Apr 102017
 

Passover begins at sundown today this year (2017). This post is the last concerning the three major moveable Jewish holy days, the others being Sukkot and Shavuot, which I have already covered. According to Torah prescriptions, Jews were required to celebrate these three festivals in Jerusalem, Passover being the most central to tradition. Jesus, as a faithful Jew, is reported to have traveled to Jerusalem for Passover at least once (when he fell afoul of the law and was executed). Hence Passover and Easter are inextricably linked, but since early Medieval times the Christian church has gone to great lengths to make sure that their observations do not coincide. Given that Passover can fall on any day of the week, but Easter must fall on a Sunday, it’s not all that difficult to keep them apart. The fact that they are so close together at all this year is relatively rare.

I simply cannot imagine that the entire Jewish population in antiquity downed tools and traveled to Jerusalem three times a year. It makes no sense in practical terms. Who’s going to mind the sheep or the shop whilst everyone is making a beeline for Jerusalem? I can see it happening a few times in a lifetime, but not every single year. Passover is, however, very deeply embedded in Jewish history and tradition and continues to be an important aspect of Jewish identity to this day. Observant and non-observant Jews of all stripes have a Passover seder, at the very least, every year with varying degrees of commitment to established religious practice. Not to do so would be the equivalent of a family of Christian background not celebrating Christmas. It does happen of course. Preparing a seder is a lot of work. But almost all of the Jews that I know, even the most vehemently non-religious, mark Passover in some way or another.

If I get too deeply mired in discussing the history and evolution of Passover we’ll be here all year. So I’ll try to keep it simple (dangerously teetering on the edge of the simplistic). My views on the matter are not very popular among Jews anyway — nor most Christians either. It was one of those great turning points in my life when I learned as a first year theology student at Oxford that Biblical historians and archeologists simply did not believe that the slavery in Egypt of the Israelites, the exodus under Moses, the wandering in the desert for 40 years, and the ultimate conquest of Canaan, had any basis in historical fact. Say what ????  That’s pretty fundamental to Jewish (and Christian) belief. People who’ve barely cracked the Bible know about parting the Red Sea and the like. BUT . . . extra-Biblical sources for any of this narrative are non-existent, and archeology flatly contradicts all of the details. The current explanation for the appearance of the Israelites in the Levant that has the most favor among archeologists and historians (the ones who have no religious or ethnic axes to grind, that is), is that the putative 12 tribes of Israel were at the outset a loosely confederated group of related Semitic peoples who had migrated into the land from various places and unified for a time against other indigenous cultures. The centrality of Judah and Jerusalem were a consequence of the defeat and expulsion of the northern tribes by Assyria which left only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south intact and soldiering on. Through a combination of relative isolation and shrewd political maneuvering they were able to tough it out a little longer until they were crushed and deported by the forces of Babylon.

The two periods that, for me (and a great many other Biblical historians), are crucial in understanding how Passover emerged and evolved as central to Jewish tradition and identity are the reforms of Josiah (649-609 BCE) and the Babylonian Exile which are inextricably linked.  Until Josiah was king of Judah the nation had managed to stave off attack by neighboring empires such as Egypt and Assyria by being relatively subservient and compliant – paying tribute, accepting multiple religious traditions and the like – as ways of keeping a low profile. Under Josiah that all changed. He came to the throne at the age of 8 and ruled for 31 years. During this time the neighboring empires were struggling with one another for supremacy and went through periods of waxing and waning fortunes. This situation left Judah in a relatively strong position to assert itself. It had no chance against the likes of Egypt or Babylon when they were at full strength, but when they were weak(er) powerful people in Judah could entertain visions of grandeur. Hence Judah under Josiah, swayed by politician-scholars, created a bold new identity and was (seemingly) ready to take on the world.

During Josiah’s middle years Judah underwent a nativist revolution led by a group now called the Deuteronomists (after one of the texts they wrote). Nativism involves stripping a culture of what it perceives as “foreign” elements (religion, literature, language, clothing, foodways, etc) and highlighting the “original” (or “native”) core as it is perceived. According to the Hebrew Bible, in his 18th regnal year (when he was 26), Josiah ordered tax money to be used to renovate the Temple and during the renovation a “Book of the Law” (sefer ha-torah) was “discovered.” Modern scholars now generally believe that the “discovery” was a plant by the Deuteronomists and the book they “discovered” was one they had written: either Deuteronomy itself or a portion of it. Josiah took the book seriously, was horrified discovering all the laws in it that were not being followed (and the penalties for such crimes against God), and immediately set about stripping away all practices that were foreign and opposed the law, and establishing all the laws that were enshrined in the document. Among other things, the law prescribed that Passover should be held in Jerusalem every year on a certain date, with explanations concerning why it was to be observed, and how. When the Temple renovations were complete and all the foreign cults removed (and their priests executed), Josiah held a massive celebratory Passover.

Thus the story of the Israelite slavery in Egypt, the attempts by Moses to free the people from bondage, the various plagues that God sent to convince the Pharoah to release the people, and, finally, God’s commandment to an angel to kill every firstborn male in Egypt who lived in a house whose doorposts were not smeared with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, became an indelible part of the history and identity of the Jewish people – commemorated every year with the ritual slaughter and consumption of sacrificial lambs. My (not terribly well supported) conjecture is that Josiah’s great Passover was the first, and that it has been celebrated every year since following the rules laid down in Deuteronomy and other books of the Torah. The symbolism of bondage and release received a boost a generation later when the Babylonian army defeated Judah, destroyed the Temple, and deported the bulk of the population to Babylon in the period now known as the Exile or the Captivity. During this seminal period I believe that classic Jewish belief solidified. Following the return to Jerusalem, the Jews suffered multiple conquests by empires including the Greek and Roman which, again, strengthened the symbolism until in 70 CE the Romans essentially wiped out the population of Judah, destroyed the Second Temple (built after the return from the Exile) and scattered the Jews across Europe and the world with no homeland. This new Diaspora once more reinforced the Passover message of bondage, alienation, and oppression – offering an eventual release, which was partially granted by the creation of the state of Israel after 2 millennia of separation from the land.

The Passover meal, the seder, is, of course central to the celebration. Where it was once made up of (ritually slaughtered) lamb which recalled the blood of lambs saving the people in bondage, bitter herbs, recalling the bitterness of slavery, and unleavened bread, recalling the haste with which the people left Israel with no time to let the bread rise, now all but the unleavened bread are tokens. The classic seder dish, often using a special platter reserved for that one night, consists typically of a roasted lamb shank or chicken wing, a roasted boiled egg, 2 kinds of bitter herbs, a leafy herb to be dipped in salt water, and a brown sweet paste of ground fruit and nuts. Each has symbolic meaning which is explained during the meal. There are also three whole matzot, which are stacked and separated from each other by cloths or napkins. The middle matzoh will be broken and half of it put aside for the ritual of the afikoman (a game played with children to maintain their interest and help in the process of understanding the symbolism). The top and other half of the middle matzoh will be used for the hamotzi (blessing over bread), and the bottom one will be used for the korech (Hillel sandwich).

It always seems to me a shame at these meals that these elements are merely symbolic. They are all great food items. What’s not to love about lamb, roast eggs, salty greens, horseradish, and unleavened bread washed down with cups of wine? These days the principal seder dishes vary according to the underlying ethnicity of the family. I’ve only ever attended eastern Ashkenazi seders where matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish, and brisket reign supreme. There are recipes galore for these classics all over the place. Matzoh brei is a lesser known Passover treat used as a sweet interlude, and involving the central unleavened bread.

Matzoh Brei

Ingredients

2 sheets matzoh
2 large eggs
salt and pepper
vegetable oil
jam or syrup

Instructions

Break the matzoh into small places and place in a bowl.  Cover with very hot water and let steep for about 30 seconds, then drain thoroughly. Meanwhile beat the eggs in a separate bowl with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat enough vegetable oil in a skillet for very shallow frying (2 or 3 tablespoons) over medium-high heat.

Combine the eggs and matzoh and mix thoroughly. Divide into 4, shaping each into a thin, flat pancake.

Fry the pancakes one at a time until golden on both sides, about one minute per side (turning only once).

Serve slightly broken up with whatever jam or syrup you prefer.

Mar 202014
 

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Today is the birthday (43 BCE) of Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, a Roman poet best known for the Metamorphoses, a 15-volume mythological narrative in epic verse, and for collections of love poetry in elegiac couplets, especially the Amores (“Love Affairs”) and Ars Amatoria (“Art of Love”). His poetry was much imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and greatly influenced Western art and literature. The Metamorphoses remains one of the most important sources of classical mythology. Ovid is traditionally ranked alongside Virgil and Horace, his older contemporaries, as one of the three canonic poets of Latin literature. He was the first major Roman poet to begin his career during the reign of Augustus, and the Imperial scholar Quintilian considered him the last of the Latin love elegists. He enjoyed enormous popularity, but in one of the mysteries of literary history he was sent by Augustus into exile in a remote province on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death. Ovid himself attributes his exile to carmen et error, “a poem and a mistake,” but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation among scholars.

Ovid was born in Sulmo (modern Sulmona), in an Apennine valley east of Rome, to a well known equestrian family, a class that ranked above plebeians and below patricians. His father wished him to study rhetoric toward the practice of law, so he was educated in rhetoric in Rome under the teachers Arellius Fuscus and Porcius Latro with his brother who excelled at oratory. According to Seneca the Elder, Ovid tended to the emotional, not the argumentative pole of rhetoric. After the death of his brother at 20 years of age, Ovid renounced law and began travelling to Athens, Asia Minor, and Sicily. He held minor public posts, as one of the tresviri capitals (prison officers), as a member of the Centumviral court (chancery court) and as one of the decemviri stlitibus iudicandis (civil judges), but resigned to pursue poetry probably around 29–25 BCE, a decision of which his father apparently disapproved.

His first poetic recitation has been dated to around 25 BC, when Ovid was eighteen. He was part of the circle centered on the patron Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, and seems to have been a friend of poets in the circle of Maecenas. In Tristia 4.10.41–54, Ovid mentions friendships with Macer, Propertius, Horace, Ponticus and Bassus (he only barely met Virgil and Tibullus, a fellow member of Messalla’s circle whose elegies he admired greatly). Ovid was very popular at the time of his early works, but was later exiled by Augustus in AD 8. He married three times and divorced twice by the time he was thirty years old. He had one daughter, who eventually bore him grandchildren. His last wife was connected in some way to the influential gens (clan) Fabia and would help him during his exile in Tomis.

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The first 25 years of Ovid’s literary career were spent primarily writing poetry in elegiac meter with erotic themes. The chronology of these early works is not completely certain, but his earliest extant work is thought to be the Heroides, letters of mythological heroines to their absent lovers, which may have been published in 19 BCE. The first five-book collection of the Amores, a series of erotic poems addressed to a lover, Corinna, is thought to have been published in 16–15 BCE; the surviving version, redacted to three books according to an epigram prefixed to the first book, is thought to have been published c. 8–3 BCE. Between the publications of the two editions of the Amores can be dated the premiere of his tragedy Medea, which was admired in antiquity but is no longer extant.

Ovid’s next poem, the Medicamina Faciei, a fragmentary work on women’s beauty treatments, preceded the Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, a parody of didactic poetry (including advice such as “do not forget her birthday”), and a three-book manual about seduction and intrigue, which has been dated to 2 CE (Books 1–2 go back to 1 BCE). Ovid may have identified this work as the carmen, or song, which was one cause of his banishment. The Ars Amatoria was followed by the Remedia Amoris in the same year. This elegiac, erotic poetry earned Ovid a place among the chief Roman elegists Gallus, Tibullus, and Propertius, of whom he saw himself as the fourth member.

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By 8 CE, he had completed his most ambitious work, the Metamorphoses, a hexameter epic poem in 15 books which encyclopedically catalogs transformations in Greek and Roman mythology from the emergence of the cosmos to the deification of Julius Caesar. The stories follow each other in telling of human beings transformed to new bodies: trees, rocks, animals, flowers, constellations etc. At the same time, he was working on the Fasti, a 12 volume poem in elegiac couplets which took as its theme the calendar of Roman festivals and astronomy. Only 6 volumes were completed The composition of this poem was interrupted by Ovid’s exile, and it is thought that Ovid abandoned work on the piece in Tomis.

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In 8 CE, Ovid was banished to Tomis, on the Black Sea, by the exclusive order of the Emperor Augustus, without any participation of the Senate or of any Roman judge. This event shaped all of his following poetry. Ovid wrote that the reason for his exile was carmen et error – “a poem and a mistake” that his crime was worse than murder, more harmful than poetry.  We know no more than that, which tells us very little. The Emperor’s grandchildren, Julia the Younger and Agrippa Postumus (the latter adopted by him), were also banished around the same time. Julia’s husband, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, was put to death for conspiracy against Augustus.  That Augustus allowed Ovid to live suggests that whatever his crime was, it was unlikely to have been directed against Augustus per se.  Most modern critics think that it had something to do with Augustus’ distaste for the rather loose morals of Ovid’s love poems at a time when the emperor was trying to clean up marriage in Rome in order to make the society more stable.  But in the end, it is useless to speculate without more information.

In exile, Ovid wrote two poetry collections titled Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, illustrating his sadness and desolation. Being far from Rome, he had no access to libraries, and thus might have been forced to abandon the Fasti poem about the Roman calendar, of which only the first six books exist – January through June. The five books of the elegiac Tristia, a series of poems expressing the poet’s despair in exile and advocating his return to Rome, are dated to 9–12 CE. The Ibis, an elegiac curse poem attacking an adversary at home, may also be dated to this period. The Epistulae ex Ponto, a series of letters to friends in Rome asking them to effect his return, are thought to be his last compositions, with the first three books published in 13 CE and the fourth book between 14 and 16 CE. The exile poetry is particularly emotive and personal. In the Epistulae he claims friendship with the native people of Tomis (in the Tristia they are frightening barbarians) and to have written a poem in their language (Ex P. 4.13.19–20). And yet he pined for Rome and for his third wife; many of the poems are addressed to her. Some are also to the Emperor Augustus, yet others are to himself, to friends in Rome, and sometimes to the poems themselves, expressing loneliness and hope of recall from banishment or exile.

Ovid died at Tomis in 17 or 18 CE. It is thought that the Fasti, which he spent time revising, were published posthumously. He was allegedly buried a few kilometers away in a nearby town.

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The Metamorphoses is a sprawling work that explores the world from the beginning of time down to the life of Julius Caesar.  It is a source, not only for tales of Greek and Roman sacred history, but also for historical narratives concerning people in the classical world who lived close to the time of Ovid.  Book 15 has extensive discussions on Pythagoras and his work; 11 of 18 sections in this book are directly about Pythagoras’ philosophy.  Among other things, Pythagoras was a vegetarian (as were many of his followers), and Ovid provides us with his justifications for such an unusual stance to take at that time:

 Human beings, stop desecrating your bodies with impious foodstuffs. There are crops; there are apples weighing down the branches; and ripening grapes on the vines; there are flavorsome herbs; and those that can be rendered mild and gentle over the flames; and you do not lack flowing milk; or honey fragrant from the flowering thyme. The earth, prodigal of its wealth, supplies you with gentle sustenance, and offers you food without killing or shedding blood.

 Flesh satisfies the wild beast’s hunger, though not all of them, since horses, sheep and cattle live on grasses, but those that are wild and savage: Armenian tigers, raging lions, and wolves and bears, enjoy food wet with blood. Oh, how wrong it is for flesh to be made from flesh; for a greedy body to fatten, by swallowing another body; for one creature to live by the death of another creature! So amongst such riches, that earth, the greatest of mothers, yields, you are not happy unless you tear, with cruel teeth, at pitiful wounds, recalling Cyclops’s practice, and you cannot satisfy your voracious appetite, and your restless hunger, unless you destroy other life!

But that former age, that we call golden, was happy with the fruit from the trees, and the herbs the earth produced, and did not defile its lips with blood.

There is no evidence that Ovid was a vegetarian but I thought it might be suitable, based on this excerpt, to give a recipe for an ancient Roman vegetarian dish – broad beans and leeks with cilantro.  Something similar can be found here, although the latter is a recipe for mussels where the leeks and cilantro are merely flavoring agents.  The recipe I give here is my own adaptation from Apicius’ De Re Conquinaria which gives a list of ingredients and not much else.  Liquamen was a sauce made by fermenting fish, and was very common in classical era cooking.  It was primarily a source of salt to season the dish.  I use a diluted mix of Thai fish sauce (phrik nam pla) and water as a substitute.  You will find many attempts to convert Apicius’ recipe for the modern kitchen, but they all make the same mistake; they list string beans as the main ingredient.  This is absurd because all string beans were domesticated in the New World, and taken to the Old World in the sixteenth century.  Ovid’s “green beans” are fresh broad beans (fava beans). However, when I made this dish I was forced back on string beans myself because broad beans are not in season yet.  I ended up making it into a soup and then as a sauce for pasta.  It can accompany a variety of meat and fish dishes.

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©Fabaciae virides et baianae (broad beans and leeks)

Ingredients:

1lb/500g green beans (preferably broad beans)
1 tbsp Asian fish sauce mixed with 1 cup water
¼ cup
extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
1 tsp cumin
½ leek, sliced thin

Instructions:

Place all the ingredients in a heavy pot just big enough to hold them all.  Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the beans are cooked through.

Strain (reserving the cooking liquid) and serve as a side dish, or ladle into soup bowls as a first course with some crusty bread.