Easter, Ishtar, Oestrus

There are so many intermingling stories about the origin of Easter. Yes, there’s the one about a humble, somewhat effeminate man who stood up for the disenfranchised and endured a terrible death, rising from the dead a couple of days later. Interestingly, this story is also accompanied by bunnies and decorated eggs and chocolate and ham. What’s the deal?

Ishtar (pronounced “Easter”), was goddess of romance, procreation, and war in ancient Babylon. Quite the job description! Ritual prostitution was even performed in her honour! Ishtar had a day named after her, commemorating the resurrection of her lover, the Babylonian god known as “Tammuz” , only begotten son of the moon-goddess and the sun-god. (Being the moon goddess, she was also his mother, but let’s not go there). After being killed by a wild boar, Tammuz went into the underworld. All growth ceased when Ishtar went underground to retrieve him, only to recur when she returned – hence, spring!

The Saxons adapted Ishtar to Oestre, Saxon goddess of the dawn. Sound familiar? The word for the female hormone estrogen derives from her name.

Oestre was a cleaned up version of the naughty, excessive Ishtar. She was, above all, a fertility goddess, responsible for the plants flowering and babies being born. The rabbit (known for its reproductive abilities!) was her sacred totem. Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny both featured in the spring festivals of Oestre, representing her gift of abundance.

The Christian religion cannily blended mother goddess and Jewish Passover rituals to create this kooky hybrid event we now call Easter.

This year, Easter spanned two cities for me, allowing me to collect airmiles and celebrate with both family and friends. My Ottawa-based cousin The Bank Guy and his wife The Other Librarian hosted a brunch with all of the Ukrainian Easter foods my sister and I been craving: potato salad, garlic sausage, paska (egg) bread. Their family matriarch recently died, so the meal was both festive and tinged with a light sadness. We sipped on Gewutzsraminer and discussed the return of high-waisted jeans, our various travels in the world, and how talking about airport scanners makes us worry about the state of our underwear. Ishtar would have been proud.

Then, very jetset-like, I flew back to Toronto, hopped a cab to The Curators’ house for a dinner party composed of academics and filmmakers, and a tasty roast chicken.

I brought Ukrainian poppyseed roll for dessert. Its familiar taste was grounding, making me feel like everything was connected, the pagan and the Christian, the different threads and families of my life, and the sweet, naughty and fertile pleasures of spring.

Was your Easter or Passover pagan or orthodox, spent with family or friends? What did you eat, or cook, and what mix of rituals and traditions helped you mark the season?

Ukrainian Potato Salad

3 medium potatoes
4 medium carrots.
1 cup frozen peas, cooked
4 boiled eggs, chopped
2 medium-large pickles
1/3 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
3/4 cup to 1 cup mayo (to taste)
Salt and Pepper (to taste)

In the same pot, boil whole unpeeled potatoes and carrots for about 30 minutes, or until knife pierces them smoothly. Don’t let them get too soft.
In a separate pot put eggs in salted cold water. Bring to a boil, turn it off and leave it on the same burner with the lid on for 15 minutes. Cool them down in cold water.
Remove the vegetables and eggs from boiling water and allow them to cool to room temperature prior to chopping.
Skin the boiled potatoes and carrots with a small knife.
Chop the potatoes, carrots, pickles and eggs into equal size dice (pea size)
Mix together potatoes, carrots, pickles, eggs, green onion, dill and mayo. Add more mayo, Salt and pepper to taste.
Fold in the peas last so they aren’t crushed.


  1. Our Passover Seder was late. but glorious. There were fourteen of us at the table on Saturday. I consider many of the people there to be my family even though technically, I’m not related to any of them by blood and to one by a marriage that’s not recognized in this country.

    We started with the ceremonial food, matzoh with horseradish and charoset, then moved on to the ceremonial boiled egg, saying, as always, “This egg is to remind us of the egg we ate last year.”

    Then we had fabulous gluten free soup with knaidlach that were not matzoh balls because they had almond flour and potato starch instead of matzoh meal. This was followed by a delectable salad plate of organic lettuce, slices of bright peppers and avocados and a perfect slice of starfruit, all brought to us by friends from California who drove seventeen continuous hours to be here for the seder. When everyone had a salad plate in front of them we passed around a platter of gefilte fish that I’d made two days before. As always, anyone who was accustomed to only that nasty stuff in the jars said either “This is the best gefilte fish I’ve ever had” or something along the lines of “I thought I didn’t like gefilte fish but this is delicious.”

    The main dinner was slow-roasted lamb that had been marinated in olive oil spiced with garlic, cumin and a little fennel, apple-matzoh kugel, yam tzimmes and spinach/walnut cakes.

    We finished the meal with slices of melt-in-your-mouth pavlova that had been slathered in whipped cream and garnished with raspberries.

    We used a hybrid of the New Union Hagaddah and The Velveteen Rabbi Hagaddah (which I highly recommend.) We sang a lot and laughed even more. It was heart-warming and soul-warming.

    The only thing that could have been improved upon was the horseradish. Until I moved to New Mexico I grew my own. The seder plate always had a piece of root with leaves attached, and I ground up more of the root to be the ceremonial condiment, making three grades of hotness by adding beets in various quantities to two of them. I’m still investigating if I can grow my own horseradish in New Mexico.

  2. Silva,

    Thank you for that thorough and thoroughly delicious account! I am now quite curious about Velveteen Rabbi Haggadah!

  3. Ukrainian potato salad is similar to Estonian potato salad, except instead of peas Estonians put beets and the whole thing turns out pink. I think I’ll try it with peas next time.

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