For many, the beginning of spring means ham, dyed eggs, and baskets filled with green plastic grass and marshmallow bunnies.

But for a growing number of Bozeman residents, it's the season of matzo, macaroons, and plates dotted with horseradish, parsley, and chopped apples.

These foods are the traditional tastes of Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the biblical story of the Jews' exodus from slavery in Egypt.

The holiday, which begins tonight, is observed in the home over a ceremonial dinner known as a seder.

"My house is open, we always have (Passover) here and I am reputed to be the worst cook in the city," said Bozeman resident Connie Ostrovsky, who expects 22 people for her seder this year.

The Butte native said that Passover at her house bears little resemblance to the long seders she endured as a girl at her grandfather's table.

"You'd sit there and you'd wait for the food and you'd be so hungry," she recalled. "You'd have to pray and pray."

At Ostrovsky's seders, ceremony takes a back seat to community.

"We're not from the serious observers at all," said Ostrovsky, but her seders are "always with family and friends that are like our family."

"It's a love fest," she said.

For Bozeman's more traditional Jews, Passover means a lot of work.

"It's the one time of year we consider converting," joked Robin Bequet-Sharber, who spends long hours before the holiday clearing her kitchen of the foods that Jewish law prohibits during Passover.

The most important of the prohibited foods is bread, which many Jews forego during Passover and which highly observant Jews remove from their houses along with all foods that contain flour or any leavening agent.

This tradition has its roots in the Old Testament, which says that in their hasty flight from slavery in Egypt the ancient Jews did not have time to wait for their bread to rise. Instead they quickly baked simple, flat crackers.

To honor this memory, during Passover modern Jews eat plain wheat crackers, called matzo, instead of bread.

Other Passover dishes serve as reminders of the slavery that is supposed to have preceded the exodus. A bitter herb, usually horseradish, is eaten to invoke the bitterness of servitude. Parsley is dunked in saltwater in memory of the tears of slaves. And a mix of raisins, nuts and grated apples, known as charoset, recalls the mortar supposedly used by the slaves on construction projects for the Pharaoh.

In addition to ceremonial foods such as these, there is a less formal canon of leavening-free foods often served for Passover dinner - foods such as matzo ball soup, beef brisket, poached fish, and macaroons.

Despite all the effort that goes into clearing the kitchen and preparing the seder, Bequet-Sharber, like many American Jews, feels deeply attached to Passover.

"There's something magical about it," she said. "There's something that transcends the amount of work that goes into it."

Jacob Goldstein is at jgoldstein@dailychronicle.com