Passover Lessons, Hard and Soft

March 21, 2018
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

I want to pick up the phone and say, “Mom, help! How’d you make your matzo balls?” But, of course, the lines are not open to the afterlife, and I can’t remember what she told me. I thought I’d miss my mother most when the worst things happened, but as it turns out, it’s when the best things have happened — and now, of course, when I want to make her matzo balls.

It’s Passover on Cape Cod, and not a Jew in sight. Yet at the surprising suggestion of my WASP husband, we’ve decided to host our own festival of freedom and invite two neighbors … who have never been to a seder in their lives.

But the truth is, we’ve never hosted a seder in our lives. We’ve always gone to Los Angeles friends’ seders, carrying a tidy kale salad and bottle of merlot. But never soup. And certainly not the matzo balls.

Which poses a pyramid-size tower of obligation. Because if this is going to be my seder, I need to honor my mother and make two kinds of balls, hard and soft.

Now, while most families divide along lines like Republican or Democrat, Yankees or Red Sox, Beatles or Rolling Stones, my family was divided about matzo balls. Although Mom and I favored them hard and chewy, the rest of the mishpachah liked them soft and fluffy. So, she’d make both.

If our matzo ball tradition isn’t going to die with me, I’ll have to channel my mother.

That was Mom all over. When it came to food, it might take a week of late nights after work, but all pistons fired in creating a celebratory spread — very different from my own hectic, ad hoc approach.

So, how do I replicate what she did? If our matzo ball tradition isn’t going to die with me, I’ll have to channel my mother. And I don’t know how to do this.

Born in Budapest, raised in Paris, married to a German and assimilating in America, my mother had an aspirational, practical and unconventional approach to gastronomy, be it chicken paprikash or wiener schnitzel. Having experienced upheaval, war and loss, she brightened in the kitchen and loved surprising guests with small extravagances. Never appetizers, but “canapés”; delicately rolled “veal bird” cutlets fastened with a toothpick; exquisite palacsinta crepes. And, of course, her robust chicken soup, its secret a nice hunk of flanken. But about those matzo balls — she welcomed an assistant, and often that person was me. But why hadn’t I paid better attention?

Perhaps I was too embarrassed by our quirky combos. Tuna salad with egg, capers and anchovy paste? Liverwurst on rye toast with butter? Oh, for some Froot Loops, a Hostess Twinkie, a TV dinner!

But now to focus on my Cape Cod seder; getting the right stuff in this part of Massachusetts isn’t simple. Brisket must be special ordered, and Elijah himself can’t guarantee it’ll arrive on time. Horseradish? Easier to find Waldo. I drift in the supermarket aisles, a gefilte fish out of water. Finally, a depleted section offers some lonely boxes of matzo ball mix.

Back home, I stare at the box, which provides no clues on hard or soft results. I am frozen with indecision. I so want to be my mother’s daughter.

I think back to my childhood seders. Extended family, accents flying — “Szervusz,” “Bonsoir” — Jews and non-Jews, and always a stray, an outsider. My German-born father mispronouncing the same words from the haggadah every year: the 10 plaggs on the people of Ay-geept. … Ee-koss of the past …

And I realize there was no orthodoxy there. Our seders were living entities that could withstand any number of variations. Like that time my mother at the last minute switched everyone to the second night because I had gotten a job. She adapted. Our seder was a feast as moveable as its ingredients were set, and its tent as large and generous as her heart.

I survey the matzo ball dough. Forget hard or soft. I wet my hands and remember to keep the spheres small, and when the dainty dollops bob in the broth, I fish out one, blow hard, and nibble: Neither hard nor soft. But … tasty.

Table set, haggadahs in place, I open the door to our new Yankee friends. I feel I’ve crossed my own Red Sea and delivered myself into a new tradition, one that’s all mine. And Mom is doubtless somewhere smiling, knowing all the most important things are in place.

Kate Zentall is a freelance writer and editor, as well as a recovering actress who regularly falls off the wagon with Jewish Women’s Theatre.

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