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Passover changes: Catered seders help those with little time to spare

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2001

BROOKLINE, Mass. -- Dr. Rhonda Fogel Asch has fond memories of childhood Passover seders cooked by her aunt. But she can't imagine putting an entire one together by herself.

''I marvel at how she did it,'' she said. ''It takes me a whole week just to set the table.''

Which is why she and other Jews these days are having their seders catered.

Passover, which begins Satur-day this year, commemorates the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. The ritual dinner, the seder, is steeped in tradition, and preparing the meal can takes weeks. More and more Jews, trying to balance work, family and faith, are turning to professionals.

Andrew Wiener's kosher shop in Brookline was running at flank speed this week, churning out thousands of catered seders. Matzoh balls steamed by the hundreds in a lake of broth. A veritable school of gefilte fish simmered in a vat -- all under the watchful eye of a mashgiach, the rabbi who ensures every aspect is certifiably kosher.

''I remember my grandmother, God rest her soul, falling asleep at the table,'' said Wiener, who had 500 gallons of chicken soup waiting for delivery.

''It's nuts around here,'' said Ellen Vaknine, owner of Village Crown Catering in Manhattan's East Village. Phones were ringing in the background Thursday as she scrambled to finish seders for 600 people.

''For many people, the tradition is they're going to be sitting around the table with people who are important to them,'' she said. ''They just want to make sure they have good food and plenty of it.''

But others said they wouldn't dream of ordering out for one of the holiest meals of the year.

''Not so long as we're all alive to do it,'' said Elaine Reiser of Milton, who was in a kosher butcher shop with her mother stocking up for their needed items. ''The tradition, the family, we love it.''

''In the world we live in, where we have so many pulls and tugs, doing this traditional thing once a year, it's just worth it,'' said Joan Nathan, author of a number of books on Jewish cooking. ''It's worth it for your family.''

For caterers, Passover is hard work. The kosher standards are so exacting -- no leavened bread, flour, pasta or anything that has been in contact with those things during the year -- that some caterers simply close up shop during Passover.

''Not that I couldn't make a lot of money on it, but it's not worth it to do it,'' said Gary Witkes, owner of GT Catering in Worces-ter.

To meet kosher standards, Wiener brings out pots and pans used only at Passover, and takes appliances apart down to their screws, then blowtorches and boils them in water, according to strict rabbinical instructions.

Michelle Herman, a 29-year-old school teacher, said a catered meal won't taste the same as a homecooked one, but her tiny apartment and family situation leave her little choice.

''My brother is kosher, and the only way he would come is if we brought it in,'' she said. ''But it also has to do with nine people coming over.''

The question of catering is part of a centuries-long debate among Jews over faith and adaptation to the modern world.

''From a psychological point of view, people feel they should be making Passover the same way their grandmother did,'' said Rabbi Daniel Gropper of Temple Isaiah, a Reform synagogue in Lexington. ''Yet at the same time, our lives are perhaps very different from our grandparents.''

The idea of a catered Seder may not even be a modern concept. The rabbis from the time of the Talmud probably did not cook their own food, and there is no evidence women sat at the table with them, Gropper said.

''So chances are, those rabbis had their meals catered for them, as it were,'' he said.



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