As one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays begins at sunset on Wednesday, many families are making spiritual and culinary preparations. As our family will be guests at a potluck Passover meal, or Seder, I volunteered to make a tzimmes.
Tzimmes, a Yiddish word, is a casserole of sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots, prunes, orange zest, spices and a touch of honey. Once baked, it’s a colorful complement to nearly any main course and often part of a traditional Jewish holiday meal.
My decision could be a mistake. I’m not a good cook. My culinary failures include an apple cheddar bread that my husband Larry suggested “could sand the hull of a freighter.” My only batch of brownies from scratch seemed okay right out of the oven but at room temperature hardened into parquet floor tiles. Never mind the chicken soup my father described as boiled linen.
For several hours I scrolled through recipes for a tzimmes trying to achieve the best results with the smallest potential for a screw up.
My curiosity to learn about the word tzimmes far exceeded my desire to make one. Like every other word in Yiddish, tzimmes has multiple spellings and meanings. During the transliteration from Hebrew to the Roman alphabet, variations were and still are common. In the Jewish English Lexicon, it’s spelled with a Z. Leo Rosten, author of “The Joys of Yiddish,” and a well-known Yiddish lexicographer spells it tsimes or tsimmes.
The meanings of this word evoke both humor and sadness. According to Rosten, because making the dish is time-consuming and requires a lot of ingredients, “it came to mean a long procedure, an involved business, a mix-up.” Typically, one might say “Why are you making such a big tzimmes?” or more familiarly “What’s the big deal?”
But Rosten also defines tzimmes as “trouble, difficulties or a contretemps.” It is in this context that a more sobering interpretation can be applied both generally and specifically to the observance of Passover. The Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible describes a life of hardship for the Hebrews under the Pharoah. Eventual relief comes in Book 12 when God “passed over Jewish homes and liberated them to flee Egypt.” It is the miraculous flight from slavery that Passover commemorates in prayer, song and ritual.
As the holiday begins, it is troubling to note that the ACLU recently reported that acts of antisemitism have increased 36% in 2022, the highest level since 1979. But at seder tables next week, Jews will pray for all those who are seeking flight from oppression and persecution including people of all faiths and beliefs. On this holiday and always, Jews throughout the world are tasked with Tikkun olam, or “repairing or healing the world” through acts of charity and kindness and through social action.
That is what a “big tzimmes” is all about..
Wishing a joyful holiday to those observing Passover and Easter.