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Behind door No. 1: family, faith and Passover

Television personality and patriarch Monty Hall loves to tell the story of a celebration rich with the holiday's cherished meanings.

Published March 31, 2004

LOS ANGELES - Monty Hall spent 27 years making outrageous deals with eager contestants on the TV game show, Let's Make A Deal. But the sweetest deal he ever made with his mishpocheh (family and close friends) was for a plate of pickled herring if they'd join him for Passover Seder.

Such a deal!

Which of Monty and Marilyn Hall's three children - actor Joanna Gleason, filmmaker Richard Hall, director/writer Sharon Hall Kessler - wouldn't want to gather around Dad's large stone dining table to eat and retell the story of the Jewish people's journey from slavery to freedom? Even the real dealmakers of the family - the Halls' five grandchildren - offer their two cents.

The youngest child will ask the Four Questions and Hall will set out his silver cup filled with Manischewitz wine for Elijah. Everyone will get a taste of the ceremonial foods: bitter herbs to incite the sorrow of slavery, matzo to awaken memories of deprivation and honeyed charoset representing the sweetness of freedom. Passover begins at sundown Monday.

As Hall greets visitors in his home, where his Order of Canada medallion, the highest award the government bestows, shares space with three honorary doctorates, Israeli artist Reuven Rubin's suite of lithographs entitled The Prophets and plaques honoring charitable works. Hall points out the prize he's most proud of, his "Grandfather of the Year" award.

Hall focuses on the antique goblet, the cup for Elijah. The words engraved on the side, "Borei P'ree HaGafen" means "blessed be the fruit of the vine."

"Marilyn and I found it at a flea market in Jaffa, Israel," Hall says. "One Passover we opened the door to put it out for Elijah; the dog walked in."

(As part of the Passover Seder, Jews drink four glasses of wine. A fifth is set out on the table for the prophet Elijah, and at a designated point in the service, the door is opened to let Elijah come in and drink.) Which flavor of the sugary sweet wine is his favorite? He grins. "After the third cup, who cares?"

"Passover is a time to ask questions," he says. "We stop halfway through the service, discuss a topic of interest; everyone joins in. Sometimes it gets heated - about politics, about Israel. The only subject two Jews agree on is what the third person should give to charity," he says with a laugh.

"We stop at different sections in the service; we eat gefilte fish, sweet-and-sour herring; we read some more; we stop, we eat chicken soup, matzo balls; we sing.

"The happening goes on for four hours. Our Seders are wonderful. I'm big daddy. I am what my grandfather was. It keeps the continuity going."

Every year, the Halls host the family Seder. Besides family and close friends, they invite others who don't have any place to go.

"My family has always been close. All my kids are in the business. I didn't get one dentist," he says. "To say nothing of Marilyn (an award-winning producer of A Woman Named Golda and Do You Remember Love?).

She also compiled The Celebrity Kosher Cookbook: A Sentimental Journey with Food, Mothers and Memories, with Rabbi Jerome Cutler. The recipes, anecdotes and jokes were from Jewish entertainers. Published in 1975, the book raised funds for the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles and other Jewish charities.

Passover memories are precious to Hall, especially now that he's the family patriarch. A special Passover when he was 6 and his beloved grandfather, David Rusen, was the patriarch, never stray far from his heart.

Monty Hall was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in his grandparents' house. He grew up with generations of family - aunts, uncles, cousins and two sets of great grandparents.

"It wasn't a big house, and we used every conceivable square inch - four people in one bedroom, three in another," he says. "My mother's three young brothers - my uncles - and I slept in the same room. With all those people, we had only one bathroom. That's where you learn patience. I also learned to wait in line."

On this particular Pesach (Passover) the family was in the middle of the service when the phone rang. It was the station master from the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

"I have this family - they gave me a piece of paper with your number. What do I do with them?" he asked.

"Put them in a taxi," Hall's grandfather said.

The family were cousins who had set foot on the shores of Canada from Ukraine on the first night of Passover, Hall says.

"Grandma ordered us all to stop eating. "We have six more mouths to feed,' " she told us.

"Because the cousins spoke no English and we spoke no Ukrainian, we communicated in Yiddish," Hall says. "There were four children, Aaron, Kieva, Miriam and Numa. As soon as they introduced Numa, my uncles and I started laughing hysterically and poor little Numa started to cry. How could Numa know that his name was the lion in our favorite comic strip, Tarzan?

Fifty years later, speaking in Canada at a Hadassah fundraiser, Hall was retelling the story of how a poor Russian family walked into his grandfather's Seder and changed the way he looked at the world.

"After I finished speaking, people began gathering around me," Hall says. "One very pretty woman whispered, "That story sounds familiar. My name is Miriam Margulies. Could we be related?' "

Yes, he said, you must have been part of the family that crashed our Passover Seder.

That Seder was one of the defining moments of Hall's life, he says, where he learned about charity, philanthropy and the line from Fiddler on the Roof - "We all know who we are and what God expects of us."

"That was my grandfather's creed and mine," Hall says. "My grandfather was like Tevye the Milkman. I guess in my own way, I am, too."

Beverly Levitt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

Monty Hall's Sweet and Sour Herring

4 fresh Matjes or salt herrings, filleted

1 large white onion, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cups white wine or apple cider vinegar

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon pickling spices OR 3 cloves

8 black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

8 juniper berries

1 tablespoon mace leaves

A piece of cheesecloth

Soak herrings for one hour in cold water or milk; drain on a few layers of paper towels. Cut into bite-size pieces. Place pickling spices or individual spices in a piece of cheesecloth, making sure to secure the ends to make a sack. Place in pan with vinegar, sugar and water taste and boil for 5 minutes. Let it cool. In a wide-mouth glass jar, place a layer of herring, a layer of onions; alternate until you have reached the top. Pour the cooled liquid over the herring. Refrigerate for 2 days before eating. It will stay fresh in the refrigerator for 2 weeks.

Serves six to eight.

Source: Monty Hall

Baba Ghanouj

(Eggplant with Tahini)

1 large eggplant

1 medium onion, grated on largest holes of a grater

1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped

1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 teaspoons water

1 teaspoon salt

Dash cayenne pepper

Place the whole unpeeled eggplant directly on gas burner with the flame set at medium, turning it as the skin chars and the inside becomes soft, or bake in a pan in a 450-degree oven until it is charred and tender, about 30 minutes. When done, let cool slightly, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the eggplant pulp with a wooden spoon (the wooden spoon preserves the flavor). Chop fine in a ceramic or wooden bowl. Squeeze out juice from the onion; add the grated onion to the eggplant, along with the parsley.

Blend tahini thoroughly with lemon juice and garlic, stir in small amount of water until mixture is white. Stir into eggplant mixture; add salt and a dash of cayenne pepper. More lemon juice may be added for extra flavor. Garnish with parsley.

Makes 21/2 to 3 cups.

Source: "The Flavor of Jerusalem" by Joan Nathan and Judy Stacey Goldman (Little, Brown and Company, 1975).

Essig Fleish with Prunes and Apricots

(Pot Roast with Fruit Ragout)

1 cup pitted prunes

1 cup dried apricots

2 cups water or as needed

3- to 4-pound chuck roast or brisket, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 teaspoons kosher salt or to taste

Black pepper to taste

3 cloves garlic, peeled and put through garlic press, separated

3 large onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil, margarine or rendered fat from meat

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste

1/2 cup lemon juice or 1/4 cup red wine vinegar

6 ginger snaps, crushed

Place prunes and apricots in bowl. Cover with cold water; set aside. Season meat with salt, pepper and crushed garlic. In a large frying pan, saute onions in olive oil, margarine or rendered fat over medium high heat until golden brown. Add meat; toss with onions and brown meat on all sides. Add apricots and prunes along with their soaking water, cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to boil; reduce heat to simmer. Cover and continue to cook until meat is almost tender, about 2 hours. Combine lemon juice or vinegar and ginger snaps. Add to meat and continue simmering another half hour or until meat is fork tender.

Serves six to eight.

Source: Adapted from "Celebrity Kosher Cookbook" by Marilyn Hall and Rabbi Jerome Cutler.

Chicken in Dill Sauce

3 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 frying chicken, cut into pieces

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons margarine or olive oil

4 scallions, white and green parts, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh dill or 11/2 teaspoons dried dill

1/2 cup sherry

1/2 pint kosher sour cream substitute

To blanch tomatoes: Place tomatoes in boiling water for 2 minutes; plunge into cold water. Skin will peel off easily. Chop tomatoes into chunks. To make chicken: Preheat oven to 325. Wipe chicken parts with damp paper towels. Season with salt and pepper. In a large heavy pot or Dutch oven, brown chicken in margarine or oil. Season with salt and pepper. During last 5 minutes of browning add scallions. Cook until greens wilt and white stems turn golden. Add tomatoes, dill and sherry. Cover and bake for 1 hour. Remove chicken to platter. Spoon sour cream substitute into pot. Stir with juices from chicken. Place pot over low flame and put chicken back into sauce. Simmer for 10 minutes. Do not let sauce boil or it will curdle.

Serves three to four.

Source: "Celebrity Kosher Cookbook" by Marilyn Hall and Rabbi Jerome Cutler.

[Last modified March 30, 2004, 11:21:49]

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