Passover is right around the corner, and helping me get in the mood for this holiday are two authors who have written novels about the holiday. I read The Matzo Ball Heiress by Laurie Gwen Shapiro several years ago. I couldn’t stop thinking about it then and still recommend it for a fun Passover-themed story. Joining her for this interview is Brenda Janowitz, whose latest novel, The Dinner Party, which takes place during a seder, was released last week.
Jewish Food Experience: How did you decide to set your novel during Passover as opposed to any other Jewish holiday?
Brenda Janowitz: I wanted to write a novel about letting go of the past, and how only when we let go of what’s holding us back can we move onto the future. Passover was the perfect metaphor for this idea.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro: I have always balanced two careers, as a writer and a documentary filmmaker. Right after the Millennium, I was having a documentary meeting in (the now-defunct) Ratner’s dairy restaurant on Delancey Street, which was popular with the film crowd. As I was handed my cherry blintzes, I overheard one of Ratner’s legendarily surly waiters say to a hip lady near me, “You don’t pay!” I turned to her—this is on the Lower East Side, where I’m from and interrupting is socially acceptable; we don’t give a damn about breeding—and I said, “Why don’t you pay?” And the waiter laughed and said, “She’s matzah ball royalty.”
Over my blintzes, I played with the phrase and knew there was a book in there about the gentrifying Lower East Side, and secular descendants of iconic brands who have to keep up a kosher front. Through this lovely woman [at Ratner’s], Mikie Heilbrun, I gained access to the Streit’s factory and learned the inside story. She was a casting director, and to make things easier for me, I made my fictional protagonist, Heather Greenblotz, a documentary filmmaker because I knew that world like the back of my hand. The origin story even got a nice write-up in the New York Times. I’m pleased that Mikie Heilbrun recently got a non-fiction book deal to tell the official Streit’s story—how great is that?
BJ: Oh, how I miss Ratner’s!
JFE: What is your favorite memory involving Passover or Passover food?
BJ: I have so many! As a little girl, I loved family holidays. My Grandma Dorothy was the best cook, and I especially loved her matzah ball soup. My favorite memory would have to be sitting in her formal living room on the fancy furniture while my Grandpa Ted would use a nutcracker (which I thought to be the height of glamour and sophistication) to crack open walnuts for me. I felt so grown up!
LGS: But these are Jewish nutcrackers we are talking about, right? Not the fancy kind in a Christmas pageant that could dance in a dream. All metal, more wrench-like. My grandmother Fannie had about ten of them, and slim nut-pickers, too, to get the stubborn bits of nut out.
BJ: Oh no, this was a super-fancy one that would dance in a dream. And they only had the one.
LGS: My father’s widowed mother lived across the street from my family in a one-bedroom apartment, and somehow Grandma Ida managed to squeeze everyone in, including 14 grandchildren. I was the youngest, so I was forever the one tasked with the Four Questions, first in English, then in Hebrew. I associate Passover with a dozen cousins chasing after me to “tickle me to death” after the seder.
BJ: I dreaded having to do the Four Questions when I was younger. I was so happy when my younger brother started going to Hebrew school and was able to take over!
JFE: How do you celebrate Passover? What are your Passover traditions?
BJ: Now that I’m married with children, I host the Passover seders. We’re starting so many lovely traditions. My kids love helping me set the table with masks and finger puppets of the plagues (top photo). We run a very kid-friendly seder!
LGS: Every time I go to a seder with finger puppets I think, These kids don’t know from hardcore seders of the past when kids are dying for the meal to begin already! When did the plastic frogs for the list of plagues come in? Modern seders are—can I admit this?—fun!
BJ: Ha! My kids definitely do not. There are lots of plastic frogs involved.
LGS: While I once celebrated with a mass of family, now I usually take my only child on her spring break to my father’s Florida retirement village where he lives in the winter. (My Aussie husband stays in NYC with our needy cat that cries if you go to the laundry room, but he has been at many a seder, and even though he is a lapsed Catholic he can do his bit in Hebrew if we are at a cousin’s house that year.) Often my mother’s older sister Etta will drive down from Boca to join us, and maybe a stray lonely neighbor of my father’s, as there’s always an elderly person in a retirement village whose family has abandoned them.
Making sure the elderly in your life are not alone at the holiday is the cultural lesson I most want to share with my daughter. I love hearing elderly people’s stories, and everyone will open up to you on holidays—Passover triggers lovely memories. I’m a secular Jew, but am tremendously proud of my heritage, and I feel it is a mitzvah to remember the elderly at this time.
JFE: What Passover food item could you eat year-round?
BJ: Most of them! I love brisket and matzah ball soup. My mother-in-law’s mandelbread is pretty special—we usually save it only for Passover, but I could eat it every night. (Okay, I confess. I could actually eat it every morning with my coffee for breakfast!)
LGS: C’mon! Dark-chocolate covered matzah. My cousin Shari Klaire makes the best—much better than the store-bought variety.
JFE: How do you feel Passover enhances the plot of your novel, and what was your biggest challenge with incorporating it?
BJ: A huge portion of the action takes place over the Passover seder, so having the long service before dinner allowed me to really show who my characters are. The challenge was figuring out how much to use (for example, the book is structured around the Four Questions), and how much would have been too much.
LGS: The Matzo Ball Heiress was intentionally light, but it was, in fact, the first outwardly Jewish chick lit novel, and I’ve been told by academics that my book broke boundaries in genre publishing. The sexy lead character had the last name Greenblotz, a personal victory for me in publishing—she was no marginalized sidekick. Several people have included the book in their thesis project on modern depictions of Jewish holidays. The biggest challenge was how do I make this accessible enough for non-Jews to enjoy and Jews to not feel like I was over-explaining. Also, I wanted it to be funny without making fun of my culture.
BJ: I loved that book when it came out. And I agree completely with this idea that you want both Jews and non-Jews to enjoy. It’s a tough line.
JFE: If you could choose another Jewish holiday to feature in a future novel, which would you pick and why? How would you write about it?
LGS: I mainly write literary non-fiction these days, long-form articles, and my first adult non-fiction book about a Lower East Side stowaway to Antarctica on Admiral Byrd’s 1928 expedition will be published by Simon & Schuster in late 2017. One of the members of the expedition was Jewish and celebrated the first seder in Antarctica, yet he suffered great antisemitism. Instead of merely stating that, I recreated the scene in a dramatic fashion using numerous accounts from historical sources.
But back to the question… I have recently been fascinated by 1930 Purim spiels I have found in the NYPL archives, and it has me thinking about what I can do with the material. I have always loved Purim. But not as much as Passover, because I love that you celebrate it at home, with family and food. Even the most secular Jew clings to Passover.
BJ: I love the solemnity of Yom Kippur, and all that it stands for. The themes I tend to work with over and over again center around letting go of the past and forgiveness, so Yom Kippur would be a natural fit for that. And I love the foods of the break-fast! As a lifelong New Yorker, I, of course, love bagels. And blintzes are my guilty pleasure. I think I may have the seeds of my next novel…
LGS: Ooh, I’d read your bagel novel!
BJ: Okay, now I’m hungry for a bagel. Better eat it before Passover begins….