Week 13: Passover Brisket and Matzoh Balls

Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday for many reasons.

It’s a discussion-based dinner party. It is based in ritual, but centered on conversations about oppression, and everything that means. It is family-oriented. There are four mandatory cups of wine. It is comfortable because everyone sits on pillows. It is interactive, fun, and full of learning. It is welcoming for non-Jewish people. It is a holiday about social justice. It has a lot of creative food.

But mostly I love Passover because to me, it is a holiday for mothers and women. It is a story of how one mother (Yocheved) sacrificed her son so that he could go on to lead a slave uprising. It is also a story about how that son would never have been able to do it without his sister (Miriam) and his wife (Zipporah).

And it is a holiday in which women have reclaimed authority over the misogyny of the story, by adding oranges to Seder plates and Miriam’s cup to the table, as well as by always carrying the burdens of both the oral and food traditions of thousands of years of culture.

I have always loved Seders. My paternal grandmother and Uncle Steve would host them when I was very young. When my parents got divorced, my mom would always be invited to one of our Jewish friends’ tables. At school in Switzerland, there was a small group of Jewish students who gathered together with a handful of teachers. In Boston, before I had my own family, I had friends’ families who would take me in. I grew up around a lot of strong women leading Seders, and now that I host my own, I am always reminded of my many Jewish mothers at Passover… Helaine, Joni, Sharon, and Barbara, especially. I love them and miss them every year.

That’s why this year I used one of my grandmother’s recipe books for the soup and one of Sharon Glasser’s books for the brisket.

I never had brisket with Passover growing up, but when I first tried it in college, I couldn’t believe how good it was! The Glasser brisket is one of the best briskets I have ever had, even since.

Sharon, my friend Charlotte’s mother, invited me to join the family’s Seder for year because I had no family on the East Coast. This became a tradition and I looked forward to that brisket all year.

At some point, Sharon gave me a copy of the Temple Beth Shalom recipe book, in which her brisket featured. I have used it twice, and it’s never been as good as hers, but it’s close.

I said a few months ago, in the entry about Jeff’s church Swedish meatballs (Week 3), that I also had a congregational recipe book that is a sort of family heirloom that I would soon be using. This is the one I meant!

This is North London, so of course I had to make sure I got a brisket, so I ordered it a week ahead from our excellent butcher, James Elliot.

Glasser family brisket recipe

This year, for the first time, I made matzoh balls from scratch instead of from a box.

I think I got this recipe book from my grandmother, but honestly I’m not sure! If someone recognizes it, tell me. Otherwise, we’ll stick with that story. But it’s an old book, published in 1958, and it has a “Soup Accompaniments” chapter with SIX (!!) knaidlach recipes.

But actually, none of them call for seasoning the balls. So they ended up kind of plain, although very nice and fluffy. I do prefer the box, though. They just taste better.

So many knaidlach recipes!

This Passover was very special because it was the first and last one I hosted in my home in London, which I will miss very much. We are moving back to Boston in a few weeks, and this Seder doubled as a goodbye dinner party with our close friends, the Fulwilers and the Barletta-Jeffreys.

It was also Rowan’s first Passover! I was reminded of the many Passovers I spent as a child, running and playing while the Seder went on, and Rowan and his friend, Vesper, did the same. I was struck by a very strong feeling of nostalgia, and also a kind of very warm happiness I had not felt before.

I’m the mother now, the Seder leader, the carrier of traditions.

It’s a big responsibility, but I am very proud to pass on all the little bits of the traditions of the mothers who got me here.

Seder dinner 2018

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Alex Pearlman

Alex Pearlman

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Reporter. Bioethicist. Publishing on the intersection of ethics and policy with emerging science and tech. Sorry for the recipes if you’re here for news.