Last week, like most Jews in the world, the British Jewish community celebrated one of the most important and popular Jewish festival: Passover (Pessah in Hebrew).
There are around 260 000 Jews in the UK. It is the second largest Jewish population in Europe, after France. In London, most observant Jews live in the North of the city where many kosher restaurants, shops and synagogues can be found. We live in the South, where the community is much smaller and where it is more difficult to find Kosher food, which can be a problem, especially during Pessah where additional food restrictions apply.
Pessah commemorates the story of the Exodus as described in the Bible, when the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. Since it is believed they had to leave very quickly, to escape from Pharaoh and his army, they did not have time to let the bread they were going to take with them rise, which is one of the reasons why Jews eat matzah (an unleavened flatbread) on Passover, instead of bread. All other leavened foods (called Chametz) are forbidden during 8 days. As a result, many products sold in stores are specially labelled “Kosher for Passover” (which is also a good excuse for raising prices).
This year, since we did not have access to kosher stores and kosher products, we actually took it as an opportunity to fight back against the increasingly consumeristic aspect of the festival. We eat a lot of raw or non-modified products such as organic beans, chickpeas, lentils, rice and fresh vegetables, and were even able to get organic USDA Matzah from a rabbi who made the trip to North London. We certainly did not miss all of those horribly unhealthy cakes and snacks made out of potato starch, cotton seed oil and other monstrosities which tend to appear in supermarkets around Passover !
Prepping for Pessah is an exhausting and crazy process which involves kashering the entire kitchen (boiling pots, pans and cutlery), spring-cleaning, crumb-hunting and a bunch of other rituals. Of course, my favorite part is the food… Outside of Israel, Jews in diaspora generally gather on the first and second night of Passover for a very famous ritual called the Passover Seder (seder means “order” in Hebrew and refers to the very specific order of the ritual). During the meal, the story of the Exodus is retold using a text called The Haggadah.
A special “Seder plate” is placed on the table. It is composed of different symbols which are used to spark children’s curiosity and make them ask questions. The main items are: parsley (dipped in salted water to remind us of the tears of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt), an egg (symbol of mourning), Haroset (a mix of nuts, honey, wine and apple, as thick as the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt – Recipes vary depending on the different Jewish communities), bitter herbs (usually horseradish which symbolizes the bitterness of slavery), hazeret (an other type of bitter herbs, usually lettuce) and a shank bone (representing the Korban Pessah, the sacrificed lamb).
In recent years, and especially in American communities (often open to innovation), the seder plate has evolved, each community bringing in their own symbols. I have personally attended a variety of “thematic” seders: feminist, LGBT, interfaith, Jewish and African-American… LGBT and Feminist seders usually place an orange on the seder plate (because just like the orange on the seder plate, LGBT people and women often feel out of place). In some seders, a bowl of olives may represent the hope for peace in the Middle-East, and potato peels, Holocaust remembrance. Some people also have started to add fair trade chocolate as a way to acknowledge that today child labor and exploitative work practices still exist in the world, as a form of modern slavery.
A progressive Jewish organization called Bend the Arc who fights against “food deserts” in Los Angeles (low-income neighborhoods where fresh food is hard to find), even put together a “food desert seder plate” with rotten lettuce and potato chips, as a way to remind us that economic freedom and equality is still a battle for many of us.