The story of Exodus is in so many ways synonymous with freedom. It’s become a powerful metaphor not just for the Jewish people but for countless others—formerly enslaved or incarcerated people, immigrants, refugees—who have found solace and empowerment in this story of liberation. It’s a story that recognizes the resilience of the oppressed and valorizes diasporic migration as a survival strategy as ancient as it is essential.
Many resonate with this story, as they should. And yet, it remains at its core deeply and profoundly Jewish.
Passover, or Pesach, is the oldest Jewish holiday, with celebrations going back over three thousand years. We teach the story to our children in the first person—we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. The story of Passover is present and ongoing. Each year we recognize that our collective liberation is incomplete—we cannot be free until all of us are free—and yet each year we get a little freer.
How do you pass down history for three millennia, unbroken? With ritual. Ritual words, ritual foods, ritual symbols, ritual questions—to celebrate a Passover Seder is to feel that you’ve time traveled to any other Seder at any point in history.
And yet that’s not entirely true. Rituals change. They expand and become more inclusive. (As the youngest child, I’ve always sung the Four Questions, but when my Bubbe was a girl, that was a right reserved exclusively for the boys.) Sometimes they have to be hidden or performed in secret, but not forever. In 1945, my grandfather and his fellow Jewish-American soldiers celebrated Passover in France, the first free Seder since the war began.
It goes without saying that COVID presented another interruption to this ritual. Our family didn’t gather for two years, instead organizing our Seders over Zoom. My cousin and I sent out menus and recipes so that everyone could cook the same foods, but of course it just wasn’t the same.
This year, together again, we wanted to make a meal that captured a sense of ritual. Of a return to tradition, something that could begin to heal over the scar of the last two years and re-weave a sense of continuity with the past. We have a habit of cooking up elaborate menus for every family gathering, but this felt different.
Rather than trying to find a creative “twist” for our meal (see: our Roman-Jewish Thanksgiving dinner), we sought inspiration from the Seder itself. At the center of every Seder table sits a plate with six symbols: two bitter herbs, a spring herb, a shank bone (or beet), charoset (a fruit and nut mixture), and an egg. Each one is imbued with meaning—some of which have probably taken on folk interpretations over the years, but all of which serve as a physical reminder of how time doesn’t flow forward. It circles, bringing us back year after year to this place.
Here’s what we ate:
For more, see our most recent posts on Instagram at @the.glass.mirror, where my cousin and I share more thoughts on ritual, tradition, family, and food, and offer an in-depth explanation of each dish and what its ingredients meant to us.