BANGOR, Maine — Susan Johnson didn’t learn to cook in a kosher kitchen. She was a Catholic in Camden, N.J., and didn’t convert to Judaism until she was an adult.
As a child, Johnson didn’t know her hametz from hamburger. Today, however, she, like Jews around the world, will rid her Frankfort home of the last crumb of leavened grain and prepare for the Passover Seder.
Passover begins at sundown today.
“My house is the cleanest this week it is all year,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who does not follow the Jewish dietary laws year-round but does abide by them during the weeklong celebration of Passover, described preparing for the holiday as a “really good spring cleaning.”
Hametz is defined as food made from one of the five species of grain — wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt, in which leavening or fermentation induced by the presence of water has taken place. Not only must all hametz be removed from homes and synagogues before Passover, no leavened foods or grains may be eaten during the weeklong observance.
In their place, matzo and foods containing matzo are eaten. This is to commemorate the Israelites who fled quickly into the desert with no time for their bread to rise and were forced to bake the dough into hard crackers in the desert sun.
Johnson is an active member of Beth Israel, the Conservative synagogue on York Street in Bangor. In addition to helping to rid the shul’s kitchen of hametz, she and others prepared baked goods made without leavening for congregants.
Instead of flour and baking powder, recipes for cranberry-orange sponge cakes and blueberry muffins used potato starch and cake meal as substitutes. The recipe also called for the eggs to be separated and the egg whites beaten until stiff.
“The egg whites will cause the sponge cake to rise,” Johnson explained, “but the cake must go into the oven very quickly before the leavening process can begin. Otherwise, the batter should be thrown out.”
Passover is about much more than cleaning and cooking, according to Rabbi Steven Schwarzman, spiritual leader of Beth Israel.
“Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt a few thousand years ago, yet it is replete with timeless lessons that apply in our own times,” he said in an e-mail. “At the Passover seder, we invite all who are hungry to come in and eat. We invite all who are in need — and this includes spiritual need — to join with us.
“We recognize the many bounties we have been blessed with,” he continued, “yet we also recognize that real slavery still exists in the world, and that all of us are in need of liberation from the bonds that we place upon ourselves that needlessly keep us from reaching our potential.
“The central question of the Haggadah, the ancient text we use in the seder meal, is, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ It’s a call to all of us to recognize what we need to do, with God’s help, to begin making ourselves and all people truly free.”
The Haggadah is a compilation of biblical passages, prayers, hymns and rabbinical literature. The book is one of the most common religious texts in Jewish households. Literally translated, Haggadah means “narration,” and the text reads like a script with Seder participants reading different parts.
It also will be at community Seders to be held Tuesday night at Beth Israel and synagogues around the globe. Beth El, Bangor’s Reform synagogue, will hold a second night Seder on Tuesday at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer.