07 April 2009

Passover Memories: NYC, Teheran, LA, Part 2

Here's Part 2:

Persian Pesach traditions precluded dairy products, as no kosher-for-Passover dairy products existed, unless one brought in a goat to milk, as some families did!

One year, I discovered a small neighborhood shop that had just received a huge shipment of kosher-for-Passover dairy products from Denmark. I never found out why this miracle had occured, but I bought everything I could carry, and then ran home to call my friends - this was pre-cell phone time. The shop was emptied the same day. We really enjoyed our butter, cream cheese, mozzarella, yellow cheese, feta - you name it! And matzo pizza!

Our family seders in New York were small affairs, never more than 12 or 20. At my maternal grandparents (Galicia-Lithuania-Belarus), it was a quick read of the Haggadah, with lots of English for the kids. At my paternal grandparents (Latvia), it was read v-e-r-y slowly, every word, all in Hebrew. We always fell asleep long before dinner was served.

This was in stark contrast to the huge Persian seders - which carried over to Los Angeles - where 80 or 90 people is not an awkward number. The Haggadah is read mixed in Hebrew, Farsi, English; halegh is surreptitiously eaten from the bowls on the table throughout the ritual reading, and people munch on everything during the seder. While the sheer mass of people was enough of a difference, another custom was shocking to someone who had always attended sedate, dignified - read "boring" - seders. In New York, we sang all the traditional songs, including Dayenu ("it would have been enough").

But Dayenu Persian-style is all-out warfare. Now, I knew why there were huge platters of cleaned large scallions on each table, and why they seemed to be disappearing during the seder. As soon as the word Dayenu was uttered - I never remember the song being sung except for the first word - people grabbed their secret scallion stashes and began to attack everyone in the room, old and young. This Persian custom is supposed to imitate the Egyptian overseers whipping the Hebrew slaves - and we were really good at acting Egyptian.

When I see this custom described in some cookbooks and magazine articles as a "light tapping about the head and shoulders of people sitting on either side," I wonder exactly what seder they attended or who their respondents were. Light tapping? The Dardashti clan doesn't know the meaning of those words.

For the family, this was cathartic warfare, albeit with great laughter and fun. Women in silk blouses grabbed towels from bathrooms to protect their clothing. Can't reach someone to strike them? Just throw the scallion across the room at them. Goal! Young children ran around under the tables gathering up "ammunition" that had fallen to the floor. This went on for quite some time until everything was shredded, no longer useful.

If you ask any Persian Jew what his or her favorite holiday is, the answer is Passover. And if you ask what part, Dayenu wins hand's-down.

Of course, we all had to help clean up before dinner was served.

Back in New York, the meal was a simple brisket, vegetables, chicken soup with matzo balls, gefilte fish, chopped liver. Never rice or legumes - that was before we really investigated our Sephardic roots. It's good to be Sephardic at Passover ... or anytime! The food is s-o-o-o much better.

In Teheran (and Los Angeles), the seder meal - and any dinner where company is present - is a Las Vegas-style buffet of many different rices served on huge oval platters (some white, some green with herbs, some red with tomato, some jeweled with nuts and carrots and tangerine peel, with golden crunchy tahdig (see photo left) of rice or golden brown potato slices). There were khoreshts (stews with meat or chicken) of green herbs, of pomegranates and walnuts, of celery, with tomato and eggplant; Persian chicken soup, chicken cooked with saffron, turkey and salmon. And don't forget the salads and desserts.

Well, there were at least 80 people, right? If you were lucky, you had enough leftovers for lunch the next day. And for the second dinner? Well, you were likely invited to another relative's home for the second seder - it was now their problem - and you would be the guest! And there would be another chance at the scallion war, in case you missed someone the first night.

In New York, when Pesach was over at sunset on the last day and we could once again eat leavened products, we'd go out for pizza or Chinese food. In Iran, we would spend the last day at my father-in-law's large garden outside the city. We brought a huge lunch - still in the cooking pots and covered with blankets to keep the food warm - including rice, khoresht, fruit and everything else.

In the late afternoon, a few of us would drive into the town of Karaj, buy lots of fresh tangy yoghurt in green-glazed brown earthenware bowls and many loaves of delicious straight-from-the-oven hot Persian bread, wrapped in newspaper, and bring it to the waiting family. Of course, we ate half the bread in the car before we got back!

I kind of miss that.


  1. Brooke Schreier Ganz4:14 PM

    This was a terrific series of blog posts, Schelly. Thank you!

    And now I'm hungry...can't imagine why...

  2. what great traditions! happy passover!

  3. Anonymous8:34 PM

    absolutely beautiful. thank you for sharing. miss you, sigalit