I’m Dreaming of an…African American…Passover
There is no Jewish holiday I love more than Passover. For the new readers, I am Jewish and no holiday to me is more important. I may love dancing on Simchas/t/th Torah when we celebrate the Torah scrolls and I may love the cheefulness of Sukkos/t/th but nothing pulls more at my heart than the songs and traditions and recipes and rituals of the world’s oldest Emancipation ritual. There is also no other holiday where I feel more whole as an African American who happens to be Jewish thanks to the shared history of slavery leading to redemption and freedom. Right now Maryland’s central corridor is abloom with tulips, flowering plum and cherry, dogwood, dandelions, forsythia, apple, peach and that darling little invasive, wisteria. I’ve seen a late March Pesach before–and it isn’t pretty….there is nothing like a warm, sunny Passover with all the flowers doing their job.
From what many of you have told me, this is your first exposure to Jewish culture and religion through this site–which is ironic but fitting…I’m glad that as a Judaics teacher I can be an ambassador for the Jewish people to folks who may not be as familiar with our customs and our religion. (Think I’m just talking about African Americans–you’d be dead wrong–I receive emails from quite a few born Jews who read this site for the sake of Jewish literacy) If you are quite familiar with all of it–scroll down to the next section, you won’t learn anything new here:
• Passover is known in Hebrew as “Pesach,” it refers to an event 3,500 when Jews believe G-d sent Moses and his brother Aaron to liberate their ancestors, the Israelites from several hundred years of bondage to the Egyptian Empire. The presence of the Lord and his angel, “passed over,” the land bringing plagues and slaying the firstborn of Egypt to reinforce the cry of Moses, “Let My People Go.” Pesach litterally means open-mouth…When you see injustice you have to open your mouth and scream….how fitting given some of our recent current events.
• Passover is a spring holiday and always falls after the spring equinox but does not occur at the same time every year. In ancient Israel, new grain crops and the steady maturing of the lambs and the appearance of spring greenery and herbage symbolized the renewal of nature. Once liberated from Egypt and settled in the land of Canaan, the Israelites were instructed to teach their children from generation to generation about the miracles the Lord performed for their ancestors in Egypt through a ritual that is now known as the “seder” (“the order”). When the Temple stood in Jerusalem (where the Western Wall still stands), thousands of people would pilgrimage there each spring, and offer a lamb in sacrifice to G-d, and the lamb would be roasted and eaten with bitter spring herbs called merorim and matzah-the hardtack of slavery, the flat, unleavened bread of the poor and downtrodden. After the Temple was destroyed, the ritual fully morphed into its Rabbinic form; in a ritual based on the Biblical passages and oral tradition as well as aspects of Greco-Roman culture, the modern Seder was born with its seder plate, four cups of wine and symbolic reminders of the Temple sacrifices and Biblical references.
• There are 5-6 symbols found on every Seder plate. Parsley, onion, potato or celery usually represent the karpas–the spring vegetable and appetizer dipped in salt water reminiscent of the tears of the enslaved. If you are from a Sephardic or Mizrahi home–coming from those countries around the Middle East and Mediterranean basin you might use lemon juice or balsamic vinegar to represent the bitterness of slavery. The beitzah or egg, represents cycles–human and natural, and the hard-boiled nature of the Jewish people it also is a symbol to remind us of the Temple sacrifices. The zeroa is the lamb shankbone, another symbol of the sacrifices. The maror is the bitter herb–usually horseradish or romaine lettuce. For some people there is a second bitter/sharper herb called chazeret–which may be horseradish as well. Finally the charoset is a combination of fruit, wine, and nuts that symbolizes the mortar made by the Israelite slaves.
• The Seder is a fifteeen step ritual, including a meal that leads participants through the Haggadah, a re-telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt from the perspective of the Rabbis living about 1,800 years ago or so. This ritual, which incorporates different elements of all the cultures Jews have encountered since the Egyptians, involves the fulfilling of specific Biblical and Rabbinic commandments passed down for thousands of years. The Shulchan Orech—the prepared table–is the step in the Seder that most Jews look forward to the most–its a special holiday meal enjoyed made of dishes that do not have any chametz—which is flour, yeast, or any prepared product thereof. You are only allowed matzah–a flat, unleavened bread made of wheat, spelt, oats, rye, or barley. Some Jews do not eat what are called kitniyot–I do–because I follow Sephardic customs. Kitniyot are legumes, rice, corn, soy, sesame, and the like. Why? Because in the old days these things were made into look alikes to wheat flour or might contain fragments of wheat or barley grains. Other Jews take this a step further and do not ingest gebrokhts which are foods made from matzah—i.e. matzah ball soup, etc. These dietary restrictions last from the first seder to the close of the holiday about seven or eight days later. Most Jews outside of Israel have two seders, the first two nights. Jews in Israel usually only observe one.
• Most Jews–religious or secular–observe some aspect of Passover or go to a Seder. Passover, because its a family/framily/friends and congregation oriented ritual tends to attract 95-99% of all Jews to a table to celebrate with others during this time. The Seder has many many many cultural forms–Ethiopian, Yemenite, Indian, Afghani, Persian, Turkish, Greek, Italian, African American, Eastern European, Spanish-Portuguese, Latin America, Southern, etc. Just be aware that there are millions of Jews who if they were placed in middle America would be considered, “of color.” We are a diverse and beautiful people spanning many cultures and shapes and colors of the human race. My students in suburban Washington over the past decade have been white, African, African American, Indian, Native American, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern and mixed. Basically–just about every continent and type of the human race.
Michael W. Twitty is a culinary historian and Judaics teacher from the Washington D.C. area. He is currently working on The Cooking Gene Project which explores his roots through food. He blogs at www.Afroculinaria.com and www.theCookingGene.com
West African Brisket
1 teaspoon of ground ginger
1 tablespoon of sweet paprika
1 teaspoon of coarse black pepper
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of chili powder
1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon of kosher salt
5 pound Brisket or 5-7 pounds of Flanken
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 large piece of ginger, peeled and minced
4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
3 onions, peeled and diced
3 bell peppers-green, red and yellow, seeded and diced
1 small hot chili or more to taste
10 ounce can of diced tomatoes
1-2 tablespoons of brown sugar
1 tablespoon of prepared horseradish (chrain/red preferred)
2 cups of chicken, beef or vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
1 sprig of fresh thyme or a teaspoon of dried thyme
2 large red onions, cut into rings
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.
1) Combine the spices and salt. Save about two teaspoons for the vegetables. Rub in the minced garlic and ginger, then sprinkle with the remainder of the spice mixture. Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven or pot. Sear the beef all around, or about 3-5 minutes on each side to an even brown. Remove from the Dutch oven and set aside.
2) Add the onion, bell pepper and hot chili to the oil in the pan. Season with the remaining seasoning. Saute until the onion is translucent and add the tomatoes and mix together and cook for about five minutes.
3) Add the sugar and stock, horseradish, bay leaves and thyme. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
4) Place the onion rings at the bottom of the pan and sprinkled with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Place the brisket on top of them. Cover with the vegetables and stock.
5) Cover tightly and bake in the preheated oven for 3.5 hours until the brisket is fork tender.
6) Remove the brisket. If you wish to serve hot from the oven, allow 15-30 minutes to rest and absorb liquid, then remove and carve against the grain. If you are planning on serving it later in the day or the next day, cool and refrigerate. Once the brisket is chilled, you can remove excess fat and slice—always against the grain. You can then use the sauce to cover in a pan or pot and heat gently for a half an hour or more until heated through.
My African American Seder Plate
Karpas–Boiled Sweet Potato (To stand in place of the yams of our ancestors)
Beitzah–Hardboiled Egg (because the egg was an offering to G-d in West Africa and we may endure the heat but we are strong)
Charoset–Molasses and Pecans (to represent the gifts of the South despite its horrors in our history)
Maror–Collard Green (survival and the bitterness of slavery)
Chazeret–Heirloom Hot Red Pepper (for the hot times, and for the spice of life we added despite our dangers and snares)
Zeroa–The Chicken Bone (to represent the Preacher’s Bird)
Matzah–White Cornmeal Hoecake (the Hardtack of slavery..)