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Over the generations women did not wait until the night of the Seder to show their commitment to upholding tradition. In the era before Manischewitz, the moment Purim celebrations ended, Passover preparations began. (Actually in some communities it was as early as Hanukkah but that is a whole other story) There was no Kosher for Passover aisle in the supermarket or on Amazon, so literally everything needed to be made from scratch. The directions to make items, like grimslechs (read on for more information) made only once a year might not be remembered and were better recalled when read off the written text of a cookbook.
What women shared with each other in cookbooks was much more than a simple how to, it was a commitment to reliving the memory of the Exodus as we have been instructed to do. Food is important to all Jewish holidays, even Yom Kippur revolves around food or the lack there of. But without dedicated culinary vigilance Passover would fall short of the demand to make ourselves feel like we ourselves are going out of Egypt. Each food, devoid of leavening, bitter, sweet and sticky, dry and crunchy is a culinary reenactment of the Exodus experience. Reminders in cookbooks, of how to prepare the Seder plate, or salt the salt water, etc. signaled fidelity on the part of women.
This is no surprise. The tradition teaches that it was on the merit of women that the people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt. There were the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, who helped save the Israelite babies after Pharaoh decreed the boys drowned. There was Miriam who watched over baby Moses in the reeds. There was Pharaoh’s daughter who knowing that baby Moses was Jewish saved him from the river. And there were the women of Israel who, when the men stayed away, brought them fortifying stew, seduced them and bore the next generation. The merit, and the moxie, of the women saved the day.
The ingenuity of Jewish women continued through the generations. No kosher for Passover vinegar? No problem. Make rosl. Place beets in an earthenware crock. Cover with water and seal. Bury in the ground for three to four weeks. The resulting rosl liquid will be sour and perfect for flavoring borscht and other dishes. Before you turn up your nose and run for the balsamic, keep in mind that many of the ancestors of American Jews (about 80%) came from European countries where Passover was more an end of winter rather than a spring holiday. With no Trader Joe’s in sight, they managed to create festive meals from the few root vegetables they had left in the larder, beets, potatoes, onions and carrots. Still skeptical about rosl? Keep in mind that it was so commonplace that until the 1950s, when rosl was commercially available, rosl was the first recipe in Passover sections of most American Jewish cookbooks.
And like the Haggadah, which has a form and a set order but also allows for creativity, Jewish cookbooks and the food preparation they outlined allowed for both order and flexibility. Some foods like matzo balls varied little from author to author, proving themselves a fixed staple. Other foods like grimsleches otherwise known as chrimsels or by a myriad of other similar sounding names, were a sweet dessert—sometimes filled, sometimes not, sometimes with ginger, sometimes not, often fried but sometimes baked. This was a dish that called out for interpretation, for putting one’s own customs and tastes into the mix.
So even as we prepare and cook for Passover, we can pay full attention to the meaning of the holiday and the complicated, messy and often overlooked history of Jewish women. As we search for the perfect matzo crunch, or brisket, don’t forget to consider the winding, often challenging path that led to the evolution of these dishes and of course the generations of Jewish women whose merit brought us to these days.
Grimslech (for Passover) — Chop up half a pound of stoned raisins and almonds, with half a dozen apples and half a pound of currants, half a pound of brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, half a pound of fat, the rind of a lemon, two soaked matzas or unleavened bread; mix all the ingredients together with four well beaten eggs; do not stiffen too much with the matzo meal; make into oval shapes; either fry in fat, or bake in an oven light brown. –From Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book, Philadelphia, 1871
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Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.