Spring Equinox, Interfaith Nowruz

On this spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, the light is returning, lifting spirits, bringing hope. This year, we are especially in need of that returning warmth, that extra sunlight, those longer days. A year ago, the cancellation of big family gatherings for Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, felt crushing. This year, we are more patient, more prepared. I have a Passover haggadah already loaded on my powerpoint for our zoom Seder with my Jewish and Protestant and Catholic family, and I’m busy editing the slides. We’ve got this.

To all interfaith families with Persian heritage, Happy Nowruz, the Persian New Year! Nowruz has roots as a Zoroastrian spring holiday thousands of years ago, before the advent of Judaism or Christianity or Islam. Today, it is beloved by people of many religions with Persian heritage, including Zoroastrians, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and people of the Baha’i faith. Nowruz (or Naw-ruz or Norooz) is celebrated by some 300 million people worldwide, including in Afghanistan, Albania, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan, and throughout the Persian diaspora, including in the Iranian American community around Los Angeles. While it is often called a secular holiday, people of different religions adapt Nowruz to honor their own religious texts. So Nowruz is perhaps more multi-religious, or interfaith, than it is secular.

As a lover of all things interfaith, I love that Nowruz is often celebrated together by Persian friends and family of different religions. To be honest, many Americans probably first became aware of Nowruz through the Shahs of Sunset, the long-running reality show about a group of wealthy Jewish and Muslim Persian-American friends in Los Angeles. (I stand by my affection for the interfaith friendships depicted on that show, even though it’s, well, hyped-up capitalist glamour trash).

My favorite scene of interfaith friends celebrating Nowruz together is probably in Darius the Great is Not Okay, the marvelous YA novel by Adib Khorram. Darius, an American teen from an intercultural Zoroastrian/humanist family, travels to Iran to visit his grandparents. In a key scene, Iranian Zoroastrian and Baha’i family friends celebrate Nowruz together.

Just in time for Nowruz, Khorram has now published a charming children’s picture book Seven Special Somethings: A Nowruz Story. The book centers on the Nowruz tradition of the haft-seen, a table displaying seven objects that start with the letter S in the Persian language, Farsi. The seven traditional symbols are sprouts (rebirth), garlic (health), vinegar (patience), coins (wealth), apples (beauty), wheat sprout pudding (bravery), and sumaq spice (sunshine). There may be many additional items, depending on family and religion.

Many haft-seen symbols refer to the ancient spring equinox themes of fertility, renewal and rebirth. For instance, painted eggs are often included, tying the holiday thematically to Passover and Easter and Ostara. Other haft-seen items may include a live goldfish in a bowl, and an orange floating in water to symbolize our planet in space. Through my own cultural lens, I cannot help but see a connection here to Passover symbols including spring greens (parsley), a carp in a bathtub, and an orange on the seder plate.

I am not saying that the orange on the seder plate (a new Passover symbol of the importance of LGBTQ people) was borrowed from Nowruz. (Although Zoroastrianism did have a profound influence on Abrahamic religions in ancient times). My point is that spiritual connection to the return of light, and the mating and planting season in the northern hemisphere, inspire the repetition of these primal natural symbols in multiple religions. We are all linked as inhabitants of this planet to our place in space and time, by astronomy and biology. The wheat starts to sprout, the fish swim and spawn, the eggs hatch. We celebrate it all.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Aunt Babette’s Cook Book: “Easter” Passover Dishes

As the week of both Passover and Easter approaches, interfaith parents may become as frantic or frenzied as children hunting for the afikomen, or for Easter eggs. On top of juggling the theological issues, we face the practical challenge of preparing more than one traditional family meal, and trying to squeeze in all of the foodways (dying the eggs, rolling the matzoh balls) that create sensory memories and transmit a sense of heritage to our children.

I returned to my Jewish grandmother’s house this week (she died in 1994 but we have kept her house), attended the Shabbat service at our tiny Temple Beth Israel (in Honesdale PA) to celebrate my cousin Bill’s 90th birthday, and spent time with my parents (now 80 and 87) looking through old family photos and cookbooks. My Jewish family is religious, but also Classical Reform, which means they love Torah, but see little reason to preserve every one of the hundreds of cultural restrictions that set Jews apart. My grandmother, raised in Louisville by a Rabbi and his Jewish wife from New Orleans, left behind handwritten recipes for baked ham, and creole shrimp.

Last year, I published Grandma’s recipe for southern-style charoset, made with pecans, oranges and bananas. This year, in her kitchen, I found a leather-bound 1889 third edition of Aunt Babette’s Cook Book, a hugely popular guidebook for Jewish housewives, published by the Bloch Publishing Company in Cincinnati. Edward Bloch’s sister was married to the greatest pioneer of Reform Judaism in America, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.

Aunt Babette’s is not a kosher cookbook by any stretch of the imagination. The recipe for Lobster Salad reads: “If you wish to have it extra nice mix in last a cupful of whipped cream.” I am a New England girl who loves her lobster in drawn butter, but some ancient tribal part of my soul does recoil at the idea of lobster slathered in whipped cream.

So what makes Aunt Babette’s a Jewish cookbook at all? Many of the German recipes (zviebel platz, leberknadel, wiener studenten kipfel) could presumably be found in German Catholic, German Lutheran, and German Jewish homes. The suggested menu for Friday supper gives no culinary hint of the Sabbath: speckled trout, potatoes, pistachio ice cream.

Ironically, all of the specifically-Jewish recipes are found in the chapter entitled “Easter Dishes,” which does not address the Christian Easter at all, but instead begins with a section on “How to Set the Table for the Service of the “Sedar” on the eve of Pesach or Passover.” Here we find what I believe is the only word printed in Hebrew in this book: חֲרֽוֹסֶת (charoset), in the midst of a careful description of each ritual food needed for the Sedar plate, though there is no reference to their religious meanings. In fact, the last line of this paragraph reads “In some families hard-boiled eggs are distributed after the sedar (Easter eggs).”

The purposeful cross-labeling of Passover as Easter here is fascinating to me, especially after reading the hundreds of comments on my post last week, in which I advised interfaith families on celebrating both Easter and Passover, but keeping them separate. Reading Babette’s book made me think I am in fact keeping them more separate than some of my Jewish ancestors did. My readers noted that in many languages, the word for Easter and Passover is the same–a variation on “pascal.” However, I have to wonder if this cookbook does not reflect both assimilation, and a desire to diffuse the anti-Semitism of the time by educating curious Christian housewives who might browse through the book about the connections and similarities between the holidays, despite their huge theological differences.

Both holidays do share the symbolism of the egg, or the circle of life, and renewal in spring, and many of my Huffington Post readers are debating these questions: Did Christians borrow the egg from Passover? Did Pagan egg symbolism predate Judeo-Christian eggs, and get incorporated into both, separately or in succession? Did the Easter egg hunt evolve from the hunt for leavened bread crumbs prior to Passover?

Aunt Babette goes on to give a dozen recipes for funky-retro Passover dishes, including matzoh kloesse (balls) with prune filling, and raisin wine. I was thrilled to find one dish my grandmother made for us when we visited her for Pesach each year, not because I don’t know how to make it (she taught me herself), but because it explained Grandma’s name for the dish: ueberschlagene (“overturned”) matzoh, known to most Jewish families as matzoh brei. I never understood why my grandmother used a different name for this dish. I realize now that she grew up with the German name (shared by Aunt Babette), rather than the Yiddish. Her father, the rabbi, had been a German teacher in the public schools. Anyway, it is a long and colorful name, for a simple seasonal treat that combines eggs, with all of their varied meanings, and matzoh.

Ueberschlagene Matzos

Beat up a dozen eggs, very light; add salt and soak the matzos in the beaten egg. (It is much better to soak the matzos in milk first, then in the beaten egg.) In the meantime heat a quantity of goose oil in a spider*; dip each piece of matzos in the eggs before laying in the spider; fry a light brown on both sides; lay on a large platter and sprinkle with a mixture of sugar, cinnnamon and grated peel of a lemon; the more eggs used the richer they will be. Delicious.

* spider=cast iron frying pan, originally with three legs

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.