By Anthony Glaros
At Silver Spring’s John F. Kennedy High school, amid the teacher talk of lesson plans and grades, there are also thoughts of Passover, which begins at sundown on April 19. And when one of a handful of English teachers (“romantics by nature and always prone to theatrics,” as one puts it) begins to talk about past seders, recipes aren’t far behind.
Following her service in the Navy, Deb Wischmann found herself living with the parents of her husband, Steve, near Winslow, Ariz., while he wrapped his assignment with the Marines.
Given Winslow’s remote location, nestled in the high desert, you might assume that Passover would have been a non-starter.
But Wischmann drove the three-hour journey to Phoenix to stock up on on gefelte fish, horseradish and matzah. After she returned, she showed her purchase to her in-laws, who are Lutheran.
“They were grossed out!” Wischmann says with a laugh.
When it was time for the seder, she drove to Flagstaff for the celebration.
It’s clear that Wischmann reserves a special place in her heart for Passover. In 1995, when she was stationed in Bremerton, Wash., she celebrated the holiday as a solitary meditation.
“All by myself,” she said, “I went and got basic stuff like gefilte fish and horseradish. I was on shore patrol and I had desk duty. So I just ate it at my desk.”
Growing up in Silver Spring, Wischmann, whose maiden name was Scheraga, often celebrate the holiday at the home of her aunt and uncle, and their two children, in Potomac. But in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, coupled with her mother’s financial challenges, Wischmann said she felt pangs of loneliness at Passover.
“My mother couldn’t afford to buy me a cabbage patch doll,” she said. “And she pulled me out of Hebrew cchool because she questioned religion.”
Wischmann, who now lives in Olney, has held her job at Kennedy — her alma mater — for 14 years. She said she still is part of the seder at her relatives’ home in Potomac. “One of the things I like is my aunt’s cucumber salad,” she declared, smacking her lips. “Only hers.”
Deborah Wischmann’s cucumber salad
1 medium onion
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup water
1 tablespoon sugar (or coconut sugar or sweetener of choice)
⅓ cup fresh dill, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
Slice the cucumber in half and then in slices.
Mix cucumbers and onions in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Mix white wine vinegar, water, sugar in a small bowl. Pour over the cucumbers and onions and stir well.
Sprinkle fresh chopped dill and stir.
When Paul Wexler surveys the Passover celebrations across his 29 years of life, one of the mainstay menu items has been his mother, Pat’s, matzah ball soup.
“It was always fresh in the bowl and tasted the same every year,” he said. Alas, the same couldn’t be said of the final dish of the evening. “They were makeshift deserts without leavening. They were always terrible. Super dry. Like chalk.”
Growing up, Wexler never attended synagogue or Hebrew School. In large measure, credit goes to his father, Larry, a special education teacher at Kennedy since 1992, for helping shape him in the way of faith, culture and tradition. Even after another exhausting day at work, Larry harnessed the quiet moments leading up to bedtime to walk through stories from the Talmud in the family’s Columbia home.
“They would either be about the Jews leaving Egypt or Abraham,” the Paul Wexler recalled during the English department’s third period planning time.
It was also Larry Wexler who regularly assembled the children around the dining room table for an interactive, 45-minute Jewish history lesson. “We’d go over letters and vowels” in the Hebrew alphabet, “and say a prayer. I got the hang of it,” Paul Wexler said.
Wexler majored in history at Towson University, where he made certain his class schedule was peppered with courses in Jewish history.
Wexler said his insatiable thirst for knowledge of the past helped him to synthesize and contextualize Jewish history. Wexler believes Jewish history mirrors the narrative of black history and the history of other oppressed peoples. In many respects, Passover is emblematic of these struggles.
“I think there’s a lack of knowledge among people who don’t celebrate Passover,” he said. “I think there are only 14 million Jews in the world. We’re often overlooked. We’re only in the news because someone put a swastika on a grave.”
This year, Larry Wexler will again beckon Paul and other family members to the seder.
Paul Wexler said the goal is to awaken all present to the richness of Judaism in a setting where no one has to wear a façade.
”It’s an open-book, he said. “You had a bad day? It’s OK.”
Any gathering can spark political debate. “Sometimes we disagree,” Wexler said with a shrug. “After four glasses of wine, things can start to unravel a little bit — but in a good way.”
Pat Wexler (Paul’s mom’s) recipe for Passover cobbler
3 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup kosher for Passover vegetable oil
¾ cup matzah meal
2 tablespoon potato starch
6 to 8 cups peeled and sliced fruit (strawberry, pear, apple)
⅛ cup cinnamon sugar
Heat oven to 350 degrees
Lightly oil a 9-inch by 9-inch square baking pan
Beat eggs with sugar until well-blended.
Add the oil, matzah meal, potato starch and salt and pepper
Place all the fruit in the pan and sprinkle with most of the cinnamon sugar, reserving a little for the top.
Spoon batter over the fruit, covering as much of the fruit as possible.
Sprinkle with remaining sugar
Bake until topping has turned tan.
Serve hot, warm or at room temperature
Stacey Wahrman spent her early years in Brooklyn before her family moved to a townhouse in the planned community in East Windsor Township, N.J.
One of her favorite Passover memories came on the came on the cusp of the hand-washing ritual.
“I don’t think anybody had noticed bubbling in the ceiling,” said Wahrman, a member of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase. “We’re used to round robin reading. We had all just picked up the Haggadah when there was a drip and a whoosh. We all looked up. It was a steady little waterfall.”
The family sprung into action. The first priority, she emphasized, was moving the dining-room table into the living room. The second was to place an assortment of large pots to catch the drops.
When they raced upstairs, the family discovered that the source of the water was her parents’ shower. The surprise event begged for a dash of humor — “My father used the water from the ceiling as his hand-washing,” Wahrman said. “He turned that into a little ritual and made little references to the parting of the Red Sea as a clear sign from God.
“My family’s a lot of fun,” she said. “But at the same time very irreverent.”
It could have been worse, she added. “We’ve got a history of being interrupted by Cossacks.”
Stacey Wahrman’s brisket
4 to 4½ pounds brisket
1 large onion cut in quarters
4 cloves garlic
¼ cup fresh parsley
2 stalks celery with leaves
2 large carrots
1 bay leaf
8 ounces tomato sauce
1 cup dry red wine
1 cube beef bouillon
1 tbsp. salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon beef broth mix
1 tablespoon potato starch
Heat oven to 300 degrees. Wash brisket in cold water and dry with paper towels. Place on a rack in a large roasting pan.
Insert metal blade. Place onion, garlic and parsley in processor bowl and chop for 5 seconds. Distribute over brisket. Place celery, carrots and bay leaves around meat.
Process tomato sauce, wine, bouillon cube, salt, pepper and beef broth mix for 30 seconds and pour over brisket.
Cover and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour per pound. Check for doneness by sticking with a fork. It should be tender but not extremely soft. Remove from oven and separate meat from the liquid and vegetables.
Let cool before slicing.
Place half the liquid and vegetables in the work bowl and process for 10 seconds. Repeat with remaining liquid,vegetables and the potato starch.
Slice brisket and place in baking dish. Pour gravy over the meat and heat, covered, in a 350 degree oven until hot.
“We have 28 at the table — five families, 10 adults and 10 children,” Lauri Schwartz said of the annual seder she attends in Herndon.
“We’re a congregation within a congregation,” she said. “We could, if we wanted to, hold services and prayers. because the area is so transient.”
The evening’s menu, she said, “is massive. My oldest daughter, Jenna, usually prepares a vegan entrée like stuffed mushroom. I’ve done lasagna with eggplant, matzah and eggs. We have to have food for all different lifestyles.”
Schwartz said the group began sowing spiritual and social roots on the heels of a questionnaire that was handed out by the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston. “No one had family in the area to get together with on the holiday.”
The frenetic pace of life around the Beltway doesn’t allow much time for similar meet ups among during the year, she said. But then Passover comes around again, and the group reunites.
A native of Battle Creek, Mich., Schwartz’s mother’s family were Austro-Hungarian Jews. Her father was a first-generation Italian Catholic. She spent part of her early life as a Catholic before embracing Judaism full on.
Jenna Schwartz’s Passover vegan and vegetarian stuffed mushrooms
(For the vegan version, substitute vegan cheeses for the filling and omit the eggs.)
12-15 Portobello mushroom caps
4-6 zucchini, sliced lengthwise, ¼-inch thick
4-6 eggplant, peeled (optional) sliced lengthwise, ¼-inch thick, then halved lengthwise
3 fennel bulbs, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
12-15 tops of asparagus (optional)
16 ounce ricotta (part skim or whole milk)
2 cups shredded mozzarella
¼ cup pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano
½ tsp. garlic powder
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley (or fresh herb of choice)
40 ounce jar of good marinara sauce
Herbed matzah crumbs
1 can matzah farfel
¼ cup fresh Italian flat leaf parsley
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Brush both sides of the mushrooms with olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Place upside down (gills side up) on baking sheet(s). Roast in oven for 10-15 minutes until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Repeat this process for all of the sliced zucchini and sliced eggplant, lining the baking sheet with vegetables in single layers.
In a skillet, cook chopped fennel and garlic with olive oil over medium heat. Once cooked, mix with marinara.
For cheese filling, mix ricotta, parsley, garlic powder, mozzarella and pecorino in large bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste; mix in one beaten egg.
For matzah crumbs, lightly pulse ingredients in a food processor while pouring the olive oil slowly through the top until combined.
Spoon 2-3 teaspoons marina/fennel mixture into each mushroom cap, followed by 2-3 tablespoons cheese filling. Top with sprinkle of matzah crumbs.
Place two strips of zucchini on each mushroom in the shape of a plus sign; place two strips of eggplant on each mushroom in the shape of an X.
Place another 2 tablespoons marinara/fennel, 2 tablespoons cheese filling, and a sprinkle of crumbs in the center of each mushroom.
Close up each mushroom by taking the overhanging edges of zucchini and eggplant and folding them into the center of the mushroom. Finish with a dollop of the cheese mixture to “glue” the ends of the zucchini and eggplant to the center. Top with a sprinkle of crumbs, an asparagus top, and a drizzle of olive oil.
Finish by baking for another 10-15 minutes until cheese is melted and top is golden brown. Serve warm.
Anthony Glaros is on the English Department staff at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring.