Making Passover a ‘seder to savor’

When I was growing up in Toledo in the late fifties and early sixties, every year at Passover we would go to my cousin’s house for the seder.  Besides the food, I was thrilled because it meant I was never the youngest and never had to do the four questions.

My little cousin Gary got stuck with it instead. There were about forty people every year and it was a pretty big deal. The food was also a pretty big deal.  The women in my family were excellent cooks and there was a friendly game of “can you top this?” going on.

The traditional seder was always served.  It started with chopped chicken liver on matzo, then matzo ball soup.  My grandmother made big soft fluffy matzo balls, which were so delicate they almost separated at the touch of a spoon. I loved them!  For the salad there was the dreaded gefilte fish, which I hated but my dad loved. In my father’s family they grew up with the tradition of having two main meals at the holidays so we had beef brisket and a goose on the table. My dad loved everything fatty, the fattier the better. My mom’s twice-baked potatoes stuffed with sour cream and butter and topped with paprika, were usually present as well as her huge ring mold of baked tomato casserole, sautéed green beans with almonds in the center.  She loved her ring molds.

Dessert was a family favorite recipe of homemade fudge. And don’t ask me for that recipe. Kajsa Alger (my partner at Street) and I have tried and failed many times to recreate it. But most importantly, I almost always found the Afikomen.  I don’t know if I was just overly competitive or that Uncle Leonard liked me best, but I had a nice collection of silver dollars going.  So my seder memories are filled with recollections of fun, wonderful food, not a whole lot of religion, but lots of family and warmth.

So when we set out to do a seder at our restaurant on La Brea Ave., STREET, these were the qualities I was trying to recapture. I figured we could improve on the food, having so much more global influence to draw from, but the rest would have to somehow magically come together.

The first two years, my good friend from Argentina, George Rimalower, did a beautiful seder ceremony. He said it would be thirty minutes and it was forty (not unusual if you know George…) but everyone loved it. Even though no one knew each other it was as if we were one big happy family.  George brought up the youngest guest to sing the four questions and, like a good teacher, helped him through the rough parts; we sang about the little goat, dayenu, drank wine, lit candles, named the plagues.  All in all, it was actually the most fun at a seder I’ve had as an adult.

Each year we’ve tried to do a menu that draws from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. This year, trying for a twist on the old favorites, the Street “Seder to Savor” menu will include choices like: Heirloom spinach soup with matzo balls; Lamb Musubi, a Hawaiian inspired dish of lamb on saffron rice with grape leaf, pickled almonds, and pepper sauce; matzo-encrusted spring nettle cakes with mustard sauce and smoked halibut; Russian eggplant with buttermilk sauce and mint oil; for dessert there will be coconut macaroons dipped in Moroccan spiced chocolate, cause remember- we never could figure out that fudge.

I grew up in a Midwest Jewish family where, for me, Judaism was as much about lifestyle and culture as the religious traditions. Although my family was not particularly pious, I still identify and feel my heritage very strongly. I even lived on a kibbutz in Israel as a teenager, picking apples and pears. It reinforced my feelings of belonging to a family where everyone helps each other, shares their lives, their stories, their backgrounds, and celebrates the bond no matter which country they come from or how they practice.

Doing Passover at the restaurant is something that actually brings me closer to my religion than anything I’ve ever done in my personal life.  The environment that invites anyone to come and join in, even if they have no family in town, to have fun, laugh, belong, share good food- that’s the spirit of Judaism that I have lived by.

Street is my second home … something I’ve worked hard to fill with warmth and a feeling of family.  So even though it’s in a restaurant, and even though I’m actually at work, I feel like I’m having a Seder in my home.  My parents would be so proud.

Toledo’s only day school closing

The only Jewish day school in Toledo, Ohio, is closing at the end of the school year due to a lack of enrollment.

The David S. Stone Hebrew Academy will shut down when the school year ends next week, the Toledo Blade reported.

The school, serving grades K-5, dropped from an enrollment of more than 100 students several years ago to 22 this year. It was founded in 1968 and served all Jewish denominations.

The United Jewish Council of Greater Toledo conducted a two-year study to explore alternatives that would allow the school to remain open. Among the options the committee studied was sharing the school with another faith group by holding secular classes together and religious classes separately, the Blade reported.

“It wasn’t a decision reached lightly or quickly,” Kirk Wisemayer, the UJC’s chief executive officer, told the newspaper.

The Jewish population in the Toledo area has declined from approximately 7,500 in the early 1970s to fewer than 4,000 today, according to the newspaper.

Wisemayer said there are more than enough children to populate the Jewish day school in the Toledo area.

“You have to ask yourself the question, ‘Does the community really support the Jewish day school if they’re not sending their children to it?” he was quoted as saying by the Blad. “And if they’re not supporting it, should we, as financial stewards, be funding something they don’t support?’ That was the primary reason for the closure of the school.”

Neither the school nor the UJC have noted the closure on its website.

Israeli powers Toledo to landmark women’s hoop title

Naama Shafir, a Sabbath-observing Israeli, scored a career-high 40 points to power the University of Toledo women’s basketball team to the school’s first national postseason championship in any sport.

Shafir hit 13 of 27 shots as the host Rockets defeated the University of Southern California, 76-68, on April 2 for the Women’s NIT title. The victory also marked the first national championship for a Mid-American Conference team in any sport. Shafir, a 5-7 junior guard from the small northern Israeli town of Hoshaya, also sank 13 of 18 free throws in the game.

Following the victory on Saturday afternoon, Shafir walked home and held off interviews until long after the conclusion of Shabbat.

Shafir is believed to be the first female Orthodox Jew to be awarded a Division I athletic scholarship. She led the Rockets this season with averages of 15.3 points and 5 assists per game. She had been courted by Boston University and Seton Hall before enrolling at Toledo.

Getting the OK to play in the United States was no easy layup: Shafir obtained permission from an Orthodox rabbi in Israel to play games that coincided with the Jewish Sabbath, but not to practice, according to The Associated Press. Other special measures have been enacted to accommodate Shafir’s Sabbath observance: For road games, she checks into a hotel within walking distance of the host arena with a coaching staff assistant, bringing with her frozen kosher meals from Detroit.

“Every time we need her, when the game’s on the line or it’s a crucial moment in a game, she’s not one of those people who hides behind everyone else,” said Toledo coach Tricia Cullop in a post-game interview. “She steps to the forefront, begs for the ball and carries us. She’s as good as they come.”

Holy Toledo!

My husband’s family hails from Toledo, Ohio, a city that proudly claims kinship with Toledo, Spain. That’s one reason I didn’t want to miss this Castilian hill town 42 miles southeast of Madrid. There’s also the fact that El Greco’s “View of Toledo,” a spectral view of the city’s spires by moonlight, has long been one of my favorite paintings.

What I didn’t know until recently is that Spain’s Toledo contains — along with spires, damascene jewelry and scrumptious marzipan — a treasure trove of Jewish memories.

Back in 1200, under the benign rule of a Catholic king, Toledo housed some 12,000 Jews, who contributed mightily to the city’s dynamic intellectual life. Of the many synagogues that once dotted the winding lanes, two have survived. Both were converted into churches following the expulsion of Jews from Spain, but they now have been preserved as national monuments.

The 14th century house of worship built by the wealthy and powerful Samuel HaLevi is known today as the Transito (Assumption) Synagogue. Its grandly carved bimah and magnificent ceiling are still intact.

Equally impressive in its way is the Sephardic Museum located in what was once the women’s gallery. It contains Jewish antiquities, many borrowed from Israeli collections, and there’s also heartwarming video footage of modern Jews celebrating holidays and life-cycle events: proof for Spanish visitors that Judaism lives on.

This is worth underscoring, because the guards on the premises have little sense of exactly what they’re guarding. When I asked in my best schoolgirl Spanish if there were any modern synagogues in Spain, all I got was a shrug.

The second surviving synagogue on the street now called, Reyes Catlicos (Catholic Kings), is the austerely beautiful Santa Mara la Blanca, dating from the late 12th century. It was built in the Moorish style, with stately rows of white columns reaching upward into rounded arches. High off the ground, above the archways, long-ago artisans etched lacelike patterns into the plaster.

I had heard that when this synagogue became a church, the Jewish symbols among the plaster adornments were obliterated. But there remained, I was told, a single Magen David as a token of what once had been.

Naturally, I set out to find it. Again, the guards and other employees were of little help. One acknowledged that the star existed but wouldn’t budge from her post at the gift shop cash register to point it out.

Finally, persistence paid off. Above the first pillar to the right of the doorway, and some 25 feet off the ground, we saw the faint but visible six-pointed star representing our people.

As we strolled along Reyes Catlicos, a bilingual sign promising information about Jewish Toledo led us into a narrow alley, Calle del Angel. Here we found Casa de Jacob, a spacious, modern store selling Jewish ritual items, kosher foods from Israel and serious Jewish texts in Spanish, Hebrew and English. It also offers a map detailing the archaeological remnants of Jewish life within Toledo’s ancient walls.

According to David, the pleasant young man behind the counter, Casa de Jacob is unique in Spain. It’s lovingly operated by David’s family, most of whom believe they descend from Jews forced to accept Catholicism at the time of the Inquisition. (He said his father’s brother, however, is still in denial.)

Our chat with David allowed us, as we moved on to Toledo’s magnificent cathedral, to feel a little more at home in this very Catholic place.

Later, as we watched the sun set over the city from the spot where El Greco had painted his masterpiece, I was feeling profoundly affectionate toward my surroundings. Holy Toledo, indeed!

The map can be viewed on the Web at, and the store’s informative and wide-ranging site can be found at