Every Passover, Joan Nathan’s Seder includes this classic haroset

Every Passover, Joan Nathan’s Seder includes this classic haroset


Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from “My Life in Recipes: Food, Family, and Memories” by Joan Nathan (Knopf, 2024).

My late husband, Allan, and I had our first Passover Seder in 1980. At the time, my oldest daughter was only 2 years old and my in-laws lived with us. Little did we know that Allan and I were embarking on a tradition that would last for the next 39 years of our lives together.

The Seder can last for hours, so over the years we have tried, like so many others, to include events to keep everyone’s attention, especially children’s.

Get the recipe: Apple and walnut charoset

What sets our Seder apart from others is the piece that our family has been performing for over 40 years. It’s always the same thing: God, the sheep, adult Moses, baby Moses, Miriam, Aaron and his brothers and sisters. The kids leave the table a little after the main course to rehearse and search our closet for costumes. Although previously only children performed, many of the “kids” are now in their 40s, and some guests, as old as 90, are also performing. It’s always the same, always hilarious and the crowning joy for us all.

I remember one year, at the end of the play, this crowd had become a community and there was silence. I felt that no one wanted the evening to end. It wasn’t just dinner. It was a sacred space and I loved it. Although many of our participants are now gone, I believe they will live on through the stories told and the strength we draw from the lives they lived – from Allan’s uncle, Henik, who celebrated life after being in Auschwitz, to Allan himself, who was the leader of our Seder and my partner in life for so many years.

Since the mid-1970s, I have written about Passover each year for various media outlets. Over the years, I would go to a second Seder because our family’s custom is to only host the first evening. As a result, I observed so many traditions that were new to me, like the Persian Jews, who beat themselves with green onions during the service, or the Iraqi Jews, who put on a play in which the children pretended to be poor people, with bags. on his back, holding matzoh wrapped in handkerchiefs. The leader asks where they came from and where they are going. They say they were slaves in Egypt and will find freedom in Jerusalem. I particularly love the wonderful Moroccan custom of holding the Seder plate above each guest’s head so that everyone relives the Exodus, with the feeling of personally moving from slavery to freedom.

Learning about these customs and the delicious foods that accompanied them, so different from my own, I wanted to share the knowledge I had acquired. I had the idea to make what became known as “Passover: Traditions of Freedom,” now an ongoing documentary, broadcast in 1998 by Maryland Public Television and across America for 12 years. To make the film, which I produced with Charles Pinsky, we and the team went to Israel and recreated a very early Seder, but not in Jerusalem. Instead, our Seder took place in a Bedouin village where, even today, when they slaughter a lamb or goat, they rub their tent pole with blood to ward off evil spirits.

The Bedouins also prepared bread for us, as visitors, with flour and water, without leaven. Why not? They explained – through Bedouin expert Clinton Bailey, our translator and the person who brought us to this village – that they wanted to give their guests nothing but pure food, and that the yeast was a contamination of civilization and cities. Therefore, they mixed flour and water, quickly rolled out what became a very thin round dough, and pressed it against the sides of a taboun oven (which looked like an upside-down wok) to cook it. It was delicious and similar in shape to what we call shmura matzoh.

Throughout my adult life, I have put several charoset dips on the table as appetizers, to be eaten symbolically with bitter herbs on matzoh, called a Hillel sandwich. Each dip is different, based on its geographic and historical journey to our table, and I try to tell its story as part of our Seder. It’s truly one of the most impressive aspects of the historic dinner, once held outdoors on a Jerusalem hillside, with predawn roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. , as stated in the book of Exodus. For me, haroset, although not mentioned in the Torah, explains more than any other food the wandering of the Jewish people in a diaspora that extends across the world.

I try to serve at least three, sometimes five varieties of haroset. The oldest is probably the Iraqi date syrup sometimes served with nuts, which represents Jews from all over the Middle East. Many years ago, I saw Bombay-born Mozelle Sofaer, who, as a volunteer for Gandhi, delivered messages to him in prison, and her husband, Rangoon-born David Meyer Sofaer, slowly cooking dates with a little anise in a large saucepan, then drain in cheesecloth all day, resulting in a smooth, thick, sweet silan or date molasses – the original honey from the “land of milk and honey” . You can now buy it already prepared. I love it all year round, especially with halvah and ice cream.

Of all haroset recipes, a paste made with apples, walnuts, sweet wine and cinnamon is a classic for most American Jews and the most beloved. As a child, I helped my mother chop apples and nuts in a wooden bowl with a chopper; now I put them in a food processor. When my kids were growing up, I would leave a few apples for them to cut with the chopper, to share that experience before food processing. My mother-in-law chopped them very finely. My family preferred the larger haroset, the way I still prepare it today. The only thing I do differently is toast the nuts and use local varietal apples.

Nathan is the author of 12 books, including “Jewish Cooking in America” and “King Solomon’s Table.” She lives in Washington, DC and Martha’s Vineyard.

Get the recipe: Apple and walnut charoset




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