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By Roberta Israeloff
Rituals bond the past to the future
Though the rebellious thought had been rumbling around in my mind for days, it rose to the surface and erupted when the oven door broke. The outer door had separated from its inner liner, which remained stubbornly stuck. Inside, getting too well done by the second, was my signature flourless chocolate cake, the one I made every year for the Passover seder, the ritual meal staged each spring when Jews gather to tell the age-old story of their liberation from Egypt while eschewing leavened foods. By rebellious thought, I mean my resolution never to host another seder.
As I contemplated the dishes waiting their turn in the oven, lined up on the counter like planes on a runway—brisket, three marinating chickens, three vegetable casseroles—my mother called, as she did every morning.
"What's wrong?" she asked, after I said hello. Though she's hard of hearing, she hasn't lost her disarming ability to detect my every undertone.
"Nothing. It's just that I still have a bunch of cooking."
"You know, you could just cater it and be done with it," she said. This suggestion, neutral to anyone else's ears, was a taunt, a booby trap with my name on it. How perfectly reasonable: why not cater it? I wasn't chained to the kitchen, enslaved like my foremothers in Egypt. The holiday itself is about liberation, renewal, mind over manacles. All its imperatives—to cherish freedom, to treat strangers as neighbors—could easily be enacted while eating a prepared brisket.
But wait. Had my mother ever resorted to this option when she was in charge of the holiday? Not on your life! And she didn't even enjoy cooking as I do. I learned to equate food with pleasure from her, a woman who hosted family seders well into her seventies, up to her elbows in food preparation for days in a kitchen so small she had to stash platters of puddings and cookies on fire escapes and in the bathtub. And oh, her special mashed-potato pancakes, fried to golden perfection on the outside, with a spoonful of chopped chicken liver secreted within. They sound revolting, I know; no one believes me when I describe them as delicious. More than the tastes and textures, the wonder of the surprise inside delighted me. (How did she do that?) As she'd bring the last dish to the table, she'd watch me take my first bite, and then slump in her chair, too tired to eat, but smiling, satisfied. There. She'd done it. Again.