Why Is This Year Different From All Other Years?

FOOD

A shortage of whitefish in the Great Lakes is coming at an inconvenient time for Jewish families: the Passover holiday, perhaps the only time of year when demand for gefilte fish (where whitefish is a key ingredient) exceeds supply. “It may taste like cat food, but that’s why I love it,” says one man. (Associated Press)

Use our resources to better understand Passover, food, and Jewish ritual.

Gefilte ("stuffed" fish in Yiddish) fish is traditionally eaten during the eight-day Jewish holiday of Passover. Gefilte fish is most often made with whitefish from the Great Lakes, mixed with matzo meal and vegetables. This year's harsh winter is still lingering in parts of the region—with four feet of ice lingering on some lakes, yikes—leading to an ill-timed whitefish shortage. Photograph by Marcelo Träsel, courtesy Flickr. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Unported license.

Gefilte (“stuffed” in Yiddish) fish is traditionally eaten during the eight-day Jewish holiday of Passover. Gefilte fish is most often made with whitefish from the Great Lakes, mixed with matzo meal and vegetables. This year’s harsh winter is still lingering in parts of the region—with four feet of ice lingering on some lakes, yikes—leading to an ill-timed whitefish shortage.
Photograph by Marcelo Träsel, courtesy Flickr. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Unported license.

Discussion Ideas

  • Read through our activity “Culture and Food and Ritual, Oh My!” Adapt its questions for Passover and food traditionally associated with the holiday.
    • What is Passover (Pesach)?
      • Passover is a Jewish holiday focusing on Jewish identity, sacrifice, and liberation. Like many ancient holidays, Passover has a number of different facets: it is a traditional harvest festival, celebrating the beginning of the agricultural season in Israel; it recalls the fact that God “passed over” marked Israelite homes during the last of the 10 biblical plagues in ancient Egypt (the slaughter of first-born children); finally, it is a commemoration of resulting Exodus of Israelites from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago.
    • What is a seder?
      • A seder is a Jewish religious service, including a ceremonial dinner, held on the first or first and second evenings of Passover.
    • What is the difference between chametz and matzo?
      • Chametz and matzo are different types of bread. Chametz a bread made with the grains wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats. Most importantly, however, chametz is leavened, meaning the dough has been allowed to sit and rise—the traditional time is more than 18 minutes after being mixed with water. Chametz is strictly forbidden during Passover. Matzo is unleavened, cracker-like bread. More matzo is sold around Passover than the rest of the year.
    • What does it mean that food is kosher or kashrut?
      • Kashrut is the traditional Jewish law that outlines the preparation and consumption of food. Food that has been prepared according to kashrut law is kosher.

 

  • Using the web resources provided in our “Culture and Food and Ritual, Oh My!” activity, name some other foods typically associated with Passover. Is whitefish part of a seder meal?
    • The symbolic foods associated with the seder are maror (bitter herbs), usually parsley; charoset, a sweet brown paste made with fruit and nuts; karpas, a vegetable (often potato or celery) dipped in salt water; z’roa, a small, boned piece of meat (such as a lamb shank or chicken wing); and beitzah, a roasted hard-boiled egg. The seder also includes four cups of wine, drunk ritually at different parts of the seder service. The most important and significant part of the seder, however, is the matzo bread.
    • Whitefish is not a part of the seder meal. Gefilte fish, the dish in which whitefish is used, developed much later in Jewish history. “Gefilte fish originated among German Jewry in the Middle Ages as a way to stretch food and to have a meal on the Sabbath, when no cooking is allowed,” according to the New York Times. Gefilte fish is part of a Jewish cultural tradition, not a religious one.

 

  • A shortage of whitefish is preventing many Jewish families from enjoying gefilte fish during Passover. Does Jewish custom allow for alternatives?
    • Of course it does—you don’t get to be one of the oldest existing religions without being able to adapt! Vegetarian Jews often substitute beets for the z’roa portion of the seder meal, for instance. Some easy alternatives to traditional gefilte fish, according to Jewish deli owners  and fishmongers quoted in the AP and New York Times:
      • Use another fish. Fresh carp, pike, mullet, trout, or salmon are popular alternatives to whitefish.
      • Use frozen fish.
      • Buy pre-made gefilte fish. It’s sold in cans, jars, and frozen.
    • Is “enjoying” the right word? This lovely article from the New York Times echoes what our Nat Geo blogger says:
      • “It may taste like cat food, but that’s why I love it,” says one man.
      • “Do I like the taste? Not really,” a woman says. “But do I like the tradition? Absolutely.”
      • “It’s the Jewish madeline,” says another woman. What does she mean by this?
        • She’s making a beautiful reference to Marcel Proust’s famous novel Remembrance of Things Past, in which the narrator is instantly, powerfully drawn to a memory upon eating a small madeline dipped in tea. The “episode of the madeline” has become a metaphor for involuntary, unexpected remembrances.

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