A taste of Judaism

Photo courtesy of Coquitlam Heritage at Mackin House

It’s the order of the day! Seder, meaning order, is a Jewish festival at which Jews (and privileged guests) eat ritual food and have conversation. One such upcoming dinner will give Jews and community members the chance to experience key elements of Jewish heritage, say Jennie Johnston and Sandra Hochstein.

The dinner is part of Feasts of Coquitlam, events put on by the Coquitlam Heritage Society (CHS) in connection with their year-long exhibit Heirlooms and Treasure currently taking place at Mackin house. This particular “feast” will be held Apr. 11 and will include a cooking lesson.

Herbs and heritage

[The Heirlooms exhibit aims to show] the things we hand down through the generations,” says Johnston, CHS program manager.

These things are sometimes physical objects and sometimes cultural aspects, Johnston explains.

“People don’t realize how multicultural Coquitlam is,” she says. “We have a meat grinder salvaged out of a [European] home destroyed during World War II and brought to Canada. [And we show] different ways of celebrating birthdays, recipes, dance, and stories.”

Seder is a perfect mix of the physical and cultural, says Hochstein, the CHS board member who will be demonstrating her Jewish cooking skills and knowledge as host of the dinner.

There is a tangible object, a Seder plate, which rests in the middle of the table during the dinner.

“They’re very beautiful,” notes Hochstein. “They’re [passed] down through families, glass art.”

Found on that plate are many foods commemorating the Jewish exodus from Egypt, continues Hochstein. 3000 years ago, the Jews left their previous existence as slaves under an unnamed Pharaoh, and on Seder, this journey is brought to life.

“The sensory experience, seeing and tasting, brings back what the exodus [was] like,” says Hochstein. “[There are] bitter herbs, usually grated horseradish mixed with beets and apple cider vinegar into a paste. It’s strong; it’ll bring tears to your eyes! It represents the bitterness of slavery. Another dish is called haroset; it’s a sweet paste, represent[ing] the mortar used by slaves to build the pyramids.”

Water and life

Although this food is made from traditional recipes, there are newer additions to the Seder plate that point to more recent retellings of Jewish history which include women, says Hochstein.

She explains that water can be placed on the table for Miriam, the Jewish woman who found a well in the desert at the time of the exodus.

Recent life can be represented as well.

“Many families add an orange to represent modern day liberation struggles, feminism, gay rights,” she says. “[And] some families put an olive, a symbol of hope, for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Individual families can put their stamp too, Hockstein points out. Another traditional dish is a lamb shank bone, symbolizing sacrifices made by Jews under Pharaoh.

“My kids are vegetarian or vegan,” says Hochstein. “So we’ve created a new Seder plate, where the lamb bone is replaced by a roasted beet, [which] has that red blood look.”

Passover participation

A key part of Seder dinner in particular and the Feasts of Coquitlam in general is audience participation, say Johnston and Hochstein.

Sandra Hochstein, CHS board member. | Photo courtesy of Coquitlam Heritage at Mackin House

“What is lovely about the Feasts is that people come in and ask a lot of questions; it’s very interactive,” says Johnston. “It’s a sharing of the culture.”

Hochstein clarifies that questions and responses are an established ritual at a Seder dinner.

“There’s a tradition,” she says, “that the youngest person has to ask four questions, [beginning with] ‘why is this night different than all other nights?’ [Seder] hinges on retelling the story.”

Hochstein notes the dinner lends itself very well to friends who wish to learn, as this theme of strengthening communities is important in Jewish culture.

“For 3000 years, in the same lunar month, all Jews all over the world, regardless of their circumstances, sit down together,” says Hochstein. “We tell the story; we eat the ritual food, and we celebrate.”


For more information, please visit: www.coquitlamheritage.ca