Growing up in a non-Jewish neighborhood in Chicago in the 1950s, I had no friends with whom to compare seder rituals. The fact is, I was the only kid to bring what ended up being matzah crumbs in my lunch bag. Oddly enough though, the differences helped make Passover my favorite holiday.
What other events compared to my father’s melodically memorized seder, the dramatic retelling of the Exodus, our imbibing in silver thimbles of wine, dipping and passing, and even welcoming no less than an invisible guest. And I, the youngest of four children relished my featured role long past childhood and rehearsed the Four Questions for days. I only gave up reluctantly when my nieces and nephews proved themselves more than able of taking over.
Each spring I anticipated the yontif foods that sprang forth from my mother’s kitchen. During Pesach, my mother turned out delicacies that took the sting off the matzah messes I shlepped to school.
On Pesach mornings I awoke without my usual sloth, for I knew a bubeleh waited in the kitchen. Those days began with my mother’s brobdingnagian matzah meal pancake, the size and thickness of her black iron skillet, generously sprinkled with sugar and cut into squares. My mother’s bubeleh did much to erase Hostess cupcakes from my mind.
Pesach was also the occasion for my mother’s rum-soaked sponge cake. Between seder wine and nibbles of rum cake I feared getting shikker (drunk) or having my growth stunted, as my siblings warned. Yet neither fear stopped me.
Our seder meal included chunky charoset (far too sweet to remind me of slavery or mortar), hard-boiled eggs sliced in saltwater (the egg soup I waited for all year), sweet gefilte fish, golden chicken soup with matzah balls, long-baked brisket and potatoes and carrot tsimmes. This was my mother’s hearty Eastern European feast.
When I was 16 I found myself faced with another tradition. My friend Deborah Bach, whose family was American-born, had invited me for the second seder. The minute I walked in the door, I was surprised. The cooking smells were different, her father davened in an unfamiliar sing-song and her mother joined us at the table, unlike my mother who continuously bustled about.
That seder was a watershed experience. The Bachs were very traditional so I couldn’t figure out what was wrong here. Real charoset consisted of apples, walnuts, cinnamon and wine, like my mother made every year. But Mrs. Bach’s was different. It had raisins. Was it possible that Mrs. Bach didn’t know how to make it right? Then again, this new stuff tasted OK.
I suddenly understood Dorothy’s travails in Oz. I was no longer in Warsaw , that was clear, and the journey was on. Not only did that evening broaden my horizons, but it also helped me develop an appreciation for my own family’s traditions.
When I eventually became a baleboosta and a mother, my son and daughter helped make charoset from toddlerhood on and dubbed their favorite item on the seder plate “the chop, chop, chop.” Each year they chopped more and more and my dear late mother’s recipe grew until we had charoset for the week. It grew more intoxicating by the day and no one ever complained.
In the last year of his life, I asked my 89-year-old father how he recalled charoset during his childhood in Piaseczno, Poland, on the outskirts of Warsaw.
“Chroyses,” he said, in his Ashkenazi Yiddish. “Chroyses is like Jews all over the world; every country has something different.” As a boy he remembered watching his mother, my namesake grandmother Sarah, whom I never knew, mixing together whatever she could get her hands on, an apple, a few nuts, a drop of wine.
We are blessed to have everything that we need for our seder table.
That long-ago seder at the Bach’s helped me realize that Jews came in all sorts, not only Polish, like my family. Rather our people have lived throughout the globe, and each region has contributed spices and ingredients to the assemblage of Jewish cuisine. Well-known food writer Joan Nathan once catalogued more than 70 variations of charoset and commented that new ones are created each year.
A guten yontif and “next year in Jerusalem.”