The comedian Alan King jokes that “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat” is the theme of every Jewish holiday. As I write this essay, my two favorite Jewish holidays stand astride us—Purim and Passover. What’s not to like? We celebrate these holidays by telling stories, feasting, drinking, singing, and, in the case of Purim, dressing up in funny costumes. And speaking of costumes, here’s a cute story: A friend’s four-year-old grandson, Declan, went to a Purim party at his synagogue dressed up as Batman. A teacher didn’t recognize him behind his mask and asked him who he was. “Batman!” he replied. “No, I mean what is your name?” she asked. And Declan, apparently thinking to himself, “Nice try, lady, but you can’t fool me that easily!” replied, “Bruce Wayne!”
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Purim provides the perfect excuse to gorge ourselves on hamantaschen, little buttery pastry pockets filled with jam, dates, poppy seeds, chocolate, or (in an intriguing version I recently saw online) pizza fixings. The name reminds us of Haman, one in a long series of evil men who wanted to exterminate the Jews. It is fitting revenge to transform a bitter story into a sweet treat we devour with gusto! I am a cook rather than a baker and have made hamantaschen only a couple of times, with limited success. So I turned to our family’s ace baker, Casey, who recommends this recipe (but wants it on the record that the best filling is apricot).
Purim takes place in late winter, right around the time of Mardi Gras (called Fasnacht here in Switzerland).
Festivals like these provide a crucial release valve for people who live under strict rules. For one day, the world is turned upside down, and punctilious, law-abiding people party like it’s 1999. (There is even a story—perhaps apocryphal—about a rabbi who eats bacon once a year on Purim to capture the holiday’s true chaotic spirit.) But whether we are Jew or Gentile, or believer or heretic, Purim provides a couple of important lessons for us all.
To improve the world, we must be honest about who we really are. Readers are probably familiar with the story of Purim, told in the book of Esther, but here’s a brief refresher. The Persian King Ahasuerus orders that his wife Vashti be executed for the “crime” of refusing to be ogled by his cronies. He holds a beauty contest to find her replacement, and Esther wins.Meanwhile, Ahasuerus’s advisor, Haman, becomes enraged because Esther’s cousin Mordechai won’t bow down to him. Haman persuades Ahasuerus to issue an order that all the Jews in Persia be murdered. At Mordechai’s urging, Esther bravely tells Ahasuerus that she is Jewish, which causes him to change his mind, rescind the planned genocide, and order that Haman be hanged instead. Obviously, this story could very easily have gone the other way. I mean, look what happened to poor Vashti. What if Ahasuerus hadn’t been quite so besotted and uxorious? Esther took an enormous risk in telling the truth, but had she chosen to hide who she really was, the Jews would have had no hope at all.
It’s the same in our own lives. We will sometimes encounter prejudice—someone will say something bigoted, ignorant, or dismissive about people from another group, or they will make uncharitable generalizations. We could stay silent (or trash them on social media), but that won’t change anyone’s minds or make the situation better. Instead, we should consider emulating Esther and speaking up: “I am Jewish [or Muslim, or gay, or an immigrant, or working-class, or disabled, or suffering from addiction, or . . . you get the idea] and my experience is a bit different. Here’s how I feel.” And then we can share our stories.
Granted, speaking openly with potentially hostile people is difficult, but, on the other hand, this approach has the advantage of actually working—it is thanks in part to the thousands of courageous gay people who chose to speak honestly with their loved ones that the US changed its attitude to same-sex marriage so quickly, for example. A common gripe in certain corners of the left is “It’s not my job to educate you.” And while this is true, if we don’t “educate” people by speaking honestly about our own lives and offering a chance for greater understanding, how do we expect anyone to change their minds? Esther risked her life to save her people. The least we can do is take a page from her book and conduct our conversations with courage and candor.
It is better to party than to judge. On Purim, we are commanded to get so drunk that we can’t distinguish Haman from Mordechai. Even though I do enjoy the occasional beer, wine, and whiskey, it’s not the getting drunk part I love. It’s the not distinguishing. Make no mistake: Haman, may his name be blotted out, was a genocidal monster. But even in the fight against evil, we need to take a break once in a while. Besides, not a single one of us is all Hamanor all Mordechai. We humans are a mixture of good and evil, and it is healthy and moral to refuse to judge others and to stop consigning them to categories of friend or foe. In so many daily interactions, we have a choice: Do we look for enemies, or do we party together? I know which I choose, and so I raise my glass to all my fellow humans. Or, as Topol, of blessed memory, would say, “Drink l’chaim to life!”
On Passover, Jews around the world celebrate the journey from slavery to freedom. We retell the story of the Exodus and enjoy a special meal, called a seder, which features such symbolic foods as bitter herbs (maror—see last week’s post for a recipe) to represent the misery of enslavement; parsley (karpas) to represent spring; a sweet apple mixture (haroset—see below for a recipe) to represent the mortar that held the pyramids together; and unleavened bread (matzah) to remind us that when Pharaoh finally granted the Jews their freedom, they fled immediately, not even waiting for their bread to rise. I love that Passover is an inclusive holiday. It is common for families to invite Gentiles to our seders so we can share the story and lessons of Passover with them.
For most of us, empathy helps us act morally. One purpose of the seder (besides sharing a fabulous meal with loved ones and drinking the requisite four cups of wine, that is) is to foster empathy for the less fortunate. The Hebrew Bible reminds us repeatedly that we must be kind to strangers or immigrants, because Jews were once strangers in Egypt. We are enjoined to fight injustice and oppression because Jews were once slaves. Telling the story at the seder helps us to imagine and even vicariously experience the suffering of other people. When we undergo these uncomfortable feelings, it is easier for us to embrace the humanity of suffering people and to want to help them.
Empathy has come in for some criticism lately; the psychologist Paul Bloom, for example, has argued that empathy is a poor basis for morality. He believes we should base our charity on abstract principles of compassion and justice instead. In an ideal world Bloom’s approach may well be best. And yet I find myself wondering how many people in our fallen world are capable of doing the right thing just because it is right, and in the absence of an emotional connection to others. I think most of us are moved to charity through our feelings rather than our intellects, and stories like the one we tell at the seder provide a visceral reminder of our duty to one another.
Sometimes it’s easy to change the world. An old saying would have it that “A woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate.”Traditional Jews cite this dubious line as evidence that women’s purview ought to be limited to motherhood and housekeeping, and that we should not be allowed to lead prayers or read from the Torah. I’ll admit my bias: I have led Shabbat services from the bimah a number of times. These experiences have been meaningful for me and (hopefully also) for the congregation, and I have thus far not been struck by lightning. Thousands of women around the world can say the same, suggesting that, in spite of invidious similes about bread, oranges, and plates, God (what with being omnipotent and all and thus perfectly capable of striking us down if God so desires) has no problem with women on the bimah.
Besides, this point about oranges is not the compelling argument the traditionalists think it is; after all, it is a simple matter to put an orange on the seder plate, and many families nowadays do include an orange on the plate to honor Moses’s sister Miriam. In fact, Sephardic Jews have lived for their entire history in climates—Spain, Portugual, Turkey, etc.—where orange trees flourish, and oranges are literally thick on the ground. It is foolish to circumscribe the prospects and reject the potential contributions of more than half of humanity just because we’ve always done it this way. The oranges are there for the taking—why not put them to use? As Booker T. Washington once said, “cast down your bucket where you are.”
Most of the time it takes years of careful planning and the courage and hard work of thousands of people to make significant changes in our culture. But sometimes change happens in a flash because we suddenly think to ourselves, “Well this is stupid! Why are we doing things this way? We ought to stop!” And then we stop. (I wrote about a number of such cultural changes here.) Sometimes letting go of our prejudices and choosing a better way is as simple as putting an orange on a plate.
Haroset is traditionally made from chopped apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and Manischewitz wine (which, in my opinion, tastes a bit like cough medicine). My recipe pays tribute to Miriam’s orange on the seder plate by adding orange zest and other spices to pep up the flavors a bit. Miriam’s Haroset makes a great snack or a relish alongside your regular dinner. Or serve it with vanilla ice cream for dessert!
4 or so large, tart apples, peeled, cored, and finely diced
8 or so dates, pitted and minced
star anise, whole cloves, and cardamom pods to taste
ground cinnamon and nutmeg to taste
8 or so walnuts, toasted and finely chopped
a tiny pinch of salt
a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice
zest of one orange
a glug of Grand Marnier (note: Grand Marnier is not kosher for Passover, so if you’re making the haroset for a seder, substitute some white wine—you can use the same wine you’re putting in the risotto below—and a tiny drizzle of honey)
Combine all ingredients in a big serving bowl and allow to sit at room temperature for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. Taste to adjust seasonings before serving.
This risotto can be a vegetarian main course for four to six people or a side dish at a larger gathering. If you follow the Ashkenazi Passover rules, risotto is not kosher for Passover, but it is kosher for Sephardim, who allow rice and legumes during Passover. Vegetarians like me have a tough enough time finding things we can eat during Passover, so I always declare myself Sephardic for the sake of dishes like this risotto.
1 large fennel bulb with green fronds
2T each unsalted butter and olive oil
salt to taste
about 3/4c water
1 clove garlic, finely minced with 1/2tsp salt to make a paste
zest of one lemon, plus juice of half the lemon
some fresh dill and fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, stems removed
freshly ground black pepper
4c vegetable stock, either homemade (see last week’s post for a recipe) or store-bought
1/2c good-quality dry white wine
2T each unsalted butter and olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely minced
more salt and pepper
1c arborio rice
1/2c grated Parmigiano Reggiano
For the fennel:
Remove the fronds from the fennel and set aside. Halve the fennel bulb lengthwise, remove the core and discard. Then quarter each half lengthwise and slice crosswise. You want smallish chunks.
Finely mince the garlic with 1/2tsp salt to make a paste. Grate the lemon zest over the garlic. Then, chop the fennel and dill fronds and the parsley leaves to get a total of about 1/2c chopped herbs. Toss the garlic, zest, and herbs together and set aside for step 5.
In a large skillet, over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Dump in the fennel and grind some salt over it. Leave it to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the fennel begins to caramelize. (Note: to help the fennel caramelize, use a regular rather than a nonstick skillet.)
Reduce heat to medium, pour in 1/2c water, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until water has evaporated—about another 20 minutes.
Pour in the lemon juice and an additional 1/4c water if needed to keep the fennel from getting too dry. Stir, and then add the garlic-zest-herb mixture plus some freshly ground black pepper. Briefly cook the garlic, but don’t let it brown. When the fennel is soft and golden, remove to a bowl for later. No need to wash the skillet—you can use it as is for the next step. Note: You can make the recipe a day or two ahead up to this point. This fennel mixture also makes a great pasta sauce or side dish on its own.
For the risotto:
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the stock and the wine until almost boiling.
In the large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and olive oil together and sauté the onion, grinding some salt and pepper over it and stirring occasionally. Don’t let the onion brown.
Pour in the arborio rice and toss to coat.
Now, add the stock to the rice ladle by ladle, stirring constantly after each addition. Every time the stock is nearly absorbed, add another ladleful. It is always nice to enjoy a glass of wine and possibly to shanghai a friend into the kitchen to keep you company for this step, which takes about half an hour.
When you have only one ladleful of stock left, test the rice. It should be al dente. If not, add a ladleful of water and stir until it is absorbed too. When the rice is al dente, it’s showtime! (But you can turn off the heat and pause the recipe for about an hour at this point if your guests haven’t arrived yet.)
Make sure that the fennel mixture is hot and add it to the rice. Add the last bit of stock and the Parmigiano Reggiano, stir to blend, heat through, and serve immediately.
How about you, readers? What is your favorite holiday tradition or dish this time of year? Please share your thoughts (and recipes!) in the comments!
“Echad Mi Yodea” is a children’s song that is traditionally sung at the Passover seder. It works by accretion, along the lines of such familiar American songs as “The Twelve Days of Christmas” or “The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” This brilliant dance, choreographed by Ohad Naharin, replicates this accretion in the dancers’ movements. A commenter to the video, Akshay Kulkarni, explains the meaning:
This is a Hebrew children’s song and it talks about the thirteen essentials of Jewish religion. . . . Through this dance, the group tries to show the struggle that the Jews had to go through to . . . live freely. When the dancers throw their clothes and boots, it signifies the Holocaust.
You must also be wondering why the last dancer falls off all the time. There’s a story behind it. When practicing, the last dancer did not remember the instruction and fell every time there was a wave. It was used in the final dance sequence.
This is a powerful and fascinating performance. Do take the time to watch, perhaps while you’re stirring the risotto.
What a prize that King Ahasuerus is. Next year I may write about the feminist aspects of this story.
No, not even Central Park Karen or men who have books by David Foster Wallace on their shelves (or fill in whoever happens to be the Twitter villain of the day).
In putting together this article, I learned that the original saying was “A woman belongs on the bimah like bread belongs on the seder plate.” Leavened bread is explicitly forbidden during Passover, and so the saying implies that a woman on the bimah is intrinsically and diametrically opposed to the law; in other words, her presence is polluting and profane. The version of the saying with the orange was coined by the feminist and religious scholar Susannah Heschel and was intended to celebrate the fruitful contributions lesbian and gay Jews have made to Judaism.
THANK YOU SO MUCH for sharing this information! I have wanted to do a Passover meal for many years and you just made it quite simple. I love this issues perspective and positive outlook on change and it gives me hope to know intelligent, kind, passionate women in this world have such an outlook! Lead on, sweet lady!!
Another very fun and interesting post -- thanks, Mari! I loved watching the dance!