Families around the world – including mine and Joshua Brandt Rosner’s here in Canberra – are currently preparing for the major Jewish holiday of Passover (or Pesach). During Passover, Jewish people commemorate the story of Exodus, where Moses led them to freedom from slavery. If you’ve seen Cecil B. DeMille’s old Hollywood blockbuster, The Ten Commandments, you more or less know the background of Passover.
It is one of the most important festivals on the Jewish calendar, celebrated for eight days starting with the traditional ritual feast called a Seder, which this year falls on the evening of Saturday, 27 March. Seders are a communal ritual with family, friends, and when I was growing up pretty much anyone who my parents happened to know was in town that day – Jewish or not – to gather for an epic meal.
Intimidatingly large symbolic quantities of dishes are served, and families go to great pains to organise the perfect menu. Joshua is the main cook for his household, which includes his husband and 8-year-old daughter, and he had his Seder meal planned weeks in advance. It is a family responsibility he takes very seriously.
“I have a great friend who lives in Israel and he is the cook for his wife and two young children,” he says. “He and I often talk about how important it is to us to cook meals for our families that they will enjoy enough to ask for seconds. That is not easy to achieve with a child. He and I often test out recipes on our families and send them to each other with feedback and recommendations for tweaking them.
“There’s an old Hebrew expression, tikkun olam, that I love. It is the notion of repair, of doing work to improve the world and making it better than we found it. I am trying to do this through the food I cook, and specifically by passing on my love of Jewish cooking to my daughter.”
As with any religion, the Jewish population in Canberra ranges from the ultra-orthodox to the mildly observant, with Joshua explaining his family is not religious at all.
“But we do observe the Yamim Tovim (‘Good Days’ in Hebrew) and the major holidays – Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah,” says Joshua. “We eat, we celebrate family.
“Each Jewish holiday has its own signature foods and customs, but Passover is one of the best as far as great food goes. I always plan our Passover Seder weeks in advance. Jews don’t eat chametz (leavened bread, such as challah) during Passover. Instead, they eat unleavened matzah – a flatbread. Slow-cooked brisket, gefilte fish and matzo ball soup are arguably the three most popular Passover dishes.”
Until they receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the family of three has decided not to have others join them around their Passover table.
“It will just be me, my husband and our daughter,” says Joshua. “It’s wonderful to share a table of food with friends, but the pandemic has renewed our appreciation of family and sitting down to eat a meal together at the end of each day.
“I will start preparing and cooking the day before Passover. Preparation is key, even though this year I am only cooking for the three of us. I want it to be special, especially for my daughter.
“Our Passover Seder will consist of matzo ball tomato soup. The matzo balls will be filled with mozzarella. I call it ‘matzorella’ ball soup. It will be followed by tzimmes [an amazingly delicious Ashkenazi Jewish stew made from carrots and dried fruits]. I will make my own matzah flatbread, although it can easily be purchased at Coles [in the international food aisle]. I’m also going to make jelly candies because my daughter loves them.”
For people looking to experience a communal Passover Seder, the ACT Jewish Community will be hosting a buffet dinner in Forrest on Sunday, 28 March. Bookings via the website are essential.
Across two nights on Saturday, 27 March, and Sunday, 28 March, Chabad ACT in Giralang has a community Seder planned complete with hand-baked matzah, wine and a wonderful dinner spiced with unique traditional customs. To register your interest, fill in the contact form online.