The Power of Gefilte Fish….and Passover!

Institutional size cans of gefilte fish, suitable for Jewish camps or rabbinical seminaries, on sale at ShopRite, Cherry Hill, NJ. (Steve Lubetkin photo)
Institutional size cans of gefilte fish, suitable for Jewish camps or rabbinical seminaries, on sale at ShopRite, Cherry Hill, NJ. (Steve Lubetkin photo)

As a kid, my family has always celebrated Pesach with all its traditions and foods while moving quickly through the Haggadah so we could savior the smells and devour the tastes that seemed to have taken 40 years to get from the kitchen to our elegantly set table. All the familiar traditional table ware of Passover finery that are stored in the back of the cupboard all year now adorn our table with the brightest of linens, shiniest of china and silver and the special Seder plate.

Gefilte fish, served with horseradish and carrot (
Gefilte fish, served with horseradish and carrot (

The silver was shiny because Bubbe would make me polish all her favorite pieces till she could see her reflection and tell me, “Someday it will be your table to set and your family to cook for.” Panicked for many years that I would have to duplicate all those delicate foods came sooner than I expected! And I learned to cook them by watching and helping Bubbe, basically, I was her sous chef and didn’t even know it! When I did prepare my first Passovers without her, it was like watching a movie in my head. Reel by reel, I shopped for the foods, cooked them and set them out only from memory. Boy, those first few years were scary! Everyone ate and seemed to enjoy the Seder meal, so I knew Bubbe taught me well!

The only food I made Bubbe sit for an entire day and teach me to cook was gefilte fish. I wrote down step by step, lovingly listened to each ingredient Bubbe told me to prepare along with how to “chouk” the fish with her chouker (a hand chopper that could slit a throat) in her wooden bowl—I still have the chouker and the wooden bowl—and wait till the matzah meal rolled off the sides by itself! Only a wooden bowl would allow that and its importance is that without the matzah meal rolling off the sides after chouking for at least 45 minutes or more, your gefilte fish would be a failure and the four hours you had already put into this project would literally go down the drain. And please note that by spending a day making gefilte fish was your personal sacrifice for your people crossing the desert! I also had to sacrifice (via the garbage) every single article of clothing I wore that day, and I mean EVERY piece, including my shoes, because the smell of carp, white fish and pike stayed with me for days and no shampoo could wash away the odor of fish heads from my hair!

But, boy oh boy! The results were fantastic! The first time I made gefilte fish after Bubbe died, my brother said, “So Bubbe made gefilte fish before she died and you put it in the freezer and saved it for Pesach?” WOW! The best compliment EVER!! Worth my underwear and shoes!

So my two favorite gefilte fish stories go like this:

  1. My birthday is in April and is never far from Pesach. I end up with a flourless birthday cake every year at the Seder, ok, so not too bad as my son has spent years feeling bad for me and has worked really hard in perfecting the best flourless cakes! One year, my birthday was the first night and by 3:00 that afternoon, Bubbe had not called to wish me a Happy Birthday. I felt sad that maybe she had forgotten but knew how busy she was preparing the last minute Seder dishes. So I called her to see how she was doing before we all arrived at her house and she chatted on and on about how delicious her brisket tasted and how she tried a new kuggle recipe. I finally said, “So Bubbe, do you know what day this is?” In her still after-being-here-for-50-years-Russian-accent-that-she- insisted-she-did-not-have! she said, “Of course I know! It’s Pesach, vhat’s the matter mit you?” I said, “Bubbe, it’s my birthday BUT I know how busy you’ve been making the gefilte fish and soup….” And she said, in the most loving tone, “Sandala, you are more important than any gefilte fish I’ve ever made!!”
  2. My brother married an Armenian girl, a real sport and great cook, we all love her dearly. She converted to Judaism and as she finished conversion ceremonies, I told her there was one more thing she had to do to become a “new true Jew” and that was to participate in the making of gefilte fish. Passover was approaching. She believed me! She said, “Oh, I like fish! Let’s do it!” She had no clue what gefilte fish was. Bubbe had died several years before and I hadn’t made it in awhile so I was really on my own except for my Armenian sister-in-law. By the day’s end, she said, “Are you kidding me! Had I known about this, I would have stayed a Gentile!!” She also gave up her clothing!!

So now I have grandchildren and work hard at maintaining the traditions while wanting to teach the four newest of the next generation what my Bubbe had taught me. As a teen, I had traveled to Chicago to spend Pesach with great aunts and uncles and their kids. As my great uncle went through the Haggadah, his boisterous sons kept yelling, “Dad, you told us that story last year! Hurry up! We’re hungry!” Though everyone laughed, and the food was not served any sooner, that had an impact on me.

When my first grandchild was born in 2000, I didn’t want to hear the words of my rude cousins again, so I set out and put together my own Haggadah, one less traditional and more contemporary because it included readings that were less formal and told the story in a way so everyone at the table could read and participate. Our Seder table often has many Gentiles and gays and I didn’t want anyone to feel excluded or think the Passover message was for Jews only. Our Haggadah celebrates our freedoms of not just the past but how enslaved anyone can feel, as you don’t have to be crossing a desert, and how we can celebrate the individual we are today while emphasizing that freedom is for all, and until All are free, no one is free.

As our Seder begins, I see the new guests feel a bit timid but as we read on, the power of our being free and celebrating together invites everyone, even the youngest, to participate and read a passage. I’m always so pleased that my guests have had a new experience and as they leave, I see hugs and hear “thanks for a delicious meal!”

I always end the Seder with:

Dear G-d, my prayer for this special Passover Seder is that my precious family and friends are granted an abundance of good health and safety, monumental amounts of peace and love in their hearts, guidance and strength for righteous living and blessed with prosperity and mazel. May we pass on the traditions and teachings handed down from those before us and may there be a sacred bond between the past and the future. Help us to find fulfillment within our lives and bless us with the freedom to be who we are meant to be.

I feel blessed that those around our table have had an experience through the celebration of Passover that allows our differences of history, religion or life-style not separate us but connect us. Amen!



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