Like almost 90 percent of American Jews, we are Ashkenazic. This means that our families came from Eastern Europe – Russia, Ukraine, Poland or Lithuania. When we get ready to celebrate Passover, we think gefilte fish, brisket, roasted chicken and pesachdik kugel (or kigel), but that’s another story.
Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors came from Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean basin, North Africa and the Middle East, have unique traditions and tastes of their own. When Passover approaches, they might cook stuffed grape leaves (Greece), basmati rice with stewed fruits (Morocco), or chickpea dumplings (Iran).
On the Seder Plate
Haroset is the mixture of chopped fruits and nuts that symbolizes the mortar and bricks the Israelite slaves used to build the pyramids in Egypt. It has a place on honor on the seder plate, but we can’t call the Pope and ask him for the official recipe. There is none. Like much of Judaism, how you make haroset depends a great deal on where your family is from and how your bubbe made haroset. There are scores of different recipes, and they highlight the Ashkenazic-Sephardic culinary divide.
The Ashkenazic version usually includes chopped apples, sweet wine, cinnamon and nuts. Sephardic haroset uses fruits native to the lands where Sephardic Jews live – like figs, dates, pistachios, date syrup, raisins, cardamom and oranges.
Because Jews live all around the world, there are endless variations. Jews in Guatemala use macadamia nuts, which are native there but so expensive in the rest of the world. Haroset in Uganda includes bananas, another native fruit. Jews in Florida are likely to sprinkle some coconut into their mixture. We love the mash-up of traditions.
Telling the Story
It’s traditional for Jews everywhere to act out parts of the haggadah. When directed to “tell the story of how we were slaves in Egypt,” countless seder leaders look for ways to involve the guests and keep the kids interested.
We might pass out silly masks or finger puppets to represent the 10 plagues, sing songs about frogs hopping here and there, and parade around the dining room table as if it were the journey out of Egypt, but we’ve never hit our guests with vegetables like Sephardim often do.
That’s because their tradition calls for seder guests to hit each other with scallions while they sing Dayenu. This represents the part in the Passover story when Egyptian taskmasters whipped the Israelite slaves. The custom was featured in the seder scene in “The Women’s Balcony,” a 2016 Israeli film about a close-knit Sephardic community in Jerusalem. Anyone who has participated in this ritual will probably tell you that the kids got carried away and vegetables were flung. If you want to see the ritual in action, here’s a video of a family celebrating with scallions.
Irene Kaplan, who lives in Potomac, Maryland, and was past-president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, celebrates many Moroccan Pesach customs with her family. Their seder plate is brought to the table by the most eligible young lady in attendance; tradition says this will bring her good luck in the coming year.
One of Kaplan’s favorite customs is what she calls “bibehilu,” which occurs just after the afikoman is broken into two pieces. “In my house, the seder plate is covered with one of my most treasured possessions, my late great-grandmother’s hand-embroidered shawl,” explains Kaplan. “The covered plate is passed over the heads of everyone at the table three times while we chant, “Bibehilu yazanu mimizrayim ha lahma anya bnei horin” (“In fear, we left Egypt with the bread of affliction; we are now free”).
Kaplan said that the symbolism of passing the seder plate helps guests re-enact the journey out of Egypt. “The plate represents the biblical cloud that protected the Jews on their ancient journey,” she explained. “Each person carries and passes the plate as if to say that they personally left Egypt.”
Some cultures don’t even use a seder plate.
There’s a tradition among North African Jews to place the roasted egg, bitter herb and green vegetables on the table in a reed basket, reminiscent of the story of baby Moses, who was put into a basket and set adrift on the Nile River.
All Jews follow the tradition of hiding a piece of matzah – the afikoman – during the seder. Then, at the appointed time, the kids go hunting for it. In return, they are rewarded with a small toy or some money. In our house, we make sure to have a chocolate bars, stickers, yo-yos and hair barrettes for everyone under the age of 30 so that no one misses out on an afikoman prize.
We’ve read that hanging on to a piece of the afikoman can bring you good luck in the coming year. That’s why Sephardic Jews might keep a piece in their pocket or somewhere in their home to insure protection against the evil eye. We once found a piece of matzah hidden on the mantle 10 months after Passover. Of course it wasn’t bad housekeeping. We meant to keep it there (kine-ahora!).
Sephardic Jews have always been able to eat kitniyot (rice, beans, corn, peanuts, lentils and seeds) at Passover because these foods were staples of their Mediterranean diet. Ashkenazic Jews jumped on the bandwagon in 2015 when the Rabbinical Assembly declared kitniyot kosher for Passover. Now it’s okay for everyone to put peanut butter on their matzah (like we’ve been doing for years), serve rice pilaf with roast chicken, and snack on hummus and popcorn during Passover.
To all our readers, friends and family: A happy, healthy, sweet Passover! And to read more essays like this one, check out our new book, “The Whole Spiel: Funny essays about digital nudniks, seder selfies and chicken soup memories” on Amazon.
A Sephardic Haroset Recipe
Our families like the Ashkenazic version of haroset best – with chopped apples, nuts and sweet red wine, but the past few years we’ve also enjoyed making a Sephardic haroset with dates, pistachios and cardamom. We will not, however, practice the Sephardic ritual of dipping our fingers into that haroset and marking the doorway with a wine-soaked handprint so the Angel of Death will “pass over.”
Combine in a large bowl:
- 2 cups dates, chopped
- 1 teaspoon cardamom
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 cup dried apricots, chopped
- ½ cup golden raisins
- ½ cup sweet wine
- ½ cup roasted almonds, chopped
To the mixture, added enough additional wine so that all of the ingredients are covered. As it sits, the dried fruit will soak up the wine and soften. Add more liquid (water if you wish) if needed.