NEW YORK (Mar. 6)
Because Australia is situated below the equator, its seasons rebel against the Jewish calendar. Our winter is their summer; our spring their fall. Although Passover’s rituals and symbols resonate spring, Down Under the holiday is celebrated in autumn Down Under.
“Passover begins just as the temperature drops, days grow shorter, and grapevines lose their leaves,” says Jenni Neumann, a New Yorker who grew up in Sydney. “It’s rather odd, if you’re not used to it, I guess.”
Yet most of Neumann’s childhood memories of Passover would be familiar to many American Jews: the apple and walnut charoset, matzah balls floating in golden broth, and jars of Manischewitz gefilte fish. Like many of her American counterparts, Neumann, 38, grew up in an Ashkenazi world. While Australian Jews call themselves Aussies, throw chicken on the barbie, or barbecue, and speak English with the accent of Crocodile Dundee, their Passover cuisine is straight from Molly Goldberg.
How did that happen since Australia not only began as an English colony, but still owes its allegiance and cultural heritage to Great Britain?
While British Jews were present at the colony’s inception, the demographics of Australia’s Jewish population has somersaulted several times, as immigrants from various continents landed on its shores. After the American Revolution, England needed another penal colony and selected Australia as a dumping ground for undesirables.
In 1788, eight of the 751 convicts expelled on the first fleet from London were Jews. If that’s not surprising enough, some of these Jews were women. In subsequent decades, Jews continued to be sprinkled in convict shipments, and others, down on their luck, left London voluntarily, hoping for a better life in this hardscrabble country.
Defying the odds, many Jewish prisoners attained freedom within several years. By 1817, Jews in Sydney had established a minyan and burial society. “When thinking of Jewish life back home, I picture Sydney’s Great Synagogue,” says Neumann, describing this architectural jewel with its four-story pointed towers and spectacular stained glass.
Built in 1879, the Great Synagogue is a quintessential example of Victorian architecture, one of the most magnificent synagogues in the world. During Australia’s first 150 years, English descendants dominated the Jewish community and were fiercely loyal to the “mother country.” But the 19th century saw the arrival of German, Russian, and Polish Jews.
A small Sephardi community bloomed and withered. As diverse as these influences were, they were not strong enough to compete with the established Jews who quickly Anglicized and absorbed newcomers. But this situation changed radically during the 1930s when Jews from Central and Eastern Europe headed in large numbers to Australia to escape the anti-Semitism fueled by Hitler.
“The thing I remember most about childhood seders are the red eggs my mother used to make,” says Neumann, explaining that this was one of the recipes her grandparents carried from Vienna. She describes how white eggshells absorb brilliant pigment from steeping for hours with skins from brown, or better yet, red Spanish onions. Their red-brown color symbolizes the roasted egg on seder plates. The pigment penetrates so deeply that egg whites turn a pale peachy shade. Neumann’s mother Barbara starts stockpiling onion skins two months before Passover.
“I save skins every time I use an onion in cooking and also collect them from the green grocer’s onion display,” she says, explaining that she prepares about five dozen eggs, enough to send home with Seder guests and to last through the holiday’s eight days. Neumann adds that when she and her brother were children, her mother enlisted their help to scour neighborhood markets for onion skins.
“The task is more stressful than it sounds,” says Barbara Neumann, explaining that she competes with Greek women who use onion skins to dye Easter eggs. Both mother and daughter agree that the effort is worth it because tinted eggs soak up marvelous onion flavor. While charoset is a delightful treat, Neumann feels her family recipe is the best. A generous amount of cinnamon and a splash of sherry hint at palatschinken, the famed Viennese dessert crepe often filled with walnuts.
Neumann has fond memories of spending Passovers with her Uncle John and Aunt Shirley, whose father grew horseradish in his garden. Contrary to bottled horseradish in America, where the infusion of red beet juice indicates milder flavor than its white counterpart, in Australia mixing beet juice with this bitter herb connotes that only the hottest horseradish was used. “As far as I’m concerned, the hotter the better,” says Neumann, chuckling as she remembers challenging her Uncle John to see who could take the strongest horseradish.
“We rated horseradish by how much it made you feel the top of your head was about to lift off!” says her mother. “For years I was the youngest person in the family and had to recite the Four Questions,” says Neumann, who was thrilled when John and Shirley’s son was born, because she knew someday soon he’d assume the role of asking: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Shirley introduced a trendy honey mustard chicken and a layered matzah cake, with decadent amounts of cocoa, whipped cream and dark chocolate. She learned to make this outrageous dessert from an Israeli friend in the catering business, and it immediately became everyone’s favorite. “Shirley had to make two of these cakes to keep us happy,” Neumann says.
With an eclectic array of recipes, Shirley credits Sephardi friends with expanding her culinary horizons. Australia’s long-dormant Sephardi community was revitalized in 1956, following the Suez Crisis. After some political maneuvering, Egyptian Jews were allowed to enter its borders. By 1969 when Iraqi Jews were targeted for persecution, Australia opened its doors to them.
Twenty years later, a stream of South African Jews arrived, reinforced by refugees seeking opportunities after the former Soviet Union disbanded. There’s a contingent of Israelis, too. Today more than 100,000 Jews call Australia home; 80 percent of them live in Melbourne and Sydney. With more than half of Jewish students attending Jewish schools, Australia boasts the highest enrollment rate of any country except Israel. The Orthodox movement is strong Down Under, but Reform or what Aussies call Progressive, Jews make up about 25 percent of the population.
Neumann waxes poetic about a leather bound Haggadah she received as a Bat Mitzvah gift. A copper plaque depicting ruins of the Second Temple graces its front. “It’s beautiful and for years I proudly brought it to Seders,” she says, explaining that the copper comes from mines in Israel dating back to King Solomon. She inherited her appreciation of the past from her parents who are antique dealers.
“Mom and Dad have several Passover plates,” says Neumann, describing one that is ceramic with blue and white glaze and another made from copper. They own an antique kiddush cup for Elijah, a silver short-stemmed goblet about 8 inches high. With an hourglass shape, it is decorated with intricate engraving. While shopping for their business, the Neumanns collect Passover artifacts for their seder table, remnants of Australia’s rich Judaic history, a legacy they have passed to their children.
5 ounces walnuts, chopped
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup sweet sherry
1/3 cup matzah meal
liquid artificial sweetener to taste
1. Cut apples into chunks run through a food processor using the coarse grating disk.
2. Place in a mixing bowl. Add walnuts and cinnamon. Combine ingredients by hand.
3. Mix in sherry. Add meal to stiffen mixture. Add sweetener, if needed. Charoset should be soft yet easy to serve with a spoon. If necessary, adjust sherry and meal for consistency and flavor. If making in larger quantities, retain the apple-walnut-cinnamon ratio.
Yield: 8 servings
Large pot that you don’t mind staining
Supermarket sized bag full of onion skins
2 dozen medium sized raw eggs
1/2 lb. fatty brisket
1. Place a thick layer of onion skins at bottom of pot, followed by a layer of eggs. Continue layering, finishing with a layer of onion skins.
2. Top with brisket.
4. Cover pot and place over medium heat to bring to a boil slowly, which helps eggs from cracking. Keep eggs boiling steadily for 5-6 hours, adjusting heat between medium and low.
5. Check on eggs every 20 minutes, adding more water if necessary. Gently move eggs around, using a wooden or plastic spoon. Make sure eggs are covered all the time.
6. Turn off flame and cool down to warm. Wearing plastic gloves to protect hands from staining, carefully remove eggs to a strainer to dry. Store in original egg containers in refrigerator. They will keep right through the holiday. To serve, break shells and sprinkle with a little salt or salt water.
CHICKEN IN HONEY-MUSTARD MARINADE
2 Tbsp. margarine
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup artificial kosher-for-Passover Dijon mustard
1 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. salt
8 chicken drumsticks
1. In a saucepan, stir first five ingredients over a low flame until thoroughly blended, about 5 minutes. Cool.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a shallow, oven-proof baking pan with spray. Arrange drumsticks in a single layer. Pour marinade over drumsticks.
3. Place pan in center of oven, turning drumsticks every ten minutes. Lower temperature if sauce thickens quickly as it may burn. Roast 40 minutes, or until drumsticks brown and juices run clear when pierced with a fork.
COCOA CREAM LAYER CAKE
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking cocoa
2. Spread matzahs on 3 plates. Sprinkle 2 tsp. sherry over each matzah. Make sure entire surface is moistened, but don’t wet completely or they’ll become mushy.
3. On a serving plate, place one matzah and completely cover with half of whipped cream mixture. Don’t leave any area bare or it will dry out. Place a second matzah on top and repeat.
3 one-ounce squares of semisweet chocolate
In a double boiler, melt and blend topping ingredients. Spread on top of third matzah. Place toothpicks into softened spots near the top matzah’s four corners. Cover completely with aluminum foil. Refrigerate for two days before serving.
Yield: 9 servings