Seder traditions may change with new friends and new experiences.
You might think of the seder as an ancient ritual, handed down from generation to generation, virtually unchanged from the distant past to now, and probably destined to remain unchanged in the distant future.
Some people start off their seder by reciting the order of rituals listed in the beginning of their favorite haggadah, the same rituals they enact each year in the same order.
Or you might notice all sorts of little changes, micro-adjustments that creep into each family seder when the opportunity arises.
Newly married Jews do not find at the table of their in-laws exactly what they found at their parents’ tables. Later, when the not-so-newly-wed Jews host their own seders, which practices will they continue? Maybe a new mixture. A guest from a distant Jewish community might introduce an unfamiliar custom that the host will never again omit. A child with a food allergy or a guest with a particular need might inspire the chef to vary an old, established recipe.
Mintzi Schramm of Southfield, as a young bride in Berkeley, Calif., prepared the food for that first seder from her mother’s recipes. The main course was, as always, boiled chicken. Her husband, Gene, strongly suggested she find an alternative. Still adhering to the custom of avoiding roasted meat, the next year she made coq au vin as the centerpiece of the feast. Now, decades later, her favorite seder feasts consist of one night of coq au vin and one of tzimmes, a meat stew with sweet potatoes, carrots and onions.
Two Iranian graduate students attended the Finkelman seder in Oak Park about 35 years ago. During the first seder, they seemed reserved, perhaps not entirely at ease. My wife, Marilyn, suggested they have wine instead of grape juice at the second seder; she also asked them what was missing at our seder. They replied with a question: “Where are the green onions?”
That is when we learned about the custom of striking guests and hosts with scallions during “Dayenu.” Fortunately, we had a supply of scallions ready for the next night. Our guests had much more fun. So did we. Since then, we have always made sure to have a supply of little green whips to recall the taskmasters who whipped slaves in Egypt, or at least, to keep everyone engaged. Not quite everyone: A brother-in-law excuses himself before “Dayenu” to avoid the distasteful combat with weaponized alliums.
Sharon Krasner of Oak Park, asked about the diffusion of new customs at her seder, recalls that her children once attended a seder at the Finkelmans and ever since then brought home the idea of scallion whips.
My niece Laurie Handman Mangold begins her family seder with a bowl of homemade guacamole and veggies for dipping.
Our friend Jackie, who is practically family and always attends our seders, loves guacamole. That’s part of the reason for the food choice. But there’s more: We find we are hungry and, frankly, cranky (or maybe I’m the only one, but that’s one too many) by the time the food part of the seder begins. Guac takes the edge off. And, because of ethical reasons, I don’t eat meat so I use the seed from the avocado as the “egg” on the Seder plate. That’s another new tradition. Also, regarding the seder plate, I use a roasted “bloody” beet as the shankbone. And, although I do serve and eat eggs, dairy and fish at the seder, friends tell me they attend just for the homemade gefilte fish.
The traditional recipe for charoset, for Ashkenazic Jews, consists of sweet red wine, chopped apples and ground walnuts, spiced with cinnamon. My grandpa made it from those ingredients. That recipe would not work for Daniel Jacobs, now of Farmington Hills, back in his childhood.
“When I was extremely young, my parents were told that I was allergic to apples,” he recalls. “For Passover, that made it a little difficult to make and eat her charoset. To allow me to have something for the seder, we switched bananas for the apples. It looks a bit like mortar, but tastes wonderful. We have been doing this now for about 50 years.
“A further update on this story. When we serve this at the seders, people who see it for the first time question what it is and are hesitant to eat it. Once they try it, however, I then have to fight them to still get some of it for myself because everyone eats it up because they love the flavor.”
In recent decades, Ashkenazic Jews used only walnuts and apples, probably because in the colder parts of Europe they could not get other fruits. Medieval recipes for charoset from warmer parts of the world and even from Ashkenazi include many more kinds of fruit, including almonds, dates, figs and raisins, along with honey, wine and wine vinegar.
Food researcher Katie Mendelsohn has made a systematic study of these recipes as recorded in rabbinic texts. At a demonstration for the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization of aficionados of medieval arts and sciences, Mendelsohn, in her persona as Lady Judith bas Rabbi Mendel, presented tasters portions of more than a dozen different versions of charoset, each attested to by a venerable scholar of one century or another.
Certainly, some of those who attended the demonstration left with the determination to switch to a sweet charoset from history at their next seder.
Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer