Marge Piercy remembers the seders of her childhood, where the rapid-fire Haggadah, read mostly in Hebrew, "had all the emotional content of the directions for installing a DVD recorder." Her book Pesach for the Rest of Us makes itself pretty clear in its first pages—this is not a text for traditionalists.
A sci-fi great and poet, Piercy has created a part-cookbook, part-feminist revision of Pesach (say pay-sakh, with sach pronounced like the Scottish loch). Also called Passover, Pesach is an ancient Jewish holiday, which falls this year on the evening of Monday, April 2. The night's seder, or shared ritual meal, commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. Central to the holiday is the Haggadah, the story of that exodus retold, though Piercy includes in her cookbook bits of her own evolving haggedah; beautiful poems on food and symbolism, personalized by surrounding commentary.
She's also added some things to her seder plate, a traditional platter of foods used to impart themes of the holiday. Piercy includes an orange as a representation of those who have been left out of traditional Judaism (women, lesbians and gay men). "Clash if you need to. Roll if you must. / Center the plate about your glow," she writes for the orange.
Piercy's feminism is pragmatic, folded gently into everyday considerations of preparation time versus taste and significance. Similarly, her recipes are written with smarts and come across like verbal directions from a familiar cooking guru in your family. She includes specifics on when she usually likes to carry out directions, as well as loose orders like "moisten more matzoh if you need more."
She's also well aware of Pesach's many requirements of women, particularly in kosher preparations. She's very careful not to demean any of the extensive sanitizing work, noting that for some women it carries historical resonance. But, she writes, if women are truly Jews, they need not be exiled to the kitchen.
The book is beautifully written, occasionally funny and always approachable, but who would expect anything else from the author of He, She and It? Piercy's discussion of a woman's involvement in the ritual of holiday gathering, religious or otherwise, is relatable for a person of any background. And what more appropriate vehicle for such a discussion than a cookbook?
She writes of the political underpinnings of Pesach, which underscore the spiritual. When listing the Ten Plagues, Piercy tacks on modern plagues. For instance, "frogs" is traditional, and "froglessness, poisoning our environment" is contemporary. In this way, exploitation, AIDS, racism and genocide, among other epidemics, are acknowledged. She's added a discussion of slavery after the plagues, including an examination of what enslaves us individually. This revision, Piercy knows, isn't for everyone. "Some people do come just to eat," she writes.
"Borrow" these recipes and modified traditions from her. Build your own ritual, she encourages. This text is meant as a complement, not a replacement.
And just as she's remodeled the ceremony and plate to suit her ideology, she's offered up twists on traditional recipes because, as Piercy writes, "Food sometimes feels like emotion made edible."