Every year, on the first night of the Jewish holiday known as Passover, family and friends gather together for a ceremonial Seder feast, where the story of the exodus is told. Seder, meaning order in Hebrew, is one of the most beloved Jewish home rituals. Participants use a guidebook called a Haggadah to lead a very specific order to the service, which consists of storytelling, a Seder meal with prayers, blessings, and songs.
The Jewish calendar date begins at sundown of the night before and concludes at nightfall the following day. According to the Jewish calendar, this year’s Seder will be celebrated on March 30-31.
Rhonda Seaton, Lawrence Lokman, their son, David, and daughter, Olivia, graciously welcomed Town&Gown in to their home to share with us this cherished Jewish holiday and the symbolic food traditions they hope to pass on from one generation to another. The family moved to State College two years ago from Los Angeles after Lokman accepted a position at Penn State as the vice president of strategic communications. Since last March, Seaton has been the director of marketing at AccuWeather.
Three matzahs (unleavened bread) are covered or wrapped in cloth and speak to the haste of the Jews’ flight from Egypt with no time for the bread to rise. “Passover is an opportunity to do a spring cleaning of all your cupboards and cabinets to get rid of anything that might resemble a bread crumb out of your house. In my mother’s Passover kitchen, she put cutting boards on every inch of counter space because you don’t want anything that has touched bread,” says Seaton.
There are six symbolic foods on the Seder plate. The zeroah is a roasted lamb’s shank bone, symbolizing the ancient Passover sacrifice. A hardboiled egg (beitzah) represents the continuing cycle of life. A paste of fruit, nuts, and wine called charoset is symbolic of the mortar used to build the pyramid of the pharaohs. Maror is a bitter herb (usually horseradish) to represent the bitterness of slavery. A second bitter herb, chazeret, is usually the roots of romaine lettuce. Karpas, a green vegetable (such as parsley), represents spring and renewal. A bowl of salt water to dip the karpas symbolizes the slaves’ tears and sweat.
A traditional Passover Seder begins with a kiddush, a blessing over wine performed by the head of a Jewish household. Four cups of wine (or grape juice, for the underage attendees) are consumed during the Seder dinner to represent the four promises of redemption, with a special cup reserved for Elijah the prophet. “It is a holiday where you welcome strangers. It is considered a mitzvah or good deed to have a stranger at your table. One of the traditions is, you open the front door at a certain point of the ceremony, and supposedly Elijah the prophet walks in and drinks from the cup that is set up for him on the table,” explains Seaton.
Lokman adds, “It was fun when you were kids because there was always some adult going, ‘Did you see the wine go down a little bit?’”
“My grandfather used to bump the corner of the table with his hip so Elijah’s cup would move slightly and the kids would say, ‘we saw you do that!’” recalls Seaton.
Following the steps outlined in the Haggadah, it is customary for the youngest person in the household to ask a set of four questions pointing out the uniqueness of this night. Next, as the 10 Plagues are recited, participants dip a finger into the wine cup for each plague and place a little wine on the side of their plate.
At one point of the Seder ceremony, the middle matzah is broken, wrapped in cloth, and the leader of the Seder hides it somewhere in the house. “The children get to look for it and the finder of the matzah gets some sort of reward.” Seaton says.
Finally, the main meal is served and includes many classic Jewish crowd-pleasers such as matzah ball soup, brisket, gefilte fish, and a few, not so traditional, but family favorites like marinated cucumbers, roasted cauliflower, endive salad, and a flourless chocolate cake.
“Next year in Jerusalem!” The Seder concludes with a chant of declaration – Nirtzah, meaning acceptance and an assertion of hope that one may be able to celebrate the next Passover, as it was by the Jews’ ancestors, in Jerusalem.
A truly unforgettable evening to experience first-hand, the warm hospitality of a Jewish family and the importance of keeping traditions alive for generations to come. The Seder feast may celebrate the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, but it is also an opportunity to connect with others who may still be oppressed today.
Vilma Shu is general manager of Town&Gown.
TRADITIONAL PASSOVER RECIPES
Tri-color gefilte fish from the cookbook Kosher by Design by Susie Fishbein
Makes 12 servings.
2 (22-ounce) loaves plain gefilte fish, defrosted in wrapper
1 (22-ounce) loaf salmon gefilte fish, defrosted in wrapper
2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
6 cucumbers for horseradish wells, plus 1 extra long cucumber for garnish (optional)
Prepared red horseradish (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch spring form pan with nonstick vegetable spray. Give it a heavy even coat.
2. Open each of the 3 gefilte fish wrappers. Add the dill and juice from 1 lemon into 1 of the plain gefilte fish loaves. Mix thoroughly so the dill is dispersed evenly. Set aside.
3. Using a thin spatula, spread the plain gefilte fish into an even layer in the bottom of the spring form pan. Top with an even layer of the salmon. On top of the salmon, spread an even layer of the lemon dill fish mixture. Cover the pan with foil. Bake for 1 hour. If the fish does not look set in the center, remove the foil and bake 5 minutes longer. Let cool and refrigerate overnight. Can be made a few days in advance.
4. As an optional garnish, slice a long unpeeled cucumber by hand or by mandolin into paper thin slices. Lay the slices in concentric circles around the top of the fish. Release the sides of the spring form pan.
5. Cut the cucumbers into 2- to 3-inch pieces. Hollow out the centers. Mix a few tablespoons of the prepared horseradish with a little mayonnaise to make a pretty pink sauce. Fill the cucumber wells. Slice the fish and serve with the wells.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Spray pan with nonstick spray
Season brisket with salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder (or make holes with fork and add minced garlic in perforations)
Sear brisket on both sides for 8 minutes in olive oil 2-3 teaspoons
Remove brisket to roasting pan (pre-sprayed with nonstick cooking spray)
Surround brisket with small or cut potatoes, peeled carrot, quartered onion, peeled parsnip
In searing pan, add 14 oz can on crushed tomatoes, cook on low flame
After one minute, add ¼ cup, red wine and ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, continue cooking for 4 minutes on low flame, removing bits of charring with wooden spoon
Pour tomato mixture over meat
Add water until meat is covered
Seal roasting pan tightly with foil so no air can enter
Bake at 400 degrees; after one hour, reduce oven to 350 degrees for the next 4-5 hours
Remove from oven and let sit for 15 minutes before slicing
Meat should pull apart easily
Matzo ball soup
Add the following to soup pot sprayed with cooking spray:
Kosher chicken bouillon cube
2 Celery stalks
Fresh Dill and Parsley, one small bunch each
Add water to cover and bring to a boil
Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 3 hours
(Remove celery, parsley and dill after one or two hours)
Strain broth and reserve or return to pot
Discard soup chicken or reserve for noshing or shred to include with broth
2 eggs slightly beaten
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
2 tablespoons soup broth or water
1/2 cup matzo meal
1 teaspoon salt
Beat eggs slightly with fork. Add other ingredients, except matzo meal, and mix. Add matzo meal gradually until thick. Stir. Refrigerate for 20 minutes in covered bowl.
Wet hands and form into balls. Drop into pot of salted boiling water or soup broth.
Cook for 30 minutes.