Coming out Jewish on Passover

And the best matzo brei recipe ever…

In 1967 I came out Jewish with matzo brei. I was twelve when I first tasted the delicacy. Why so late, you may well ask. There’s a reason.

I grew up in Mexico City, and although I always knew at some level that we were Jewish, we just didn’t talk about it. In fact, we never mentioned religion at all. We could talk about sex, politics were on the table every night, books, music, all were fair game, but we danced around the “religion” topic at home and outside. I attended Catholic church with my friends and was never the least bit uncomfortable doing so. I crossed myself, learned all the prayers, and happily went along for the ride. I never thought I was really Catholic. I was just, well, there. Children are pretty flexible that way.

When I was eleven we moved back to the United States permanently. That was 49 years ago, and World War II wasn’t the distant memory that it is now. The soldiers returning from battle and the survivors of the horrors of Nazi cruelties didn’t know the term PTSD, or that it could last for more than twenty years. The reverberations of my father’s wartime service in the US Army and my mother’s trauma as a Holocaust survivor, one of the few in her large extended family to live through it, suddenly became important. I was also a little older, and realized that the reasons we didn’t talk about “it” were pretty darned serious. The duality stopped being quite so easy.

The area we moved to was predominantly Catholic, and I continued to play along. Some of my classmates were Jewish and were teased, not kindly, for it. As a new kid, awkward, semi-foreign and younger than my class, I wasn’t about to join that club.

And so it was the first Spring that we were in the States, when I was 12, that I tried actual matzo for the first time. Perhaps I had eaten it before but I simply didn’t remember. If so, I had to have been very young, and a dry cracker doesn’t exactly stay with you in memory. My father said, “Don’t take this outside. Eat it here.” The scars were still fresh.

But one rainy morning he made breakfast for us, which in itself was a little unusual. In those days my father worked 14 hour days and never touched a pot or pan, but here was something he was going to do.

He took matzos and broke them into a bowl. He ran the hot water from the tap over them and left them to soak while he beat eggs in another bowl with a splash of water from the matzo bowl and a shake of salt. Once he decided the matzos were soft enough he poured off the water and squeezed them out, and added them to the egg mixture. He mushed them around until all the egg was absorbed. Then he melted butter in a pan and poured the egg-matzo mixture into the hot butter. He let it sit a bit, then broke it up with a spatula and turned it a few times until it was no longer “eggy.”

“Get plates.” We got out plates, and then a miracle happened: he took out the sugar bowl and a spoon and began to sprinkle our portions with prohibited amounts of sugar. What joy to three kids being brought up to eat “healthily” well before the health-food crazes!

To this day, that’s how I make matzo brei, though I don’t pour sugar on, I just sprinkle it. It’s the bread of freedom, maybe still a bit under cover, but freedom to be Jewish. With sugar.