Once a year each spring, my grandma’s Passover specialties are passed around the Seder table: haroseth, a heavenly mash of dried fruits, cinnamon and apples, a dripping mountain of brisket, and an orange-scented sponge cake, glowing like a saint’s halo in a renaissance painting. Year after year, on a night so different from all others, I eat these foods. And no matter what else I’m feeling on that day, I feel Jewish. I was not raised Jewish, and I do not practice any religion now, but as I consume these dishes, a part of my identity pulses. When the first glass of wine is poured, the pulse is slow and dim. As my family moves, noisily and with lots of laughter, through what I’ve learned is a rather unconventional Haggadah, the pulse grows steadily in intensity. Hours and many glasses of wine later, tucking my fork into an ambrosial slice of that ocher sponge cake, baked with my grandma’s confident hands, the pulse turns symphonic.
I didn’t start attending my family’s Seder until I was five. There was a decade long cold war between my grandparents and my mom between her freshman year of college and the year of my birth. The deep rift had to do with religion, culture, identity, and the finely woven threads of love and tension between mothers and daughters. This period of separation is something I’ve been fascinated with, but also afraid to touch too much, an inky bruise on my family’s history. I mostly just feel relieved that, when I was a baby in the early 80’s, their cold war started to thaw, and that in 1987, my parents, sister and I started attending Passover with my grandparents and extended family in Yonkers, New York.
I remember that first Seder, sitting among these wonderful people at a huge table set with beautiful dishes and wine-stained linens. I felt in awe of them, so boisterous and loud and opinionated. They made me like the idea of being Jewish. I didn’t quite understand what this meant, but I knew it fit like a good pair of maryjanes. Part way through the service, I was called upon by my grandpa to ask the Four Questions, and the whole room quieted. Twenty pairs of eyes turned on me, and because I’d practiced many times on the car ride, I knew just what to say. But what I could not know was that in that moment, I was pushing my grandma, my mom, and myself into a new era of healing.
My grandma is an atheist, and I’ve asked her before how she came to define her own Seder traditions. She said that as the mother to young children herself, she began to realize the deep importance of carrying on traditions. In 1962, she asked my grandpa if he would conduct a Passover Seder for their family, assuring him (also a Jewish atheist) that he wouldn’t even have to mention God. After he agreed to do it, my grandma visited a Jewish bookstore off Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, where the old shopkeeper dug out a 47-page pamphlet, The Model Seder, from among the disorganized piles of books.
Armed with this little primer, she prepared a feast of foods that she hadn’t tasted since childhood. And as she prepped, chopped, and stirred, something started to shift. She started to feel more Jewish. She’s told me, about this moment: “It was like a connection to an older society. I was doing things that people had done for generations, and it was a very special feeling to me.”
The dishes she taught herself to make, those fifty years ago, I see them sewing a ribbon between her life and mine. They made her feel more connected to her Jewish identity, just as they do for me – a reminder that as modern, feminist women, we are liberated to embrace traditions, religious or otherwise, and adapt them to our lives and our families in the ways that feel right.
As the parent to my own toddler now, I still seek to understand how the closeness of families can flare and freeze, but in the flicker of the candlelight each year, the answer doesn’t really seem to matter. We’re together now as free Jews (and half-Jews, and partners of Jews), and that’s what’s important.
Grandma's Passover Sponge Cake
Makes one 10″ cake
Recipe adapted from Craig Claiborne of The New York Times
- 8 Eggs (MUST be room temperature; remove from the fridge the night before)
- 1 and 1/2 cups white sugar
- Rind of 1 lemon, finely grated
- Ride of 1 orange, finely grated
- 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 cup sifted potato starch
- 10″ tube pan, preferably with “legs”
- Electric mixer
Set oven to 325F.
Using two bowls, separate yolks from the whites of 6 of the eggs. Add remaining 2 eggs to yolks. Using an electric mixer, beat yolks until very thick and then add sugar very slowly. Beating should take at least 15 minutes or more, and mixture should be very thick. Add grated lemon and orange rind and lemon and orange juice. Turn down speed of mixer. Add the potato starch a few tablespoons at a time, cutting and folding into the batter until it disappears. You may want to do this by hand.
Detach beaters from mixer and wash thoroughly. Beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks and then fold gently into the egg batter. Pour into ungreased tube pan and bake for approximately 1 hour. Remove cake from oven and invert (upside down).
If the pan has little “legs,” that is fine. If not, be inventive since cake must have air under and around it while cooling upside down. When completely cooled, loosen cake from pan by going around with a spatula or knife. Hit the cake pan against a table a few times to loosen it. This may take a few good smacks! Say a prayer and then turn it out.