There’s an old joke about Jewish holidays, and what they signify. It goes like this: “They tried to kill us; they couldn’t; let’s eat.”
This is an admittedly simplistic statement, but it fittingly describes Passover, the solemn yet joyous holiday that takes place each spring.
Passover commemorates historical events, but like any of our favorite holidays, it’s the food that brings us together. More than mere tradition, the unusual assortment of foods on the oversized Passover plate, served at a dinner called a Seder, represent the struggles of Jews to win their freedom from enslavement more than 3,000 years ago.
A mixture of apples, nuts and wine – called haroset – reminds us of the mortar the slaves used when they were forced to build temples to pagan gods. Bitter herbs symbolize the hardships the slaves endured. A tiny bowl contains salt water, for their tears. A lamb shank-bone and a hard-cooked egg represent sacrifice.
But the Passover plate offers hope and optimism as well: Parsley or other greens signify the coming of spring and new life.
There is no bread served at this holiday dinner table, nor in the seven days that follow. The flat, cracker-like matzos remind us of the haste in which Jews fled their captors – into a desert Exodus – before the bread could rise. Along with the Passover meal, celebrants drink four cups of wine, as they pray and remember the sacrifices, tears, and triumphs of their ancestors.
Passover will be celebrated this year, as it has thousands of times before. At tables around the world, Jews will gather to remember their shared past. At modern-day dinners, you can find dishes as varied as the regions of the world where people observe the holiday. One cookbook gives a recipe for Moroccan chicken stewed with fruit and almonds; another offers a new American interpretation: chicken with sun-dried tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms. Even something as unique as the Passover haroset is interpreted differently from place to place. The apples we Americans chop and mix with wine, North African Jews replace with dates.
It may be naïve to think that the act of eating ceremonial foods could move us forward in our larger human struggle, but it somehow seems appropriate if the words of Rabbi Alfred Kolatch’s opening prayer take on a new or deeper meaning: “May the problem of all who are downtrodden be our problem; may the concern of all who are afflicted be our concern; may the struggle of all who strive for liberty and equality be our struggle.”
Whether we remember it with food, with prayer, with our actions in daily life or a combination of all three, the message couldn’t be clearer. As Rabbi Kolatch says, “Truth, justice and loving-kindness are the enemies of slavery, tyranny and oppression. This is the power of Passover; this is the lesson of history; this is the story of freedom.”
May you and yours enjoy a season of blessings and renewed hope.
Passover Haroset, American Style
- 3 or 4 large apples, peeled if desired
- 2 tablespoons sugar or honey
- 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon or more to taste
- 3 to 4 tablespoons sweet wine
- 1/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Cut the apples into large chunks and discard cores. Place all ingredients into a food processor and pulse until mixture is well-blended, Do not puree.
Variations: add dried cranberries, candied ginger or other spices to taste.
Makes about 3 cups