Chop, Chop, Chop: Charoses Traditions
Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, mine was the only lunch bag that trailed matzo crumbs. On first coming to America we lived in a non-Jewish immigrant neighborhood so I had no friends with whom to compare seder rituals. Despite this, Passover has always been my favorite holiday.
No other yontiff rituals compared to my father’s melodic rendition of the seder, the dramatic retelling of the exodus, the proscribed silver thimblefuls of wine, the dipping, passing, and, especially, the mystical welcoming of the invisible guest. As the youngest of four children, I guarded my feature role way past childhood. Each year, I rehearsed the “Ma nish ta nah” for days and only reluctantly ceded my solo when my nieces and nephews finally asserted themselves.
During Paisech, as we called it in Yiddish, my mother turned out delicacies that took the sting off the matzo mess I schlepped to school each day.
Paisech mornings I rose without my usual sloth, for I knew a “bubaleh” awaited me. This Brobdingnagian matzo meal pancake, the size and depth of my mother’s cherished black iron skillet, expunged Hostess Cupcakes from my mind all week .
Paisech was also the occasion of my mother’s rum-soaked matzo meal sponge cake. Between seder wine and nibbles of rum cake I feared growing “schikker” (drunk) or having my growth stunted, as my older siblings warned. Yet, neither fear was enough to stop me.
Our seder meal included chunky apple and walnut charoses (too yummy to remind me of slavery or mortar), sliced hard-boiled eggs in salt-water (the egg-soup I waited for all year), sweet gefilte fish, golden chicken soup with matzo balls (kneidlach), brisket, potatoes and carrot tzimmes. No matter that she worked and had scant time, my mother’s feast never faltered.
When I was 16, I crashed into another tradition. My American-born friend Deborah invited me for second seder. As I entered her house and different cooking smells greeted me, I went into shock. Then, her father davened in unfamiliar “Sephardi” sing-song, and her mother sat at the table, unlike my mother who continuously bustled about.
That seder was a watershed experience. The Bachs were traditional, like us, so I was stymied. “Real” charoses was apples, walnuts, cinnamon and wine – my mother’s. Mrs. Bach’s was different. Didn’t a balabusteh like Mrs. Bach know how to make charoses? Then again, this new stuff was kind of good.
Like Dorothy in Oz, I realized I was no longer in Warsaw, from whence my parents’ traditions harkened. And my world only expanded.
When I began making my own seders, my son and daughter helped make charoses from toddlerhood on. The so-called “chop, chop, chop,” became their favorite item on the seder plate. Each year the chopping increased until my dear late mother’s recipe produced charoses for the week. And it grows even tastier as it marinates.
In 2000, the last year of my 89-year-old father’s life, he and I talked about charoses during his childhood in Piaseczno, outside Warsaw.
“Chroyses,” he said, in his Ashkenazi-Yiddish. “Chroyses is like Jews all
over the world, every country has something different.” He recalled watching his mother prepare for seder. “She klapped together an eppaleh, a pooer
nissalech, a bissel wein,” he said. In the impoverished world of my father’s youth, my namesake grandmother Sarah, whom I never knew, mixed together an apple, some nuts, a drop of wine, whatever she could get her hands on to
The Bach’s seder taught me that Jews are a variety pack. We have lived wherever there is oxygen and our cuisine has been shaped by each region’s
spices and ingredients. Food writer Joan Nathan has catalogued 70-plus variations of charoses and says that new ones are created each year.
To celebrate Jewish diversity, I propose that seders include two charoses, one’s own tradition and a new recipe. Consider Moroccan balls fashioned of
chopped dates, walnuts, two kinds of raisins and wine, or a Libyan mortar and pestle mix of four kinds of nuts, raisins, dates, cinnamon, ginger and allspice.
This year my mother’s luscious charoses will befriend a newcomer gleaned from an old synagogue sisterhood cookbook (recipes below). Giten yontiff –
Prywa Nuss’s Charoses
1 lb. walnuts, shelled and chopped
4-6 red apples, peeled and chopped fine
Kosher red wine
Mix walnuts and apples. Add cinnamon to taste. Moisten with wine to bind mixture together.
Judy’s Greek Charoses
20 large dates, chopped
¾ cup walnuts, ground
1 cup raisins, chopped
½ cup almonds, chopped
Trace of grated lemon peel
Kosher red wine
Combine fruit and nuts. Add wine to desired consistency.
Sara Nuss-Galles lives in Laguna Niguel and is a member of the Third Street Writers group in Laguna Beach.