 18 minutes? Clearly, the learned elders were not mixing dough and baking bread. 

What the 18-minute rule practically guarantees is commercial matzo production rather than home production. One child needing a moment of time, one pressing telephone call, and, zappo, you are over 18 minutes. (Don't even get me started on the craziness of what wheat is acceptable for Passover among people way more observant than me.)

And why did Jewish bakeries not take a week to begin making bread after Passover? Were bakers sustaining their leavening, their sourdough starters, during the holiday? Was this the origin of the practice of selling one's chametz (the crumbs or other leavened products passed over in one's cleaning)? Selling the chametz is a legal fiction, where one sells and buys back, the food. Did this legal fiction allow the starters to survive over Passover? 

Getting rid of all leavened foods, except ...
This year, I will be hiding my starter in the back of the fridge, in a dormant state, and feeling guilty. Maybe I should bury it in the backyard, but that seems silly. I thought of asking my neighbor to keep it in the back of her fridge, but legal fictions bother me, even if I do sell my own chametz. So, technically, at least, I will not own my starter during Passover.

If you are curious, my mother made Passover egg rolls in our kosher-for-Passover house, so we had a bread-like food and sandwiches. I have a religious aversion to kosher-for-Passover cereals when we already have the best possible option. Nothing really is better than crumbled matzo with milk for breakfast. I'm a woman of simple tastes and I love my matzo.

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