Gefilte Fish

Mah Nishtanah? How is Your Seder Different from All Other Seders?

Recent seasonal discussion on the URJ’s iWorship list-serv has centered, naturally, on Passover rituals, and certainly for no other holiday do we give so much ritual attention to food

Bob Korngold got the conversation started with his reminiscences of a seder he conducted in Japan when he was in the military, for which the Jewish Welfare Board supplied gefilte fish, matzo, and charoset (plus Haggadahs).  That stimulated Mike Rankin to ask if any other family besides his had a Pesach tradition of serving beet preserves with matzo brei or matzo pancakes, like his great aunt Jennie made, from a recipe she presumably brought from Suwalki in Poland.

Gefilte FishI responded that I had never heard of beet preserves, but one of our family Passover traditions was a beet soup that I remember as sort of a fermented borscht, served hot. It was an alternate on one of the two seder nights to matzo ball soup, but I don’t remember whether first or second.  In Helene Weinstock’s family, the fermented beet soup, which she reminded me was called russell, was served both nights, after the gefilte fish and before the chicken and brisket.  Those in turn were followed by the matzo ball soup, with tzimmes and plum compote to complete the meal.  (Mike Waxman told of a seder he once attended where the main course was salmon.)

In addition to our only being offered russell on one of the nights, our other difference between the two meals was that we were given a choice of hot or cold gefilte fish at the first seder; the fish was served only cold on the second night.  And as if it was written into the Haggadah, when the matzo ball soup was being served on the first night, we could count on Tante Anna to apologize, “I’m afraid the kneidlach (matzo balls) are a little heavy this year.”  No one would have dared say that about her sponge cake, though!

Helene also mentioned that her family came from Belarus, as did mine, so the fermented beet soup may have been localized to that part of eastern Europe, and Mike’s beet preserves to Poland. Julie Hirsch chimed in telling us that somewhere along the line she discovered and introduced a variety of Sephardic Passover traditions to her seder, most notably for the current discussion replacing plain boiled eggs with huevos haminados and Ashkenazic charoset with Sephardic charoset, replete with dates, cinnamon, and oranges.

Holiday food rituals clearly vary from geography to geography, and from family to family.  Until I was in my mid-twenties and had left my home of origin, I had never encountered chopped liver at a seder — we just did gefilte fish.  But since I have been out of the nest, I have never been to a seder that did NOT include chopped liver.  Of course, I’ve never been to a vegetarian seder, and I’m sure there are many.  I wonder what they do about the lamb bone.

My paternal mishpocha, which hailed from the vicinity of Kiev, had as a favorite dish — not for Passover, of course — kasha varnishkes.  (KV, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a mixture of bow-tie noodles and buckwheat groats.)  But in my mother’s family, noodles (lokshen) and groats (kasha) were alternatives; one or the other was served, but not both, and certainly not a combo.  And they were for Shabbos, not yom tov, when the starch course was more likely to be kugel — potato or lokshen, or for Pesach, matzo farfel.

Changing to another holiday and another holiday where the menu is very ritualized — we always celebrated Thanksgiving at the home of close friends of my parents, and Aunt Ethel was famous for her pumpkin pie.  I was a finicky eater and wouldn’t touch the pumpkin pie, so Aunt Ethel always indulged me by having an apple pie as well.  Flash forward to the first year I celebrated Thanksgiving with my (first) wife’s family.  Dessert was a delicious chocolate ice-cream cake — and I felt deprived because there was no pumpkin pie, even though I wouldn’t have touched it!

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman, z"l, was a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coached b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and was a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Even while semi-retired, he consulted with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

2 Responses to “Mah Nishtanah? How is Your Seder Different from All Other Seders?”

  1. avatar

    Vegetarians often use a roasted beet as a substitute for the bone on the seder plate. And my mom once told me that British Jews were shocked to hear we eat meat and drink red wine. In Britain, its fish and white wine–dating to the days of the blood libel; they eat nothing that could be misconstrued as of human origin.


  1. Symposium on Second Seder | RJ Blog - April 10, 2012

    […] just why is this night different from all other nights, but how is it different from last night. A pre-Passover blog post talked about menu differences between first seder and second seder. Larry Porter and Fred Isaac […]

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