If you've walked through a Treasure Valley Albertson's recently, you've probably noticed a table piled high with unfamiliar items--boxes of Streit's Potato Pancakes, giant packages of Yehuda Passover Matzos, bottles of Kedem Sparkling Concord Grape Juice and murky jars of Mrs. Adler's Gefilte Fish filled with bobbing, grayish lumps.
Aside from the annual Deli Days celebration, most Boiseans rarely interact with traditional Jewish foodstuffs. But Passover, a Jewish holiday celebrated for seven or eight days (depending on the branch of Judaism) that starts on the full moon in April, is a great opportunity to sink your teeth into Jewish history and culinary traditions. Why? Because each item consumed during the Passover seder--a ritual feast that's hosted on the first night of Passover, this year Monday, April 14--is filled with thousands of years of meaning.
"Essentially, Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage over 3,300 years ago," said Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz of Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho. "When the Jews were finally able to escape Egypt, they were in a hurry to do so before the pharaoh would change his mind and not let them go. So in their rush out of Egypt, they were making dough to bake bread but the dough did not have time to rise, so when they left Egypt, they essentially left with unleavened bread."
Prior to Passover, Jews purge their houses of leavened products, or chametz, made from barley, wheat, oats, spelt or rye. For the duration of the holiday, they're only allowed to consume unleavened bread products produced in under 18 minutes--aka matzah.
"According to Jewish tradition, unleavened bread is bread that is produced in under 18 minutes because once 18 minutes go by, the fermentation, albeit microscopically, starts to begin," said Lifshitz.
Matzah is often ground into flour (matzah meal) or formed into dumplings (matzah balls) for additional dining options during Passover. Lifshitz said there are also a number of newer kosher for Passover products like potato starch pasta that have made their way into the marketplace, but they can be hard to find in Boise.
"In Boise, the broadest selection of kosher for Passover products is in the Albertson's supermarket in Parkcenter," said Lifshitz. "Whole Foods has a little bit for Passover, the Albertson's in Eagle--there's a few stores that carry a broader selection than others."
To make up for the lack of local options, Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho imports matzah directly from Israel for Passover.
"We import the hand-baked matzah, which is different than the machine matzah that you can buy in the supermarkets," said Lifshitz. "Hand-baked matzah is more traditional, it follows the ancient ways of baking."
In addition to matzah, the Passover seder features six symbolic items displayed on a special seder plate. While some of these foods are eaten during the reading of the Haggadah--a guide outlining the order of the seder and explaining the significance of the meal--others are there for ceremonial purposes.
"The first item is a shank bone, which is not eaten. It's a roasted bone. People usually use the shank of a lamb or a chicken drumstick or some type of a bone that represents the Pesach, the Passover offering in the times of the temple in Jerusalem," explained Lifshitz.
Other ceremonial seder foodstuffs include beitzah, a hard-boiled egg that represents the circle of life; maror, or bitter herbs (usually horseradish and romaine lettuce or endive) that represent the bitterness of enslavement; charoset, a chutney of chopped fruits, nuts and spices that represents the mortar slaves used when erecting buildings for the Egyptians; and karpas (usually parsley but can be any vegetable), which is dipped in salt water and symbolizes the tears of the slaves.
"A lot of the rituals surrounding the seder dinner are connected to slavery and freedom. They're contrasting points, but on this evening, we sort of highlight both and remember we were enslaved and it was pretty difficult but we are free and we're pretty thankful for that," said Lifshitz.
One of the biggest ways Jews celebrate their freedom during the Passover seder is by consuming a generous amount of wine.
"When we have an important holiday, the beginning of the meal is always a blessing over wine or grape juice and that's because we want to demonstrate how important this meal is, and wine is considered to be a luxury drink versus just a drink," said Lifshitz. "But on Passover, we don't suffice with just one glass, we have four glasses of wine."
Lifshitz says Passover wines are easier to find in Boise than other Kosher products.
"There are three places that carry kosher wine here. There's more places if you count Manischewitz, but we don't call that real wine," said Lifshitz, laughing. "The biggest selection is a store on Overland called Tres Bonne Cuisine. ... They have quite a decent selection of Israeli kosher wines. The Boise Co-op also has some, and a recent addition is Trader Joe's."
But in case a bottle of wine and a hard-boiled egg don't sound like a well-rounded meal, the Passover seder also includes a full dinner. Items served at this point in the evening tend to be more cultural versus ritual, so they vary widely from family to family.
"At Passover, we have all these ritual foods that we're eating--so we're eating matzah, the unleavened bread; you're eating the bitter herbs--so by the time dinner comes around, you've had a lot of appetizers," said Lifshitz. "But at any rate, with a lot of people, brisket is very popular. ... Chicken soup, often with matzah balls, is very popular. Gefilte fish would also be a very popular item for the Passover dinner."
Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho is hosting a Community Passover Seder Monday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m. The meal will feature kosher wines, gefilte fish imported from New York, a Waldorf salad, chopped liver, brisket, roasted potatoes, sweet potato kugel and roasted veggies. And like all Passover seders, the meal is designed to commemorate Jewish history and pass on that knowledge to a new generation.
"What better way to entice people to really think about something than food?" said Lifshitz. "Food is intergenerational dialogue, which is what the Passover seder is about; it's about a discussion."