One of my best friends in college was a fiery Persian Jew from Los Angeles; she reminded me of Princess Jasmine from Aladdin, if the princess had a potty mouth and wore less clothing. One Passover, Jasmine and I were trying to make our respective family charoset recipes. There was just one problem: neither of us actually knew the specific servings of the ingredients. We knew the general recipe and what it should taste like but otherwise we didn’t have a clue (generous helpings of the the Passover drink of choice, Manischewitz, didn’t help the matter). We both grew up making these dishes with our family every Passover, but the recipes were transmitted orally and through the shared experience of cooking together.
No matter, we forged ahead. I found myself covered in the fallout of Ashkenazi ingredients–shaved nuts, pooled honey, wine, apple slices, cinnamon, and nutmeg–while my roommate was painted in the dates, banana mush, ginger, cardamom, and pomegranate juice of Persian charoset. Sauced on sweet wine and befuddled, we exercised every college student’s best option and called our mothers for help. To this day I remember her response when pressed on the specific ingredients: “I don’t know, just taste as you go.”
One of the great ways Jews create community is through food and cooking. Instead of writing down exact prescriptions, people are the keepers of the recipes. This cleverly ensures the need for humans to participate in the process, demanding not only communication, but also face-to-face interaction. The key to a successful recipe is the presence of the “keeper of the recipe,” and as a result, our families were ensuring the continuity of community and tradition. Whether our parents and grandparents realized it, they were making their physical presence a necessity.
The tradition of oral law and storytelling has a long history in Judaism. It exists to create and sustain community. For many generations, the only way to learn the traditions, laws and customs was from the community. Now that I have my own daughter, I can’t wait for the first Passover that she asks me how to make my famous charoset and of course my answer will be, “I don’t know, just taste as you go.”
This time of year can be crazy and overwhelming: Purim celebrations rush quickly into Passover preparations and the stress of expelling every tiny crumb from the house. It is easy to lose track of the ties that connect us to each other. But the demands and traditions of the holiday are also a terrific excuse to reach out and reconnect. Go call your mom, grandma, dad, best friend etc. and share something special together this holiday season. Happy Passover!
Ingredients for my friend’s Persian Charoset:
Dates, apples, banana, walnuts, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, pomegranate juice
Ingredients for my Charoset:
Apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, walnuts, honey, Kosher sweet blackberry wine