Shannon Kuhn: With Passover come reminders of a resilient culture

Shannon Kuhn

This past week, Jewish families across Alaska gathered around the table during Passover for a special dinner called a Seder.

During the Seder meal, the story of the Exodus, when the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, is told through a text called the Haggadah. Traditionally, the ceremony is extensive and includes 15 sections and four cups of wine. But more and more Jewish families are adapting the Haggadah to make the tradition their own, and treat Passover not just as a strictly religious ritual but a celebration of freedom, culture, family and good food.

Kate and Danny Consenstein live in downtown Anchorage and joke that every year during Passover, local grocery stores get wiped out of their supply of matzo crackers. Matzo is a very plain unleavened cracker traditionally eaten during the Passover holiday, when Jewish law forbids eating leavened bread for the week. It's a symbolic reminder of when the Israelites fled slavery; with the Pharoah's army at their heels, they had no time to let their bread rise and ate flat matzo instead.

Kate, who was raised Catholic in Anchorage, didn't know many Jewish families when she was growing up in the '80s. When she met her future husband, who came from a Jewish home in New York, "I really wanted to understand where he came from," she said. "Passover was my gateway drug because I cooked and I loved food."

The first year they were together, Kate set about "perfecting a brisket." Slow-cooked, of course, because really, is there any other way? Next was matzo ball soup. ("The secret is real schmaltz; do you know what that is?" she asked. "Chicken fat.")

One year they had an all-vegetarian Passover dinner. Now it's become a tradition to serve black cod, "one of those luxuries you just have to be grateful for."

Last year Danny gave a TEDx Anchorage talk before going home to Seder dinner.

"Passover is one of the few ways that I stay connected to my culture -- through food," he told the audience.

Reminiscing about his grandmother, he said now, "the first words in Yiddish that I learned from her were 'ess,' which means 'to eat'... 'ess, ess, eaaaat, c'mon.' " He gestured wildly with his hands. "This was a big part of my culture."

"When I think about my mom too, I think about the food she cooked, whether it was chicken soup or brisket or kugel," he said.

For Kate, cooking the foods that are meaningful to her husband is like "my love note to Danny," she said.

The foods eaten at Seder are all symbolic and help tell a history of oppression, freedom, spring and rebirth.

Hope Finkelstein and Brian Hirsch were both raised in Jewish households back east but have called Alaska home for decades.

"One doesn't just get to think about culture, every participant tastes and ingests a meaningful experience," Finkelstein said in an email about Seder. "That experience is both a communal one shared at that table and tables throughout the world and very individualistic and personal. If you don't like gefilte fish or lamb, you'll probably like the vegetarian matzah ball soup or the 'Karpas, symbol of rebirth and spring' salad of marinated asparagus and beets with goat cheese and toasted walnuts."

To Finkelstein, Passover is about personal and community resilience.

"As a Jew in Alaska, which is not as common as one in NY, I have often been asked, 'why do you think Jews have survived throughout the years despite the ever-present anti-Semitism?' I believe that Passover is a big part of the answer. Even folks who have little identification with their cultural heritage have some sort of an affinity with this holiday."

Natasha Price grew up in a Jewish household that was "pretty nontraditional" but "my mom wanted us (children) to know our heritage."

This Passover, Price didn't have time for the usual Seder dinner but made a celebratory dessert. I visited with her as she tended to a pot of toffee bubbling on the stove top. Once it had cooked, she spread it over the matzo crackers laid out on a baking tray. She sprinkled chocolate chips generously over the hot topping, and we watched as they melted into an irresistibly gooey layer. The final topping was slivered almonds. When it all had cooled, she broke it into pieces and organized it neatly on a plate.

Sometimes called "chocolate-covered caramelized matzo crunch," "brittle" or "toffee bark," this salty-sweet and highly addictive Passover treat is commonly referred throughout the U.S. as "Matzo Crack."

Price, a lifelong Alaskan and mom, is the blogger behind the Alaska Knit Nat website ( Price's great-grandparents emigrated from Belarus to Ellis Island in 1906 with nothing but a pair of brass candlesticks.

"It is one of the very few connections we have to our past," Price said.

Growing up, her family kept Seder dinners pretty simple.

"We would do an abridged abridged abridged version -- about 20 minutes," Price laughed. She grew serious when telling me the version of the "Haggadah" her mom created from the parts of the ceremony she found most significant. Today the sheet of paper with instructions is covered with wine stains and typos that were never fixed, now inside jokes and traditions in themselves.

"The Seder is really an ingenious ritual which incorporates both tradition and innovation," Finkelstein says. Each family makes it their own.

"One year a little kid was being bullied at school for being Jewish," Kate told me. "So we skipped the ritual and instead all went around the table and talked about what it meant to be Jewish or married into a Jewish family, and why it's so special. We keep this tradition going now and do it every year."

Passover in Alaska might be a little different but at the end of the day, the meaning stays the same, Price declared: "I don't want to forget who I am and where I come from."

Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.


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