Sitting at the dining room table at my Hillel Rabbi’s house during my sophomore year of college, the sounds of late night singing could be heard loud and clear. We dipped parsley (carpas) in salt water, broke the middle piece of matza (yachatz) and asked the four questions. Then it was time for my favorite Seder plate piece: charoset. Not a fan of things like hard boiled eggs (beytzah) or bitter herbs such as horseradish (maror), I always waited for the moment I could eat one of the symbolically important Passover Seder foods. The Rabbi’s wife brought out a plate filled with some type of gooey looking truffles. I had never seen something like that at a Seder. I was confused. Where was the bowl of chopped apples, nuts and raisins?
It turned out that this was the Moroccan version of charoset, a Sephardic contribution to the Passover table using a date based recipe. The word ‘charoset’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘cheres’ which means clay. While charoset recipes vary based on the ingredients that were readily available in a local region where Jews settled, what is important is not the specific recipe but rather the symbolism which charoset represents: the mortar that the Jews used to build the Egyptian pharaohs’ buildings. The ingredients can differ as long as that same meaning is signified. In the United States the most common type of charoset is the Ashkenazi version, a recipe which involves apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey and wine. Italian charoset uses ingredients such as pine nuts, pears and almonds which portray the simultaneous sweet and savory flavors of Italian food. Chinese charoset highlights some of the common ingredients in Chinese cuisine such as soy sauce and honey. Charoset is not the only Passover tradition that varies from place to place. Below, check out some of the interesting traditions that Jews around the world have made their own:
In a small Polish town called Góra Kalwaria some Jews mark Passover by re-enacting the crossing of the Red Sea. They pour water on the floor, lift their coats and walk across naming the towns that they would cross in their region of Poland. They raise a glass at each "town" and then thank G-d for helping them reach their destination.
Some Ethiopian Jews destroy their dishes and cookware and make new ones to signify their hope for redemption and to mark a true break with the past. Ethiopian Jews often do not use Haggadot and instead, read about Exodus directly from the Bible.
Jews from Hungary decorate their Seder table with all of their gold and silver jewelry. The explanation offered for this custom is that the Israelites were given the precious metals by the Egyptians to hasten their exodus from the land. Three passages in Exodus say that the Israelites received gold and silver from the Egyptians.
Jews living in Afghanistan developed the tradition of using scallions or leeks to stand for the Egyptian slave drivers’ whips, using them to lightly "whip" each other’s backs.
Spain, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia
In a custom that began in Spain in the fourteenth century, the Seder leader walks around the table three times with the Seder plate in hand, tapping it on the head of each guest. This is said to bless those whose heads are tapped. This is sometimes connected to the Talmudic custom of "uprooting" the Seder plate so that guests might ask questions about the Jews in Egypt.
In the tiny community that remains in Cochin, in the Indian state of Kerala, Passover preparation begins immediately after Hanukkah, about 100 days beforehand. After Purim, Cochin's Jews scrub their house of chametz and repaint their houses. Wells are drained and cleaned for fear of chametz and every grain of rice is inspected for defects that might let impure chametz in.
Much like Jews around the world have their own traditions for celebrating Passover, even in the United States families have developed their own unique Passover rituals. In my family, we have a special white tablecloth we use for the Passover Seders that is covered in sharpie traced handprints. Each year we invite our Seder guests to trace their hands onto the tablecloth and sign their names and dates inside the hands. In this way we have created a record of all the people who have ever been at our Seder and we feel their presence even when they are no longer with us. Even though everybody has their own ways of celebrating Passover, it is the very fact that we celebrate it that unites us as the Jewish people.
Charoset is a food of slavery and of the Jewish Diaspora. Jews all over the world share a goal to escape from modern day slavery—no matter how we show that goal in practice. We must not become slaves to the Coronavirus pandemic. We cannot let the new rules which we live by prevent us from observing a Jewish holiday in a way that is meaningful and special. Sure, there will be changes and difficulties to work through. I for one am not sure how we will trace our virtual guests’ hands onto our Passover tablecloth through a video call. But just like with the charoset recipe, for years Jews have adapted to their surroundings and came up with practices that reflected the atmosphere they lived in. Today is no different—we, Cleveland Jews, can do the same. This year we can be like our ancestors and come up with creative solutions. As we eat the charoset let it serve as a reminder that today we are free and at liberty to practice our Jewish traditions as we choose.