Once you accept its a tradition, nothings fishy about gefilte fish

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In three and a half weeks, we will sit down at crowded seder tables to remember our Exodus from the land of Egypt. Strewn before us will be the symbolic foods, such as matzah, bitter herbs and charoset, which are essential to retelling the Passover story.

But there’s one dish served in families of Eastern European descent that the Haggadah fails to explain, and each year it leaves me wondering: What’s up with gefilte fish?

This fish of our affliction is unceremoniously scooped from its jelly-filled jar and plopped down on small plates for consumption. Reactions in my family range from those who poke at it to those who scarf it down or chase it with swigs of Manishewitz. But no one at our table has ever been able to tell me why we eat it — on this night, or any other night for that matter.

Around this time last year, I spent a couple of days grappling with all things gefilte. Strange, I know, but I was determined to figure it out.

It’s a concoction that’s puzzling enough for those in the know, but I began by seeing how “others” would react. I took a jar down to Fisherman’s Wharf.

“Have you ever heard of gefilte fish?” I asked a band of strangers. The strangers who encircled me shook their heads. They passed around the unopened jar, inspecting it with raised eyebrows. I went out on a limb and challenged them with, “How about we all take a bite?”

One brave soul stepped forward, asking if he could smell it first. He opened the jar, took a whiff — and it was over. “Oh, no, no, no! Man, what is that?”

I couldn’t really tell him, but we all had a good laugh. And I moved on, full jar in hand.

So what exactly is gefilte fish?

It’s ground, deboned freshwater fish — like carp, pike or whitefish — mixed with eggs, matzah meal and seasonings and formed into a ball. The name gefilte fish comes from the Yiddish term meaning “stuffed fish,” because originally the deboned mixture was stuffed back into a gutted fish before it was cooked.

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad in Berkeley explains that for centuries observant Jews have eaten it on the Sabbath, when work of any sort is forbidden, even the separation of bones from fish. To circumvent this problem, he says the sages enacted the custom of eating filleted or boneless fish, and therefore gefilte fish.

The rabbi calls fish a symbol of fertility, and, opening a book, reads a blessing Jacob gave to his sons:

“May the angel who delivered me from all evil bless the lads, and may my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, be called upon them. And may they increase abundantly like fish in the midst of the earth.”

But while gefilte fish may have been inspired by religion, for many it’s a matter of tradition.

As Tel Aviv Strictly Kosher Market in San Francisco bustled with people getting ready for last year’s holiday, Flo Kimmerling, cradling a huge can of Old Vienna gefilte fish, explained why she chose this brand. “Because it’s a little bit sweet and my family’s from Poland. Poles tended to like sweet gefilte fish. Russian Jews tended to like it, and still do, peppery.”

Other shoppers shared memories of grandfathers who spent afternoons preparing gefilte fish and mothers who passed down secret recipes.

Henry, 80, lost everybody in his family to Treblinka in 1942. He cried in the store’s back aisle as he remembered his “mama” cooking gefilte fish every Thursday night for Shabbat. Before I left the store, I asked him to help me select a new jar.

“It’s all good. … If you taste it, you get used to it, you like it.”

There are those who eat gefilte fish year round, but for families like mine, it’s strictly for Passover. Ferris calls it “soul food” and explains that there’s a deep-seated calling for Jews to return to their roots at this time of year.

Indeed, I can’t imagine a seder table without gefilte fish.

It may not be Haggadah-worthy or laden with family memories for me, but from now on I’ll appreciate what I’m biting into. And I’ll know how to answer next time someone screams, “Man, what is that?”

Jessica Ravitz is working on her master’s in journalism at U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at [email protected].