How to season and care for your cast-iron skillet
Earlier this year, in a column about what every home should have, I listed a cast-iron skillet as one of my household essentials. For those unfamiliar with cast-iron cookware, it is known for its black coating that develops over time as oils are polymerized on its surface.
This process is known as “seasoning,” which gives the cookware its nonstick finish. Honestly, I will sometimes just stare at the pan, running my fingers along the surface, admiring how the seasoning has built up over the years. (A little obsessive, I know, but other cast-iron skillet fans will know what I mean.)
Besides its wonderful nonstick properties, a cast-iron skillet has other advantages.
Cast as one piece of iron, there are no parts or screws to come undone. You can bang it around and drop it on the ground and it will not dent. It’s no wonder slapstick cartoon characters whack each other over the head with them (don’t try this at home).
Because of its thickness, a cast-iron skillet takes a little longer to heat up. But when it’s hot, it stays hot. So even if you’re adding cold items such as raw meat to the skillet, it remains at your desired cooking temperature.
Unlike some premium cookware that can sell for hundreds of dollars for one pan, a cast-iron skillet can be yours for about $20. Avoid any fancy options that increase the price, such as a wooden handle. If you’re paying more than $40, you’re paying too much.
You can cook practically anything in a cast-iron skillet. It sears meats like no other pan, and you may be surprised how well it roasts vegetables. The heat of the pan gives vegetables such as cauliflower and Brussels sprouts a nice char that a cookie sheet can’t. It’s also great for baking cornbread and cakes that fall right out of the pan when they’re done. The only thing I don’t cook in the cast iron are dishes with tomato sauce or wine, as the acidity can break down the nonstick surface.
Into the frying pan …
Despite the virtues of cast-iron skillets, a lot of people are reluctant to use them. You may even have one tucked away in a cabinet collecting dust. One of the complaints I hear is that they’re too heavy. Personally, I feel that heft is a good thing in a pan, but if the weight of cast iron is a deal-breaker for you, keep in mind that most cast-iron skillets have an assist handle at the opposite end of the main handle so you can lift the pan with two hands.
What keeps most people away from cast-iron skillets, though, is the perception that they are too hard to care for. Part of the problem is that there are so many theories on the best way to season cast iron, and just as many recommendations for cleaning it.
The plethora of opinions can be intimidating for the cast-iron novice — whom do you believe? What if you follow the wrong advice? The good news is that practically every method of cast-iron maintenance you hear about works. It’s really a matter of preference. Remember that your cast-iron skillet is a heavy-duty workhorse — you won’t break it.
How to season cast iron
The majority of cast-iron skillets available in stores come pre-seasoned, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to use. The coating that’s been applied by the manufacturer is very thin and barely enough to create a non-stick surface.
I recommend additional layers of seasoning before you use your pan for the first time. Using a paper towel, rub a thin layer of vegetable-based oil on the inside and outside surface of the pan. Then, wipe the pan again with a clean paper towel. It looks like you’re removing all the oil, but don’t worry, it’s still in there. You just want a very thin layer.
Then place the skillet in a cold oven upside down with a cookie sheet or foil underneath to catch any drips. Turn on the oven to 450 F, and heat the pan for an hour. Turn off the oven and let the pan sit in there while it cools. Repeat this process at least five times before using the skillet. The first few times you use the pan, food may still stick to it. Rest assured, the more you cook with it, the more nonsticky it will become.
Types of oil to use
Some people like to use vegetable oil, while others prefer vegetable shortening. One oil that has received a lot of recent press is flaxseed oil, which some cast-iron enthusiasts swear by. I use plain, store-brand vegetable oil, and it’s given my pan a nice black patina. If I get a second skillet, I may try the flaxseed oil to compare.
Ways to clean it
The most important tip for cleaning a cast-iron skillet is to start cleaning the moment you’ve finished cooking. While the pan is still hot, scrape off any food with the flat edge of a metal spatula. Then sit down to eat while the pan cools. After your meal, the pan will still be hot (like I said earlier, cast iron retains heat like crazy) but cool enough to clean.
One cleaning method is to pour kosher salt into the pan and use a folded paper towel to scrub the salt around the pan. The salt works as a scouring agent to remove burnt bits of food. Then rinse the pan in hot water. This method does work, though I don’t like wasting all that good kosher salt.
Another method, though controversial, is to use a sponge with soap and water. Some believe soap should never touch the surface of the pan for fear of damaging the built-up seasoning, but based on my own experience, a little soap and water doesn’t damage the pan, especially if you dry it immediately afterward. I just don’t find it necessary to use soap to scrub out the pan.
What I use to clean the pan is a stainless steel scrubber called “The Ringer,” which I found on Amazon. It is an 8-by-6-inch piece of chainmail, like something you would see worn by a character from “Game of Thrones.” It scrubs off all the cooked-on food, leaving it spic and span without harming the nonstick surface. There’s usually an oily residue still on the pan, but that’s OK.
The Ringer chainmail cast iron cleaner
I wipe the pan dry with a paper towel, place it on the stovetop and turn on the burner. When the pan starts smoking, I turn the heat off. The oily residue then becomes polymerized, adding to the layers of seasoning. I finish by wiping a thin layer of oil onto the pan with a paper towel before storing it.
A note on keeping kosher
If you have a kosher household, you may want to kasher your new skillet before using it, especially if it’s been pre-seasoned. Check with your rabbi for a recommendation on the best way to do so. It would also be a good ideato have separate skillets for different food
A kosher kitchen compromise
My boyfriend of four years and I finally decided to move in together. But there was one problem: What to do about the kitchen.
Dov was raised in a Conservative Jewish household in Los Angeles where milk and meat never mixed. I grew up in a Reform home in New York where chicken kebabs were marinated in yogurt and saffron. When we spent our weekends apartment hunting in Manhattan, we looked not at the brownstones before us but stood stuck on the sidewalk debating whether our new kitchen would include my great-grandmother’s Descoware Dutch oven.
“Well, the pot is not kosher because it’s been passed down through non-kosher homes,” Dov said.
“Does it matter?” I argued. “It belonged to my great-grandmother. I’ll store it in a separate area of our kitchen.”
“But then our kitchen wouldn’t be kosher,” he said sadly.
I had imagined that moving in with my boyfriend might include the delightfully self-indulgent arguments from romantic comedies. I pictured purging outfits from my closet to make room for “his stuff” and paring down the nine perfume bottles that adorned my vanity. But I found the one boyfriend who wanted me to clean out my kitchen cabinets.
Before I met Dov in my mid-20s, my interaction with kosher food was limited to Hebrew National all-beef hot dogs. My Iranian mother, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, converted to Judaism when she married my dad. My parents spent their weekends shimmying past one another in the kitchen as herbs and beef sauteed on one burner and rice steamed on another. Although we mostly ate Persian food, my parents could cook anything.
Sure, we ate traditional Jewish foods around the holidays, but my feelings toward those dishes were somewhat similar to the way Nora Ephron described her tzimmes recipe: the medley of sweet potatoes, carrots and dried fruit “is delicious with a pork roast.” In our home, tzimmes was served alongside roast beef and Yorkshire pudding during our traditional Christmas Eve dinner with our longtime Jewish friends.
I had started cooking as a teenager, making chicken cutlets stuffed with prosciutto and spinach-and-meat-and-cheese lasagna. Giada De Laurentiis and Mario Batali were like my surrogate Italian aunt and uncle, and I browned and broiled my way enthusiastically through their Food Network shows.
But when I met Dov, I realized that even though our interests aligned on nearly everything, I lamented that he would never be able to try my specialty — chicken parmesan.
“Well, you can make it with non-dairy cheese,” he said brightly.
Milk and meat lived so harmoniously in my kitchen — and my stomach — that the thought of separating the two rattled my belief system more than I would have anticipated. Could I embrace kashrut for Dov? After all, he knew that I would never be one to keep Shabbat, so he’d altered his lifestyle from keeping the tradition. He also moved to New York City to be with me, despite his love for living in California. So maybe I could bend, too. There was a chance I might even enjoy it.
No such luck. A year into our relationship, I roasted my first-ever chicken — a kosher one — in my inaugural attempt into treating meat and milk like separate lovers. I turned to Ina Garten’s perfect roast chicken recipe for guidance. I followed the directions so closely that without thinking twice, I threw a half stick of butter on the stove to melt. I stood over my beautifully stuffed kosher chicken holding a spoonful of culinary liquid gold. Then I saw the flying cow image on the Horizon Organic butter wrapper and I panicked: Until that moment, I’d never considered butter dairy, but a class unto itself, like tofu. Separating these two food groups felt deeply unnatural; it was like seasoning a dish with just salt and not pepper.
Still, despite those disasters, Dov still wanted to share a home with separate sets of everything — pots, pans, plates and silverware. I understood that kashrut was key to Dov’s Judaism. But eating kebabs with rice and yogurt was key to mine. Granted, I didn’t have the Talmud behind me, but I had the “Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.” And even though keeping kosher was consistent throughout generations of Dov’s family, why didn’t the recipes and cookware that were passed down through my family — major aspects of my heritage as a multicultural Jew — carry the same weight?
So we did what most stubborn 20-somethings would do: We compromised on a “kosher-ish” kitchen. No separate sets of dishware, and my great-grandmother’s Dutch oven would be grandfathered into our new home. We would use glass plates (a kosher get-out-of-jail-free card, if you will, as they don’t “absorb” meat or dairy). No shrimp or pork in the house, which I could accept, since these are the only forbidden foods I admire but am particularly unskilled at preparing.
But it was still the fundamental request that made me almost lose my appetite.
“Could we please avoid mixing meat and dairy?” Dov asked. “I’m just too uncomfortable combining the two. Could we keep all the recipes that have been in your family that don’t combine meat and milk, since there are so many?”
I fell in love with Dov for reasons that had little to do with religion. He was brilliant, thoughtful and a stellar guitar player who already traded in his rock star aspirations for law school applications by the time we met. But I also admired his respect for tradition. If I cooked yogurt-marinated kebabs in our shared kitchen, he wouldn’t eat them. I wasn’t moving in with my boyfriend to eat dinner alone.
Regardless, I found it tremendously difficult to hold myself to the standard that I was expecting of Dov.
“He can live with one set of glass dishes, but I need to round out the flavors in my Bolognese sauce with two tablespoons of butter,” I thought to myself, simultaneously committed to my rationale and yet embarrassed by my childish obstinance.
“We can try,” I said. And as we unpacked all our stuff — my nine perfume bottles spread out untouched across the vanity, our new glass dishes in the kitchen next to my great-grandmother’s Dutch oven — I understood that it was compromise, not kashrut, that we would have to work on: to be less like the families we came from and more like the family we would create together.
‘Kitchen’ Lets Kid Chefs Cook Up Fun
Before I had a chance to flip through Susie Fishbein’s new “Kosher by Design: Kids in the Kitchen,” my 9-year-old, Yair, had swiped the hardcover off the pile of mail and bookmarked the recipes he wanted to try.
And try — and succeed — he did.
In “Kids in the Kitchen,” best-selling author Fishbein has translated into kids lingo her formula for great cook books: interesting recipes that tweak the traditional, with points for presentation and originality. The full-color photos and cutesy thematics in this book are as bright as her others (her “Kosher by Design Entertains” is known universally as “The Pink Book”), with a few more smiley faces.
But what’s really nice about this book is that the recipes aren’t for silly foods that let kids patschke (mess) around but don’t actually get them cooking. As Fishbein says in her introduction, no gummy worms crawling out of cookie crumbs in this book.
Rather, she includes recipes for kid-friendly real food like burritos and meatballs and breaded cauliflower and lots of desserts. What makes this book for kids is that the recipes are written in a way that any beginner — even a latecomer adult — can easily understand and follow.
Fishbein has an intro for parents and one for kids, and each recipe is rated with one to three chefs’ hats to show the level of difficulty. She gives great advice — like read through the whole recipe before you start, set out your tools and pre-measure your ingredients. She has a pictorial glossary of kitchen gadgets and basic safety and kashrut rules, and starts every recipe with an equipment list.
So when Yair set about making alphabet vegetable soup for Shabbat, he needed only hovering supervision from me. While an adult recipe might read, “one onion, diced,” she starts off with “on the cutting board, use the sharp knife to chop the onions into small pieces.”
In no time, Yair and his helpers, Ezra, 7, and Neima, 4, were chopping, sautéing, measuring and simmering, all with an eye on the timer so as not to overcook the creation.
The soup was fantastic, as was the chocolate cake Yair made for dessert. But what was even better was his newfound confidence in the kitchen. And my favorite part: He did his best to follow Fishbein’s “clean as you go” rule, and took to heart her advice that “leaving your kitchen clean is key if you want to be invited back into it to cook.”
Level of Difficulty: One Chef’s Hat
Measuring cups and spoons
Medium mixing bowl
Small silicone spatula or spoon
Paper muffin cups
Cupcake or muffin tray
1 cup sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup canola oil
12 ounces baby food carrots (usually 3 jars)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Place the sugar, flour and oil into a medium mixing bowl. Add the baby food carrots, using your small spatula or spoon to get all of the baby food out of the jar.
Add the baking soda, cinnamon and eggs.
Mix with an electric mixer at medium speed for three minutes, until the batter is smooth.
Place the paper muffin cups into a muffin or cupcake tray.
If your bowl has a spout, pour the batter from the bowl into the muffin cups; if not, use a large spoon. Fill the muffin cups almost to the top.
Place the tray into the oven and bake for 30 minutes.
Open the oven and carefully pull out the muffin tray. Stick a toothpick into the center of a muffin; it should come out clean. If it comes out gooey, return the muffins to the oven for another two to three minutes. When the muffins are done, remove from the oven and allow the muffins to cool.
Makes 12-14 muffins.
My guy Scott dined with his friend Kate and her fiance Steve. No biggie. She’s an old friend, she’s taken. Nothing to worry about. I’m not jealous. It’s cool. Till he adds, “She made this puttanesca sauce from scratch. It was really good. It had peppers and tomatoes and basil. It’s a family recipe. It was really good.” Yeah, you mentioned that already.
Think, Carin, think. Launch a witty comeback: “Well, I make good homemade desserts. You like my cookies.”
Witty or lame, either way.
“Yes,” he says laughing. “You make excellent cookies. I just thought it was cool that she made this sauce from scratch. It’s nothing.”
Nothing? Nothing? It’s not nothing. You wouldn’t have mentioned it if it was nothing. It’s something. It’s my relationship crumblin’ like Jericho.
I almost never cook for Scott. We hang a couple times a week, and Teflon rarely hits the stove. On weekends we go out. On weekdays we order in. I don’t make a meal, I make a call. He’s happy. I’m happy. Happy meals all around. Then this puttanesca girl comes into the picture, flaunting her sauce in front of him. Throwing around her tomatoes. I know, I know, she’s engaged, she’s a non-threat. But she planted a bad seed. Now Scott knows he could be dating a woman who cooks, a domestic diva who serves meals that aren’t ordered from a menu and entrees that aren’t referred to by number.
I’m hotter than the average bear and one heck of a catch. There’s no reason some random girl’s cooking should make me insecure. It’s illogical. Inconceivable. Yet, inevitable. ‘Cuz I make tacos from a seasoning pack, turn a box of Bisquick into pancakes and get my pasta sauce from a jar, folks, from a jar. I don’t have a family recipe; I have Paul Newman.
I have no choice. I have to pull an “Iron Chef” and prove I can make a marinara as good as the next girl. Now, Scott never said anything of the sort. He never mentioned the sauce again. I think he forgot about the sauce. But I can’t let it go.
Yes, guys, this is how girls act. We’re competitive. We’re crazy. We’re cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. If you happen to say, “that girl’s in good shape” or “this woman at work is smart” or “Jennifer Garner is hot,” we flip. It’s not that we actually think you’re going to leave us for that girl; it’s that you are obviously taken by that girl, and we want you to be that taken with us. It’s OK if you think another girl is fit or smart or cute, as long as you think we’re fitter, smarter and cuter. We don’t want to give you the room to think there’s someone better out there. We want you to like us.
Of course, you’d probably like us a lot more if we just didn’t act so crazy.
But we do. We’re meshugenah; we’re out of control.
I’ve convinced myself that once Scott tastes my sauce, he’ll think I’m the best thing since sliced challah. So I wake up early Sunday morning, take my ingredient list and my cute tush down to the Santa Monica’s farmer’s market. Tomatoes — check. Garlic — check. Olives — check. I grab a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, I even ask the booth guy the difference between shallots and chives. I’m one babe of a ballabusta.
I chop and mince and dice and drain. I season and simmer and stir and — ugh! Just burned myself. But I’m determined. I can stand the heat; I’m not getting out of the kitchen. As I cook, Scott volunteers to help, which is sweet and fun and only makes me want to impress him more. I’m wearing a sauce-splattered shirt and a garlic stench I won’t ditch for days, but dinner is finally served. Scott goes on about how amazing my meal is. I taste my masterpiece. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. If that whole best way — man’s heart — stomach thing is true, I’m toast. I ask Scott for the truth.
“Is it as good as hers?”
“It’s just different…”
“I’m sorry, hotter?”
“Carin, you’re crazy. Your sauce was great. I love that you made it for me. It was really sweet. But she’s Italian. She’s been making sauce for years. So her’s was a little better. It’s like you with Jewish cooking — there’s no way her kugel is as good as yours.”
He’s right, and not just about my blue-ribbon kugel. I get a little crazy, but only ‘cuz I care. I freak out about little things I think are important to our relationship, but what’s really important is Scott digs me. It doesn’t matter who cooks for him, what matters is who kisses him. So after dinner, I show Scott you don’t have to be Italian to spice things up.
Freelance writer Carin Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paint Colorful Table With Italian Dishes
While Crostini di Spuma di Tonno, Zuppa di Pesce Passato, Dolce di Tagliatelle might not sound like Jewish food, Italian Jews have long enjoyed these dishes.
Joyce Goldstein made her first trip to Italy in 1957 and instantly became what she calls a “fanatic Italophile.” The former chef-owner of San Francisco’s Square One and daughter of Russian immigrants, Goldstein threw herself into Italian art, architecture, language, culture and food.
Out of her travels and study came “Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen” (Chronicle Books, $19.95). Newly released in paperback, the book is a beautifully photographed homage to a cuisine that dates back to Roman times.
It’s not exactly the first place you’d think to look for a Rosh Hashanah menu. But the Jews of Italy can trace their roots to the second century B.C.E., making it one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, Goldstein said.
As in every corner of the Diaspora, Jewish cooks throughout the ages have used their creativity to wed regional cuisine to the laws of kashrut. Sometimes a clue lies in what is missing — no besciamella (cream) sauce or cheese on meat, for instance. The names of recipes may contain a tell-tale ending, “alla Guidia” or “alla Mosaica,” denoting “Jewish style,” “per Sabato” for Sabbath dishes or “per Pesach.”
“These are very regional Italian recipes,” Goldstein said, “and often you can tell just by looking at them where the Jews lived. Sometimes what makes these recipes Jewish is the name, like Scaloppini di Tacchino Rebecca or Minestra di Esau, but a lot of times you can’t tell, unless you see margarine or oil where they might have used butter.”
While the book is thoroughly researched, Goldstein never sacrifices flavor for authenticity. Where she finds a recipe bland, she adjusts the seasoning. “Our palates today are not used to things simple and good; they’re a little more stimulated. We’re used to eating all kinds of food here, so the ante is up and we want a little bit more flavor.”
She also admits to adjusting cooking times, as many of the oldest recipes were overcooked by today’s standards. “These are people who lived without ovens. They brought things to the baker to be cooked and picked up later, and some things were cooked a very long time. Vegetables — in those days you never got a crunch in your life,” she said.
Trained and educated as an artist, in Goldstein’s capable hands food and art blend. “When you cook you are organizing flavors and appearance, colors, smells, tastes. To me that’s like organizing a canvas when you’re painting, like the composition, choice of textures and colors. With art you don’t have smell and taste, so maybe food has an advantage, although art lasts and food gets eaten up. But both make use of creative energy.”
She is equally passionate about using locally grown ingredients. “The raw materials of the region are fabulous: Italian eggs with red yolks; flavorful, fresh chickens; vegetables that are picked one minute and served the next. Italians are totally driven by the quality of their ingredients; whereas if I go to the supermarket, when was it picked? When was it put out? When did I cook it? Three days maybe have lapsed, and it’s not as flavorful.”
Many of the ingredients traditionally used in Italian cuisine — tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, corn, pumpkin — were New World foods brought by the explorers to Spain and Portugal, where Jews, relegated to making their livelihood in trade and import, introduced them to the community at large. They were then transplanted to Italy by Sephardim who found refuge there during the Inquisition.
For Rosh Hashanah, try Stufadin di Zuca Zala (Braised Meat with Butternut Squash), reminiscent of Ashkenazic tzimmes. And no wonder. Many Ashkenazim immigrated to the Veneto, where this Venetian stew became popular. Here squash and Marsala add a touch of sweetness, bringing a wish for a sweet new year to your Rosh Hashanah table.
Traditionally for the holiday new fruits are served, and it is customary in Italy to poach quinces both for Rosh Hashanah and to break the fast for Yom Kippur. With an infusion of cloves and cinnamon, Mele Cotogne in Giulebbe (Quince in Syrup) brings a sweet, aromatic finale to your holiday feast.
Stufadin di Zuca Zala
(Braised Meat With Butternut Squash)
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 pounds cubed veal for stew
Salt to taste
1 cup Marsala or other sweet wine
1 butternut squash, about 1 pound, halved, seeds and fibers removed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, and parboiled in salted water for 5 minutes
1 1/2 cups meat or chicken broth, or as needed
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Warm two tablespoons of the olive oil in a sauté pan over low heat. Add onions, garlic, and rosemary and sauté until tender and translucent, about eight minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
Warm the remaining two tablespoons olive oil in a heavy pot over high heat. Add meat and brown well on all sides, sprinkling with a little salt after it has browned. Add wine and let it bubble up. Add sautéed onions, butternut squash, and broth to cover and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer gently until meat is tender and squash has formed a puree, one to one-and-a-quarter hours. Season with salt and pepper before serving.
Variation: You can use three-quarters of a pound carrots, peeled and grated, in place of the squash.
Makes four to six servings.
Mele Cotogne in Giulebbe
(Quince in Syrup)
2 pounds quinces
2 cups sugar
1 cup water, or as needed
2 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
In a large saucepan, combine quinces with water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook, uncovered, until barely tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain quinces and when cool enough to handle, peel, halve, core, and cut into slices.
In a saucepan large enough to accommodate the sliced quinces, combine sugar, 1 cup water, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add quinces and additional water if needed to cover. Simmer five minutes. Then over the course of 12 hours, bring quince slices to a boil in the syrup three times, boiling them for five minutes each time. This helps to bring up the rich red color of the fruit and allows them to absorb the syrup over time.
Transfer to a serving dish and refrigerate. Serve chilled.
Makes six servings.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner
Although it might seem a little early for Passover discussions, Jewish law does mandate that one should begin studying the Passover laws and details at least 30 days before the actual holiday. This is probably because no holiday requires more detailed preparation than Passover. Most of the preparations for this holiday tend to focus on koshering our homes, kitchens and utensils, and, of course, the menu for the big seder meal. What we often seem to forget is that the seder is not a meal, per se, nor a gathering to sing Hebrew folk songs, but it is an educational experience that requires no less preparation than koshering your oven or preparing your main dish.
The seder table is a classroom, with the haggadah serving as a curriculum outline, and the main educators being all those who consider themselves knowledgeable enough to conduct and lead a seder. The educational responsibility of the seder leader is to be prepared to teach the meaning of the Exodus and the Passover rituals to a wide variety of audiences.
Parashat Bo sets the stage for how we are to prepare for this great educational event known as a seder. Based on the rabbinic interpretation of three verses from this week’s parsha and one more verse from the Book of Deuteronomy, the rabbis of the Midrash Mekhilta, the Talmud Yerushalmi and the Passover haggadah all state that regarding the mitzvah of teaching the Passover story: "The Torah speaks in reference to four children." Following are the four key areas of focus:
1. "Your children may ask you what is this service to you? You must answer, it is the Passover service to God." (Exodus 12:26-27)
2. "On that day you must tell your child: all of this is because that which the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt." (Exodus 13:8)
3."Your child may later ask you what is this? You must answer him, with a show of power God brought us out of Egypt, the place of slavery." (Exodus 13:14)
4. "In the future your child may ask you what are these rituals rules and laws that God has commanded you? You must tell him, we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand." (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)
The rabbis asked why the Torah could not consolidate all of these seemingly repetitive instructions (regarding teaching the Passover story to children) into one unified verse. Why is one mitzvah being repeated four separate times?
The answer is that although on the surface the verses seem thematically repetitive (children, Passover story), each verse actually addresses a different type of child, and, therefore, each verse is teaching its own separate mitzvah. Because of the importance and centrality of the Passover story, the rabbis teach us that each type of child requires a unique and different approach to the effective teaching of this story. When the Mishnah dealing with the Seder in Tractate Pesahim 10:4 states "According to the son’s intelligence, the father instructs him," it means that it is a commandment to address each child in his own appropriate, meaningful and relevant fashion. In other words, know your audience.
The fact that we have an entire year to prepare this Passover lecture implies the power and importance of its message. This annual lecture challenges us to link our past experiences to the present in a relevant, meaningful and updated fashion for every Jew.
So it really isn’t too early to start thinking about Passover. When you stop and think about how difficult and challenging it is to convey a meaningful message to such diverse Jewish audiences, the educational preparation for the seder should take a lot more than 30 days.
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.
We’re Really the People of the Question
Why are we the People of the Book? Why aren’t we the People of the Question?
After all, before Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, like Abraham earlier, he answers God’s call to service with a question. In Exodus 3:11, he says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
I empathize completely. For who am I that I should host the seder every year, moving all the furniture out of the living room and moving in a couple dozen relatives, friends and folding chairs as well as the requisite stranger or two?
Why am I burdened with standing upright in the kitchen while all those people sit relaxed and reclining at the seder? Really, I’ll take 603,550 whining Israelites and a 40-year hike any day.
But long before sundown on April 7, the night of the first seder, I’ll be having my own culinary crisis and vowing to spend next year not in Jerusalem but at my sister Ellen’s new condo. Yep, next year I call dibs on hosting the family Sukkot celebration — a potluck, paper plate, alfresco affair.
But the point is not to match Moses’ tsuris-ridden trek through the wilderness with complaints of our own. Rather, the point is to regard ourselves as if we personally went out of Egypt and to do this by asking as many questions as possible. We begin with the proverbial “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and end, hours later, with an exasperated, “Why does ‘Chad Gadya’ have so many verses?”
Why so many questions?
For one reason, the Torah commands us, no less than four times, to tell our children the story of the Exodus. Never mind that after all these years and all those tuition payments to Jewish day schools, they should already know it.
Conveniently, the haggadah guides us in this evening of questioning and answering, which results in effectively recounting the story.
But we must tell the story in four distinct ways, for the rabbis remind us that there are four kinds of children, each asking a different question and each requiring a different approach.
The Wise Son asks, “What are the decrees, statutes and laws that God has commanded concerning Passover?” He can easily grasp the complex and profound teachings of Judaism.
The Wicked Son asks, “What does the service mean to you?” He is scornful, an outsider. We are told to reprimand him.
The Simple Son asks, “What does this all mean?” For him, we need to start at the beginning of the story, explaining slowly and carefully.
And the Fourth Son does not know how to ask a question. Not even, “Can I go to the mall?”
I too have a set of Four Sons, currently 17, 13, 11 and 9, each claiming to be the resident Wise Son and each accusing another brother of being the Wicked Son.
I explain that the Wicked Son, surprisingly, is not the problem. For he, at least, is engaged enough to pose a question and potentially can be coaxed back to Judaism. This is probably not best accomplished, however, by “blunting his teeth,” as the haggadah recommends.
The challenge is the Fourth Son, who cannot even formulate a question, who cannot even begin to understand the world around him.
And perhaps this is the second reason for this quintessential night of questions, to demonstrate that just as God leads us out of bondage in Egypt, so the act of questioning leads us out of the bondage of ignorance.
“Ask and learn,” the Apocrypha tell us.
And so we do, spending our lives firing questions. From “Where did I come from?” to “Where am I going?” From “What is life?” to “What is love?” to “What makes the world go ’round?”
And in this pedagogic process, we invent the wheel, eradicate smallpox and split the atom. We fly to the moon and delve into our subconscious. And most important, we come closer to comprehending how this huge, daunting and marvelous world works — and where we fit in.
When my son Zack was 4 and riding in the car with my husband, Larry, and me, he asked, “If Mom wants the window shut, and Dad wants the window open, what do you do?”
“It depends,” my husband answered.
“No,” Zack repeated intently, “If Mom wants the window shut, and Dad wants the window open, what do you do?” He wasn’t asking about automobile etiquette; he was asking, “Hey, who’s really in charge here?”
Now, at 17, he raises and lowers his own windows.
But he still asks plenty of questions. And that’s exactly what Passover teaches us to do — to ask wise, wicked and simple questions, difficult and chutzpadik ones. And to teach this critical skill to our children.
As the German Jewish inventor Charles Steinmetz said, “No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions.”
And who wants that to happen?
My Mother’s Kitchen: A Natural Disaster Area
My mother had a green thumb. Too bad she employed it in the kitchen, not the garden. To her credit, she was such a good housekeeper, you could have eaten off her floors. Which, unfortunately, was preferable to eating off her plates.
There are people, I’m aware, who are terror-stricken at the mere thought of visiting a dentist. I, however, who am as prone to fear and panic as anyone and more than most, can snap my fingers at the drillmaster. It’s all a matter of early conditioning. For compared to some of the culinary disasters concocted by my mother, root canal isn’t all that threatening. In fact, many was the time I used to wish I had anything, including cotton wadding, to nosh on, so long as it hadn’t been prepared by you-know-who.
We had a weekly dinner schedule in our house. Monday, we dined on meatloaf or lamb chops; we could tell them apart because the chops had one big bone, and the meatloaf had hundreds of tiny ones. On Tuesday, we had salmon patties. On Wednesday, we’d receive a care package from the local deli. Thursday, we had tuna fish and leftovers. Friday was our night for boiled chicken and barley soup. After all these years, I don’t recall what, besides indigestion, we had on the weekend.
If my mother could be said to have had specialties, they would have been her Tuesday and Friday night offerings. I don’t know who first invented the salmon patty, but I suspect he must have been related to the shmo who dreamed up chipped beef on toast. My mother used to sweat over those darn salmon patties, which didn’t help their flavor any, but probably didn’t hurt, either. At dinner, she would glower at me as I studied the orange-and-yellow creations, trying to determine, in “20 Questions” fashion, whether the objects would qualify as animal, vegetable or mineral.
My mother would remind me on such occasions that children were starving in Europe. I would urge her to mail my dinner to Poland. The nice part about my plan was that the patties wouldn’t have required wrapping. Put a stamp on one of those babies and it could have been mailed to starving children on the moon.
As if Tuesday night weren’t hardship enough, on Wednesday my lunch bag would contain a salmon patty on stale white bread. Go try to swap one of those for a cupcake! On Wednesday, believe me, I was quite prepared to keep the salmon patties and mail my mother to Europe.
It was on Friday, though, that she truly outdid herself. There are people, I understand, who absolutely adore barley soup. Which only proves, as the missionary said to the cannibal chief, that there’s no accounting for taste.
I was able to hold a spoonful of barley soup in my mouth for a remarkably long time. I could probably have kept it in there for a month, if one can possibly survive a month without swallowing. Actually, I would eventually swallow the soup; that is, the liquid portion. I would manage this by slowly and ever so carefully filtering the liquid through my teeth. This would eventually leave me, though, with a mouthload of barley. I would sooner have swallowed hemlock. After about half an hour, my parents would finally cave in. The soup would be removed from my presence and the entree would be served. It is hard to describe boiled chicken to those whom fate has spared. But such a chicken, one can safely assume, doesn’t get to go to barnyard heaven.
It always seemed to me that the Allies missed a golden opportunity to end World War II long before 1945 rolled around. It would have meant sneaking my mother into the kitchen of the German High Command. As I see this daring plan taking shape, by Tuesday night, there would have been a vague, but general, queasiness among the various field marshals. By Wednesday, when Goebbels and Goring discovered salmon patty sandwiches in their lunch bags, morale would have begun plummeting. And, by Friday evening, when Der Fuhrer himself would have been sitting with a mouthful of barley, while my mother noodged him about all the starving children in Milwaukee, you could have started the countdown to unconditional surrender.