Let’s hear it for charoset!

Seder plate, photo by Edsel Little via Flickr Creative Commons

Seder plate, photo by Edsel Little via Flickr Creative Commons

Jews all over the world are getting ready for Passover, which starts this year on the evening of April 22.

As an aside, you may wonder why this holiday, which normally starts betwen late March and mid-April, is so late this year. It has to do with the peculiarities of the Jewish calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, with months of 28 or 29 days. This means that every year, the lunar calendar dates are approximately 11 days earlier than they were the year before on the coinciding Gregorian calendar.

Many Jewish festivals, including Passover, are tied to a particular time of year. It wouldn’t do to have Passover fall in February! So to keep the calendar kosher, so to speak, we periodically insert a “leap month” into it. This happens seven times in 19 years. You have to admire the people who figured this out!

This is a leap month. After the month of Adar in February-March, we had “Second Adar.” This pushes the next month, Nisan, back to where it belongs. The earliest date Passover can start is March 25. The latest is April 25.

As we’re cleaning our houses and shopping for Passover food,  we’re also planning our seders, the ceremonial meals that take place on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday.

The centerpiece of the seder table is the seder plate, which holds the ceremonial foods used in the meal: greens, bitter herbs, a roasted egg, a roasted shankbone, salt water and charoset.

European-style charoset, photo via Wikimedia.

European-style charoset, photo via Wikimedia.

What’s charoset?

What is charoset?

First of all it’s pronounced to rhyme with “Pa HOSE sit,” with a guttural “ch” to start.

It’s a paste made of fruit, nuts, spices and wine and is meant to symbolize the mortar that the ancient Hebrews used to hold together the bricks they made as slaves in Egypt. The word may come from the Hebrew “cheres,” meaning clay. The Passover festival celebrates the Hebrews’ freedom from hundreds of years of captivity in Egypt.

You eat charoset with the bitter herbs during the ceremonial part of the seder, and then as a relish for the festive meal that follows.

There are just about as many versions of charoset as there are countries where Jews have lived.

In America, the most common type of charoset uses chopped or grated apples, chopped nuts, sweet wine and maybe a little cinnamon, because those were the ingredients available to our ancestors in Central and Eastern Europe.

Many, many varieties

Jews in other countries used dates and other dried fruits and honey. Some incorporated oranges and bananas. The only constants seem to be some sort of fruit and some sort of nuts. The mixture should be sweet.

For years I made the standard apples-and-nuts mixture.

Then I got a copy of Gloria Kaufer Greene’s fabulous Jewish Holiday Cookbook – not to be confused with Joan Nathan’s equally fabulous Jewish Holiday Kitchen.  Greene offers recipes for Moroccan-Style Charoset, Israeli-Style Charoset, Turkish-Style Charoset, Sephardic-Style Date Charoset, and Yemenite-Style Charoset. I also have in my recipe stash charoset recipes from Persia, Venice and Surinam.

I like the traditional apple-and-nut charoset, but it’s a little boring. And what do you do with the leftovers? It’s not easy to spread on matzoh because the apples make it runny, and it doesn’t keep more than a few days in the fridge.

So I tried this recipe for Moroccan-Style Charoset, which you can serve in a bowl as a paste or make into little balls. It keeps for weeks in the fridge, which is good because the recipe makes a large amount (you may want to halve it if you’re not serving a horde). My kids loved it; they thought it was candy!

Give this a try, even if you’re not Jewish and getting ready for a seder. It’s a nice dessert, lunchox snack or party item.

 

Lessons from the Garden for Passover

The matzoh eaten at the Passover seder is known as "the bread of affliction."

The matzoh eaten at the Passover seder is known as “the bread of affliction.”

Today’s piece is written by Rebecca Starr. Past assistant director of the Detroit Jewish Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education, she currently serves as an independent educational consultant and an instructor for Melton, an adult Jewish education program. This article originally appeared in myJewishDetroit, the online community journal of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. 

Rebecca Starr, photo by John Hardwick

Rebecca Starr, photo by John Hardwick

I was raised on a sheep farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in a small town called Pickford.

This isn’t a phrase you hear very often, especially from a Jewish girl, but nevertheless, it is the life my parents chose for me for the first 18 years of my life.

We lived off of the land. Our farm produced everything we needed to fill our bodies with healthy, wholesome foods and we were deeply connected to the land on which we lived. Our garden produced more vegetables than our freezer could hold and we ate the lamb that we raised.

My connection to food and where it comes from is rooted in my rich past and I am regularly reminded of it as the Passover season approaches.

As we break bread . . . for matzoh

Matzoh (unleavened bread) is the bread of affliction, the lechem oni, or the bread of poverty. The Jewish custom of eating matzoh for seven or eight days (depending on your custom) during the holiday of Passover reminds us that we were once slaves in Egypt. It reminds us that we did not have the resources to diversify or even complete our meals in bondage.

Passover recalls the Israelites' freedom from slavery in Egypt.

Passover recalls the Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt.

The act of eating matzoh takes us back to a place and time when food and freedom were scarce. It is truly amazing that such a simple food can bring such a strong and important message about the journey of the Jewish people. In truth, it also offers a very modern message to us as living in the 21st century.

Bondage takes many forms

Bondage and slavery can present themselves in many forms. The Israelites were literally slaves to the work of Pharaoh, but chains need not be present for us to feel as though we are victims of certain types of injustices today. When we consider the ways in which we access food on a daily basis, we realize quickly that sustainable, healthy, local, fair trade food is extremely difficult to find and even more difficult to find in less affluent areas.

In many ways, we are slaves to a food system that is not just and may even use unfair, illegal or unethical practices to create a product for our grocery store shelves with the single goal of turning a large profit.

The way in which we access food in today’s world looks a lot different than it did even 50 years ago. Local family farms exist, but in smaller numbers; animals are raised in unimaginable conditions that don’t resemble traditional farm habitats at all; agricultural workers are treated and paid unfairly; and food is processed so far from its natural form that it doesn’t resemble real food any longer.

We worry about pesticides and chemicals on a daily basis and we waste unbelievable amounts of food, fuels and resources on production. These are the things that keep me awake at night as I worry about which foods to offer my children and in what state we are leaving the planet for them.

There is no doubt that this message is concerning, and I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I am hopeful that we can work together to bring about real change. The Passover season is the perfect time to make a commitment to learn more about food justice and sustainability.

Today’s recipe is a vegetable kugel that can be used on Passover because it contains no grain that hasn’t already been baked into matzoh (in this case, in the form of matzoh meal). There are many types of kugel, which simply means pudding. It’s a side dish that is baked and cut into squares for serving.