On the first night of Passover, more than 200 families in the Bay Area will share some ancient seder traditions and foods that would be unfamiliar to Jews raised with the four questions and sweet haroset.
That’s because the Bay Area is home to the largest enclave of Karaite Jews in the United States. A sect with roots that go back to the eighth century, Karaite Judaism derives its practices strictly from what is in the written Torah and not from the Talmud or other rabbinic traditions.
“We don’t have a seder plate and many things are not acceptable. There is no vinegar, baking powder or cheese” during Passover, says Rémy Pessah of Mountain View. Only foods and practices that are mentioned in the Torah are allowed, she says. Anything fermented or that could ferment is forbidden throughout the holiday.
Pessah, a textile artist who often lectures about the Karaites, is a talented cook, freely sharing her expertise and recipes for Egyptian Karaite specialties. She recently taught a class at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto that was co-sponsored by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa). She and her husband, Joe, helped found the Karaite Congregation B’nai Israel in Daly City.
Karaites celebrate Passover for seven days. They recount the story of the Exodus on the first night, using haggadahs with details taken from the Torah. Many Karaites in the United States feel a close personal connection to the story because, like Pessah’s family, they lived in Egypt for centuries, and were forced to emigrate because of deteriorating conditions and persecution (including imprisonment) after the wars with Israel. Other groups of Karaites still live in the former Soviet Union and Israel. Worldwide estimates of their population range from 25,000 to 50,000, with approximately 2,000 living in the Bay Area.
Karaites’ Passover tables, traditionally dressed in new, white tablecloths, feature some specific ceremonial foods.
Pessah’s Pesach table will have two types of matzah — a commercially made version and a homemade version made with matzah cake meal to eat with the maror. The homemade matzah contains coriander seeds. Similar to Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, Karaites eat seeds such as coriander and cumin, which Ashkenazi rabbinic tradition forbids during Passover. Pessah makes sure the dough is mixed and in the oven in under 10 minutes to avoid any remote chance of fermentation or rising.
The maror, or bitter herbs, served with this special matzah is a chopped salad of greens and herbs including romaine lettuce, chicory and endive. (The Bitter Herbs Salad recipe below was inspired by Pessah’s maror recipe and influenced by Middle Eastern fattoush or bread salads.) There is no haroset, but whole or chopped nuts are served. below was inspired by Pessah’s maror recipe and influenced by Middle Eastern fattoush, or bread salads.) There is no haroset, but whole or chopped nuts are served.
A Karaite seder meal always features lamb that is roasted, barbecued or grilled, according to Pessah. This is an important part of the Karaite tradition. Ashkenazi custom is to avoid lamb and roasted meats at the seder meal. Sephardic and Mizrachi custom includes eating lamb as part of the meal.
“The Torah says [they were to] have lamb when they left Egypt and that the leftovers were to be burnt and not taken,” Pessah said. “Growing up, my mother made sure we had just enough so as not to waste.”
The seder meal also often features greens and rice but only fresh beans such as fava. “We don’t eat anything that has been dried and needs to soak since it will expand,” Pessah explained.
Dessert might be almond brittle, almond cookies and other pastries.
Below are several of Pessah’s recipes along with my interpretations of some of the Karaite specialties.
Bitter Herbs Salad or Karaite-Style Maror
11⁄2 cups fennel bulbs, cut into 1-inch cubes
1⁄4 cup finely chopped fennel fronds (feathery leaves attached to stalks)
2 cups Belgium endive, torn into 1-inch pieces
4 cups romaine lettuce, torn into 1-inch pieces
4 cups red leaf lettuce, torn into 1-inch pieces
2 cups frisée or other curly chicory, torn into 1-inch pieces
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1 cup finely chopped fresh dill
2 small lemons
2 Tbs. finely minced lemon zest
1 tsp. minced garlic
1⁄8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1⁄4 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. salt
1⁄2 cup fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 cup olive oil
2 Tbs. water
6 sheets matzah, broken into 1-inch shards
For Bitter Herbs Salad:
In a very large bowl, combine fennel bulbs, fennel fronds, endive, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, frisée, parsley and dill. Toss well. Cut away the peel and white pith from lemons and chop remaining flesh into
1⁄4-inch pieces. Combine chopped lemon pieces in a jar or other container with lemon zest, garlic, cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt, lemon juice, oil and water.
Just before serving, mix or shake the dressing until combined, pour over salad. Toss salad. Add matzah pieces and toss again. Serve immediately.
For Remy Pessah’s Karaite-style maror: Finely chop the vegetables and herbs and combine with 2 Tbs. lemon juice, 1 tsp. salt and 2 diced pickled lemons. If pickled lemons are not available, use 1⁄4 tsp. additional salt, 1⁄8 tsp. cayenne pepper and
2 Tbs. finely minced lemon zest and finely diced flesh of 2 small, peeled lemons.
Rémy Pessah’s Homemade Matzah
Makes 40 to 45 crackers
3 cups matzah cake meal
3⁄4 cup olive oil
11⁄2 cups water
1 Tbs. coriander seeds (optional)
1 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine cake meal, oil, water, coriander seeds (if using) and salt in large bowl. Stir with spoon until all liquid has been incorporated and a crumbly dough has formed.
Oil hands and mix until dough combines. Knead for a minute or two until dough is smooth. Divide into two equal parts. Form into two disks. Take one disk and flatten out evenly with fingers on an ungreased baking sheet until dough is about 1/8-inch thick. Repeat on a second ungreased baking sheet with the remaining dough. Cut dough into 2×2-inch squares. Bake 20 to 25 minutes until the edges of the dough are slightly brown and the matzah is cooked all the way through. Let cool, and store in an airtight container.
(Notes: Pessah’s matzah recipe includes coriander seeds, which Ashkenazi Jews avoid during Passover. If it is not your custom to eat the seeds during Pesach, just omit them, the crackers will still be very tasty and make a good accompaniment for foods throughout the holiday. Pessah specifies that the dough should be prepared and put in the oven within 10 minutes of combining the dry and wet ingredients.)
3-4 lbs. boneless butterflied leg of lamb
1⁄2 cup fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 cup olive oil
1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1⁄2 tsp. salt
1⁄2 tsp. ground black pepper
1⁄2 cup finely chopped mint
3 tsp. minced garlic
Trim excess fat off lamb. Combine lemon juice, oil, cinnamon, salt, pepper, mint and garlic, and mix well. Open the leg so it lies flat. Rub mixture all over lamb. Let marinate for 1 hour at room temperature or for several hours in the refrigerator, bringing back to room temperature before grilling.
Oil grill rack. Prepare charcoal or preheat gas grill to medium-high heat. Grill over medium to medium-high heat, adjusting for flareups and turning frequently for 25 to 35 minutes until an instant-read thermometer indicates desired doneness — 120 degrees for rare, 130 degrees for medium-rare, 140 degrees for medium, 155 degrees for medium-well. (Thinner sections of the butterflied leg will be more well done than the thicker portion). Meat will continue cooking after removed from grill. Let rest, loosely covered with aluminum foil 10-15 minutes before slicing and serving.
Rémy Pessah’s Almond Brittle
Makes about 2 cups
3⁄4 cup sugar
1 cup blanched, slivered almonds
oil as needed
Place parchment paper on baking sheet. Lightly oil. Melt sugar on low heat in a stainless-steel pot. Add almonds, stir well. Pour onto prepared baking sheet, spread into a single layer with the back of a large, oiled spoon. Let cool and break into sections.