Some thoughts on Passover, and a soup recipe

15 Apr

My family still celebrates Passover for some reason, despite nobody really believing any of it (I’m the only one who identifies positively as an atheist, I think because I’m more interested in these issues and actually care, but my family are thoroughly secular Jews). I asked why and nobody really seems to know, aside from “tradition” – I guess it’s as good an excuse as any to get together with family and eat foods we don’t normally eat. Most of us don’t bother keeping kosher for Passover outside of the actual seder meals though, it’s just too much hassle and thoroughly unpleasant (especially for me, being a vegetarian).

During our hilariously abridged seder last night (because none of us really felt like reading any of the material in the haggadah but we thought we had to do something, so we rushed through and tried to hit the main highlights in as little time as possible) it occurred to me that the central message of the Passover story is “God is an asshole, but he’s OUR asshole”. Which is refreshingly honest compared to a lot of other religions – or would be if I thought it was actually what they intended it to be.

I mean, look at the English name – Passover (in Hebrew it’s Pesach, the meaning of which is less clear; it’s usually translated as something similar but could also have to do with the Passover sacrifice and/or God’s protection). It explicitly refers to the portion of the story in which God instructs the Jews to paint their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificed lamb so that he will know to ‘pass over’ those houses when killing all the firstborn sons in Egypt. Let’s not be coy about this: this is explicitly celebrating being excluded from a genocide which God committed on the Jews’ behalf. It gets worse when you consider the predominant versions of the story have the pharaoh only being obstinate because “God hardened his heart”, meaning that God set up this whole scenario for some other reason than freeing the Jewish slaves; if he’d just wanted to free them he wouldn’t have had to prevent the pharaoh from changing his mind. Which means that, if we take this seriously, there has to have been another motive – God was showing off. Possibly to impress the Jews with fear so they would worship him like he wanted. Like I said, God’s an asshole.

Now of course I’m an atheist and I don’t believe any of this happened, but I still think it’s in poor taste to happily tell that story and celebrate it (okay, there is a moment in the seder where you’re supposed to feel sorry for the Egyptians over the ‘plagues’ and remove a drop of wine from your cup for each plague, but that’s always struck me as the bare minimum of token acknowledgment that it wasn’t all-good). Especially when archaeologists have failed to find any evidence that there ever were Jewish slaves in Egypt at all (and, to boot, they now think the Pyramids were probably built by freemen). It is also hypocritical when you consider that in many places the Tanakh (or the Old Testament as Christians call it) condones slavery so long as it is Jews enslaving non-Jews.

Let me run the risk of Godwin’s Law here and say that I think it’s also a bit odd that we continue to celebrate Passover (with the genocide of the Egyptian firstborn) and have not reevaluated it any after the Holocaust; how can we celebrate a genocide that benefited us (even one committed by God) while also mourning the victims of one committed against us? I’m reminded of this post and comment thread at Pharyngula  which discussed some Israeli soldiers’ attitudes toward Palestinians. It seems like many have taken the wrong message from the Holocaust – not “genocide is wrong” but “genocide is wrong when it’s done to us”, which I find truly appalling.

It’s commonly said that the central message of most Jewish holidays is “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” Which is mostly pretty innocuous, until you consider things like the above.

I may be pilloried from all sides for saying this but I don’t care.

On a completely unrelated note, it occurred to me that you can see part of where the stereotypes of Jews as shrewd with finances come from in the Afikoman tradition, which is basically a form of ritualised extortion. Afikoman is roughly translated as ‘thing eaten last’ or ‘dessert’ and is a piece of matzo which is supposed to be the last thing eaten at the seder (traditionally, the seder is not permitted to end until the Afikoman is eaten). An adult hides it somewhere in the house and the children search for it; after it is found, they are then supposed to hold it hostage and negotiate a price for its return, because without it the seder cannot end. As I said, ritualised extortion. (In my family we never quite did this, and it was usually a fixed amount of money given to all of the children who participated in the search with maybe a bonus to the one who actually found it).

On a slightly happier note, I made a vegetarian matzo ball soup this year which was generally well-received and I thought I’d share the recipe. (Please note this soup is not vegan, the matzo balls contain eggs). Matzo ball soup is traditionally made with chicken broth, but it’s not too hard to come up with a vegetarian version which works equally well (and actually several people this year said they preferred mine to the traditional one my aunt made. Not that I intend to disparage my aunt’s cooking; far from it, since my version is based on the recipe she uses). It’s also quite easy to make.

Ingredients for the broth (I think the pot I used was 2 gallons which I filled maybe 5/8ths with water, adjust these quantities accordingly if making more or less soup):

Vegetable stock cubes (I like Knorr vegetarian vegetable bouillon*, which comes in large ‘cubes’, and use 3 of them; they look to measure about 2cm by 2cm by 1cm. Other brands seem to make cubes about 1 cubic cm, so four of those should be roughly equivalent to one of the Knorr)
1 large onion or 2-3 small onions
3-4 stalks of celery
1 pound of carrots (I used pre-cut baby carrots and just cut them in halves or thirds, but it also works with whole carrots if you peel and slice them)
1 bunch of fresh dill (remove the stems and use only the leaves)
Garlic powder (optional – I don’t use it because the Knorr bouillon contains garlic already, but I’m not sure if every brand does)
Salt and black pepper may be added to taste

Bring the pot of water to a boil. Once it is boiling add the stock cubes, vegetables (if you want to leave them in the final soup, chop the onion and celery first; I like to do this for a more substantial soup, but the traditional version leaves them whole and removes them after cooking so that only the carrots remain), and dill. Reduce to medium heat, cover, and cook until the carrots are soft, about 30-45 minutes. At this point taste the broth, if it tastes too thin add more stock cubes or more dill and cook a bit longer.

Bring the soup back to a boil and add the matzo balls (see below), then cover and reduce to a simmer for about 30-40 minutes until they are cooked thoroughly. At this point the soup is ready to serve.

For matzo balls (this recipe is taken mostly from the packaging of Manischewitz matzo meal with a few minor modifications. The packaging claims this makes 8 matzo balls but I like to make them larger and get about 4 from it, and I double these quantities to go with the amount of soup the above recipe makes, so the soup has about 8 large matzo balls in it):

1/2 cup matzo meal
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons water (some people recommend using carbonated seltzer water to make the matzo balls fluffier; I found this unnecessary but many swear by it)
1 teaspoon salt

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs. Add the rest of the ingredients to the eggs and blend together until uniform. Cover the bowl and refrigerate (the packaging says 20 minutes but I recommend giving it at least an hour) to allow it to solidify a bit.

Using hands (the packaging recommends wetting them but I find it’s actually easier if you don’t), form this mixture into balls and drop them into the boiling soup. When making the balls try not to pack the mixture too densely; ideally, they should float. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the matzo balls are cooked thoroughly. At this point the soup is ready to serve.

*The Knorr vegetable bouillon contains autolysed yeast extract so may not be, strictly speaking, kosher for Passover (I also did not see a kosher label on the packaging so it may not be kosher for anytime); this is technically a Passover-style soup only. I am not sure about other brands of vegetable stock cubes, that may be something worth checking if you care about this sort of thing (though I am not expecting it to matter to my readers).


Posted by on April 15, 2014 in mitchell


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3 responses to “Some thoughts on Passover, and a soup recipe

  1. mcbender

    April 17, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    It may be a bit tacky to comment on my own post, but I’d rather do that than edit this in. It looks like Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism has been thinking along similar lines, and the discussion in the comment threads there is interesting too. Here’s the link:

  2. Ani J. Sharmin

    April 17, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Hello. I got here via Daylight Atheism. Thanks very much for writing this post. Though you “run the risk of Godwin’s law” to be honest, I’ve very much thought the same, that it’s odd to continue to celebrate such a violent holiday when one’s own community has been targeted for such violence as well. Judaism is perhaps the most well-known example, but I feel much the same about similar holidays in other religions, because each of those religions were/are persecuted at some points, and yet continue to celebrate a holiday that discriminates against others. Thanks again.

  3. mcbender

    April 18, 2014 at 12:47 am

    My primary concern about the Godwin’s Law issue is actually that comparing a fictional genocide to a real one can be taken as trivialising the latter, and that’s something I would prefer not to do. In this case I think it’s unavoidable, however; the comparison practically makes itself, and I do think it warrants thinking about because these stories and traditions don’t exist in a vacuum.

    You do have a very good point that this extends to religions beyond Judaism.


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