Tastes Like HomeLUCETTE LAGNADO
A Passover delicacy reminds me of my own exodus from Egypt.
The thick maroon-colored jam is central to the Seder, the holiday dinner, observed next Wednesday and Thursday, in which Jews re-enact the exodus from Egypt. Each item at the Seder table has a symbolic importance, reminding us of our ancestors' sacrifice and redemption. And so, for instance, matzoh, the dry crispy cracker, reminds us of the Jews who couldn't bake their bread properly because of the rush to escape. The bitter herbs help us to recall our years of servitude under the Egyptian taskmasters. The hard-boiled egg reminds us of the cycle of life, and we dip it in salty water and think of the tears we once shed.
Then there is haroseth, the most mysterious of all the Seder dishes and perhaps the most complex. The concoction is supposed to conjure the mortar and bricks that Hebrew slaves used in their labors and all the blood that they spilled while doing so.
I remember that my mother would make our family's haroseth from scratch — no jar of Streit's (or any other brand) in our Brooklyn kitchen of the 1960s — and in her hands it became a delicious treat, so tasty that it was hard to make the connection between the sweet substance and the suffering of an ancient generation. According to Rabbi Raphael Benchimol of the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation, the sweetness of the haroseth is not central to its symbolism. The key is rather in the ingredients: the apples because Jewish women would give birth in remote areas under apple trees to escape the notice of the Egyptians, the wine to symbolize the blood of Jewish male infants who were to be killed under Pharoah's decree, the dates because they are a symbol of the Jewish people.
My mother would devote hours to making our own Sephardic version: pitting mounds of fresh dates, chopping them up and putting them along with raisins in a big bowl of water to sit overnight. The next day she would take the contents and transfer them to a massive steel pot where, over a low flame, she would stir ever so slowly, occasionally tossing in a cup of wine or a spoonful of sugar, until a fragrant, intoxicating stew developed. I would shell almonds and walnuts and pound them into fine pieces to sprinkle over the concoction.
When my father came from synagogue, he went straightaway to the dining room table and began the service. At some point, he would chant, and we would clink special little silver spoons against our wine glasses. My favorite part of the night was when I could at last dip my spoon into the haroseth bowl and eat the fruits of my mother's labor.
Now that my parents have died, I find myself yearning for the texture and richness of my mother's dark red jam and for the musical sound one of those gleaming spoons would make as my father tapped it against his wine glass. I guess that is why I winced when I saw the Streit's jar. Instant haroseth, I thought. Is nothing sacred?
Passover has always taken on a literal cast for me. I was born in Cairo, and my family had to leave when I was 6 years old, as part of a massive, modern-day Exodus of tens of thousands of Jews from Egypt and the Levant in the aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel. At the Seder, Jews read that we must regard the flight from Egypt as if it were our own personal journey. This was no trouble for my family. We'd had our own encounter with a Pharaoh — the dictator Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Despite our hardships there, we also missed Egypt, perhaps never more than on Passover. Our holiday had an inverted quality, longing for the place we were grateful to have left.
And now a jar of premade haroseth has made me miss my mother's homemade variety all the more. I called the Streit's company, an 81-year-old family-owned business, still in its original location on New York's Lower East Side, and asked whether this is the first time that it was selling this product. I tried to keep outrage from creeping into my voice. A man whose name was Boris Glusker told me that his company has been selling haroseth in a jar only for the past few years. Mr. Glusker was humble: He didn't rave about his industrial haroseth, which is made in Israel. He and the Streit cousins who run the company were actually comforting when I confided how hard my mother had worked to produce this delicacy. "It's America," sighed Aaron Gross, the founder's great-great-grandson. "People want ease, efficiency."
Haroseth in a jar is fine, but Mr. Glusker acknowledged the truth that, for him and for me, it is never as good as Mom's.
Lucette Lagnado. "Tastes Like Home." The Wall Street Journal (April 7, 2006).
Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal © 2006 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.
Ms. Lagnado, a Journal reporter, is writing a memoir of her Egyptian-Jewish father for Ecco/HarperCollins.
Copyright © 2006 Dow Jones & Company
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