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Passover memories help in serving the story

Editor's note: This story originally published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution April 17, 2008

When I sit down with family and friends to begin the observance of Passover, I will be thinking about freedom and the meaning of the holiday.

But I have to confess: By the fourth or fifth day of the eight-day celebration, as I munch on yet another piece of thirst-inducing matzo, my thoughts won't be so noble. I'll be planning what delicious flour-based meal I'm going to enjoy when the holiday is over. (Homemade black bean enchiladas, anyone?)

I'm not alone in wishing for a speedy conclusion to Passover, although not everyone will admit this out loud. (You know who you are.)

Though we do eat many wonderful dishes during the holiday, especially tender and juicy brisket and potato kugel, when you know you can't have something, you always miss it more. Not unlike what my Christian friends say about Lent.

I'm not being sacrilegious, and I embrace Passover's rituals. It's just one of our more challenging holidays because of the dietary restrictions. And it takes a lot of work to get ready for, because the kitchen must be rigorously scoured, removing any trace of leavened products; grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rye; and legumes.

As for what Passover commemorates — the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt — well, few events in our history are more important than that.

There is an added wrinkle this year because the holiday begins at the close of the Sabbath, a day of rest for observant Jews. Instead of using the pre-Passover hours for last-minute prep, an alternative plan will be mobilized to get the Seder service started on time.

But hey, a little improvisation never hurts. Some years, circumstances call for creativity.

In 1981, the Boston Marathon fell during Passover. I was a sportswriter covering the race for my newspaper, the Norwich [Conn.] Bulletin, and I had a personal interest because my father was running. Carb-loading with pasta was out of the question, but he still needed some substantial fuel. His marathon-eve meal was a generous slab of prime rib and mashed potatoes at Durgin-Park, the venerable restaurant in Faneuil Hall. I still recall the homey atmosphere, the wooden floors and the red-and-white-check tablecloths. And eyeing the eatery's famous corn bread, which, of course, we couldn't eat.

Passover was one of my father's favorite holidays. He loved its sense of community, and he enjoyed conducting the Seder. We lived close to the University of Miami when I was growing up, and many years I would drive over to campus with my dad or my mother to pick up the Israeli students who were to be our guests.

Aside from learning about the students' lives, their presence had an added bonus. When it was their turn to read from the Haggada — the text that tells the story of the Hebrews' hurried Exodus to freedom — they could zip through the Hebrew as fast as we could read the English.

During this joyous holiday, Jews throughout the Diaspora personalize the service and the meal, including the symbolic foods. Maror and haroset are traditionally set in a specific spot around an indented plate used only during Passover. Haroset, a sweet mixture of chopped nuts and apples, cinnamon and a little wine (recipes vary), symbolizes the mortar the Israelites used in Egypt. Maror, usually horseradish but sometimes endive or escarole, recalls the bitterness of slavery.

When my brother's family hosts the Seder, instead of a plate we use silver figures as receptacles for the ritual foods. My mother bought this set of six workers (five male, one female), each about 3 inches tall, several decades ago in Miami, though I don't recall that they were ever a part of our Seders there. And unfortunately, she doesn't know their history.

The year the set debuted here, our guests were taken by the workmanship and detail and were as curious as we were about the story behind the figurines. They have no maker's mark — at least not one that we could find — and as any "Antiques Roadshow" aficionado knows, without a provenance and an expert appraisal, determining a value can be difficult.

And though they have Passover duties, are the figures perhaps also representative of occupations long ago in Eastern Europe or Russia?

A miniature bearded man stands with his hands gripping a shovel poised in the center of a trough awaiting the addition of our haroset. He's wearing a cap, trousers and a prayer shawl over his shirt. You can even see the fringe on the shawl's corners.

Our figure that holds the maror looks like a washerwoman bending over a basket with her hands nearly grasping the handles on both sides. The other figures are also in dress from another era and account for the hard-cooked egg, parsley and the rest of the symbolic foods for the Seder.

It's become a tradition that the host family provides the soup and the main course, usually the aforementioned brisket, or turkey. Sometimes it's both, especially when out-of-town extended family joins the crowd.

That leaves side dishes and desserts for the local attendees to contribute. At my brother's house, where they have the luxury of a large eat-in kitchen adjoining a hearth room, the furniture is removed and chairs and tables are assembled for company. We number 25 to 30, sometimes more.

During the first 45 minutes of the service, we light the candles, drink two of the four cups of wine, listen to the youngest child in attendance ask the four questions (beginning with, why is this night different from all other nights?) and explain and sample the ritual foods. Then it's time for the feast, which is not unlike Thanksgiving — a lot of effort put forth by many people, with ample quantities of culinary delights consumed quickly. Conversation is easy and entertaining, but you're just as likely to hear "Who made the kugel? Can I have the recipe?" as discussion of the latest news or politics. In that several of our group are high school seniors, this year we'll be talking about what college they might be attending in the fall.

Food restrictions aside, it's an intellectually stimulating holiday.

After dessert and after the kids find the hidden "afikomen" (matzo wrapped in a cloth), we'll bless the meal, finish the service and consume two more cups of wine. And end with the traditional "Next year in Jerusalem," a plea for peace and an acknowledgment of Judaism's spiritual heart and home.

For my family, there is also a bittersweet aspect of Passover. Two years ago in March, I was readying my house for my parents' visit. It was a trip they never made as my father became very ill very quickly and was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He passed away three months later in June 2006.

We'll be missing his voice during the songs that are sprinkled throughout the service. He couldn't be counted on to necessarily sing on key, and he may not have enunciated the words clearly, but his heart was always in it. "Chad Gadya," an allegory about the persecution and survival of the Jews throughout history, comes almost at Seder's end, when most participants, after hours around the table, are antsy and ready to call it a night. Not my dad.

With a bit of a rest, he might have even been ready to get started on the next night's Seder.

Instead, a few hours later, he would cheerfully slather strawberry or apricot jam on his morning matzo and top it off with cheese. He was an enthusiastic eater any time of year, and I never heard him say — unlike his daughters — "I can't wait for Passover to be over."

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