Monday, April 14, 2008

Why Is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

I've got a ton of people coming for dinner on Saturday night. It's the start of Passover and we celebrate with a ritual meal called a Seder. This holiday marks the Biblical exodus of the Jews from Egypt. We sing songs, say prayers, and eat certain traditional foods (yes, this is the origin of matzoh ball soup).

Holiday preparations start a month in advance. I dig out huge pots, originally owned by my husband's grandmother, source of generations of chicken soup. I can make the broth ahead and freeze it, but the matzoh balls must be made the day of the Seder, bubbling away to perfection as we chant the opening prayers. When the crowd is large, we switch the furniture in our dining room and living room, to have space for extra tables. My husband grumbles as he schleps the folding chairs from the basement, but beams when he looks across the full room at family and friends joining in song.

Seder means "order" in Hebrew and there is an order to the evening and to the Haggadah, the prayer book we use for the holiday. But "order" and even tradition don't have to mean stagnant. Over the years, we've introduced new songs, tested new recipes for familiar foods, and researched subjects we take for granted looking for new insights. We've tripped over our tongues trying to make the traditional prayer book gender-neutral – and for some of us, we've shrugged our shoulders, read aloud the traditional masculine pronoun for God, confident that She would understand. At the end of the Seder, we leave feeling satisfied that we haven't just paid lip service to ancient traditions, but instead have made them our own.

In an odd way – and I'll grant that it may seem a stretch –there's a similarity between being a mystery writer and preparing the Seder. There's a well-known "order" to books, with the traditional elements of hero, murderer, red herrings, minor characters, place, setting. But how you mix these up, how you make these basics your own, is what defines you as a writer. I don't want my books to be any more of a formula than my Seder.

Sometimes our choices, in cooking or writing, work perfectly, pleasing the palate and the imagination. And sometimes, they are abysmal failures and our only choice is to delete, rewrite, reseason, or dump in the garbage can. That's okay too.

One of the traditional foods for Passover is Charoset, a sweet mixture of apples, walnuts, wine, and cinnamon, to represent the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build the Egyptian storehouses. It's a family favorite and will be on the table in my mother's cut glass bowl, as usual. But I'm also offering something new: Persian Charoset, made with dates, pistachio nuts, pomegranate, banana, cloves and cardamom. It's a spicy alternative that hopefully will prompt discussion about history, ancestral connections, and the meaning behind these symbolic dishes.

So this week, in addition to the usual murder and mayhem I try to create, I'm polishing silver, moving furniture, cooking, cleaning, and getting ready for a crowd. I can't wait.

Happy Holidays to all.

Evelyn David

2 comments:

  1. What a beautiful essay, Marian! Thank you for sharing your traditions with us. (But I'm still waiting for that matzoh ball soup recipe..."freezing the broth"? It may beyond my culinary skills. :-) Maggie

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  2. I love it when food and mysteries come together. While not jewish, and in fact a not-practising anything kinda girl, I do teach abotu religion. One of my favorite introductions of religion into mysteries is Faye Kellerman's early one which focused on a mikvah. . . .

    If you have recommendations on books on food and religion, I'd love to hear them

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