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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pass the Lamb and Gefilte Fish

Religious holidays bring back memories of family at their best and their worst, being together and sharing food with a dash of feud.

My Greek relatives took turns hosting holidays: Christmas at our house; Thanksgiving at my uncle’s and Greek Easter at my aunt’s home in Chicago’s South Shore. Greek Easter is typically celebrated the week after American Easter.

I recall entering my aunt’s house exclaiming, “Christos Anesti,” (Christ is Risen), hugging my cousins and enjoying the warmth of family bonds and our reunion after our last holiday together. Like my Catholic friends, it was our tradition to fast before Easter and then gorge ourselves during a huge celebration feast on our Easter Sunday.

The Greek banquet of spring lamb, mounds of creamy mashed potatoes, authentic Greek salad tossed with black olives and feta cheese accompanied a bounty of side dishes laden across a long, narrow dinner table. I always tried to sit next to my handsome blonde, blue-eyed cousin who I had a secret crush on.

We crowded around eagerly, gobbling the food to fill us from our week of food sacrifice. Even though we overate, we always left room for the desserts, including my favorite powdered-sugar cookies (kourembiathes). And of course, the adults drank ouzo, Greek liqueur.

We looked forward to these family events with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. What would our cousins look like since Christmas? What was the latest gossip? At what point would our mother and her brother have their annual argument which was part of the holiday ritual as well?

They had fought for many years, and a truce of sorts was declared for the sake of family during the holiday meals. The peace lasted throughout dinner, and then on cue the predictable and loud argument erupted. They had contrary opinions on just about everything, and neither would give in to the other, remaining in a standoff until the next family gathering.

This ritual after the hearty, celebratory meal, was re-enacted at the next family holiday dinner. We cousins understood these family feuds and looked forward to being together for the next disarmament scheduled later in the year. The coolness would last until then.

After my marriage, my Easters became Passovers. For me, Passover rituals seemed solemn compared to the joyous Easters I remembered. During the Seder, we gathered to honor the Jews liberation from persecution and their suffering while enslaved.

I felt a distant sympathy, but I couldn’t relate to the strangeness and unappetizing gefilte fish, unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

I missed the celebration of my original family’s Easter holiday, even with my mother and her brother sniping at each other.

I participated in the ceremony out of respect for my in-laws but really didn’t identify with the occasion. I came from another tribe and heritage.

Though the traditions represented a contrast of cultures with their own customs and foods, the families did have some other "rituals" in common.

My mother-in-law and sister-in-law didn’t get along either, and the strain was pervasive through their cold silences. The official Passover ritual was a brief respite from their ongoing differences, and they eventually couldn’t keep their dislike contained. It too was predictable.

It wasn’t expressed loudly like my Greek relatives. After the meal, the women would separate from the men and gather in the kitchen for clean-up. By this time, they could no longer tolerate being around each other.

It was there that the dispute would be acted out as criticism and complaining usually over small things. Like my original family, my acquired family understood these matters and accepted them. It was part of the ritual of sharing food and feud. Opah! Oy Vey!

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Gefilte fish for Passover photo by Alex Ringer


  1. Thanks for sharing I believe that all traditions have their place but it's always odd when we participate in a tradition that's not our own. I learned over the years to enjoy some of the traditions I've been allowed to attend but I do appreciate my family's traditions the most. There's a comfort at what has always been.



  2. Thanks, Bill. Sometimes I feel like I'm writing a family "scrapbook" on my blog:)

  3. Some family traditions trancend cultures -- there was usually an argument between my mother and one of her brothers :-)

  4. Arguments do "spice" things up at family gatherings.