Lately I’ve been interviewing individuals from the Levantine countries of Syria and Lebanon. An interesting custom that has been described to me (with slight variations) is the one where a young, single woman of marrying age would pick up the Seder tray at the very start of the Seder and leave with it to another room. During her absence those sitting at the table would sing a song or two, then call her back in when finished. Upon returning to the room with the tray, the young woman might be asked, “What is it that you have there?” (Indicating the tray), or she herself may ask them, “What is going on here?” (Indicating that they have gathered around the table and that something is about to happen.) Immediately after this brief inquiry, the leader would then begin with the first lines from the Haggadah, and with that the Seder (and Passover holiday) has officially begun. I find this custom interesting on many levels. For one it shows the importance of marriage in the community, and how it then takes the opportunity during the Seder to indicate “who is next in line.” It also elevates the act of carrying and presenting the Seder tray/plate to one of honor. Secondly, it highlights the importance of hospitality in the Middle Eastern culture, especially with regards to a woman serving a guest in her home. And thirdly, it connects the Seder, which symbolizes freedom (and therefore, the future of the Jewish people), renewal (spring season, cycle of life, fertility), with the woman’s future to getting married, raising a family, and therefore, continuing the lifeline of the Jewish community as a whole. When I first learned about this ritual my first reaction (as an American, Westerner, and New Yorker) was one of discomfort. I wondered how these young women felt to have the spotlight put on them, which basically said, “Hey, you’re single — it’s time to find a husband!” But when I asked many of these women individually how they had felt it about it, many of them instead said that they were happy to do it, and that when it was their turn, they in fact felt proud.
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One of the most popular dishes on the Seder table is charoset, the fruity spread used to symbolize the sweetness of our ancestors’ freedom from slavery. In every Jewish culture there is a charoset that reflects the unique ingredients of the region. While the most traditional charoset that Ashkenazim (Germanic and other Eastern European Jews) prepare consists of finely chopped apples, walnuts, wine, cinnamon, and some sugar, most Middle Eastern and Mediterranean communities use dried dates as their base, adding other dried fruit (such as raisins and figs), along with varying spices and nuts. The charoset takes center stage on he Seder plate, and is the dish where one can be most creative. Below is my recipe for a Syrian charoset that uses dried apricots in place of the usual dates in most Middle Eastern charosets (in Syria they also do a charoset with dates sometimes mixed with the apricots). The orange color of the apricots really brightens up the Seder plate and table, and the sweet-tart flavor is especially nice if you find pure dates to be too sweet.
Syrian Charoset with Apricots, Orange Blossom Water and Almonds
(Yield: Serves 8 to 10 / Makes 2 Cups)
2 cups whole Turkish dried apricots
½ cup orange juice
¾ cup hot water
2 tablespoons coconut sugar or unrefined whole cane sugar
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 to 3 teaspoons orange blossom water
¼ cup shelled, unsalted pistachios or whole blanched almonds, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons shelled, unsalted pistachios, or whole blanched almonds,
slivered or finely ground in the food processor
1. Combine apricots, orange juice, water, and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until apricots are very soft and mushy, 30 to 40 minutes. (Make sure to stir every 5 to 10 minutes to prevent burning.)
2. Pour hot apricot mixture into a food processor and add the lemon juice and orange blossom water. Pulse 1 to 2 minutes until a smooth paste. Scoop out into a medium sized bowl and mix in the chopped nuts by hand. Cool to room temperature.
3. Serve charoset at room temperature in a small, decorative bowl garnished with the pistachios
©Jennifer Felicia Abadi: www.TooGoodToPassover.com / jabadi@FistfulofLentils.com