Charoset: A Mélange of Ingredients and Identities: The Week's End, April 19, 2024
Apr 17th 2024

The Haggadah teaches us that the great rabbi Hillel combined the three key symbols of Passover—the paschal sacrifice, the matzah, and the maror (bitter herbs)—into one bite, a “sandwich” if you will, in order to fulfill the commandment, “They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (Numbers 9:11). Since the destruction of the Temple, the practice of making sacrifices has ceased, yet the custom of eating a sandwich of matzah and maror at the seder has endured. Known as Korech, this step in the order of the evening blends the symbolic foods of the ritual together in a robust mixture of flavours and textures.

At many tables, this blending of foods, often referred to as the “Hillel sandwich,” also includes charoset, the sweet mixture of fruits, often nuts, and sweet wine or grape juice, symbolizing the mortar from which the Israelites formed bricks while enslaved in Egypt. The sharp bitterness of the maror and the pleasant sweetness of the charoset balance out one another, alluding to a deeper truth about life. Much like the breaking of a glass at a wedding, when we taste the unique flavour of Hillel’s sandwich, we are reminded that even our most joyous moments are intermixed with sadness. And yet, korech can also remind us that no amount of bitterness is so great that it should obscure our ability to savour life’s sweetness.

Over the years, I have concluded that my favourite food associated with Passover is charoset. First of all, it’s delicious and it makes eating matzah throughout the seder evening—and the entire week—a little more palatable for me. There is always a lot of leftover charoset in my house (see recipe below), and I love spreading it on matzah to have with a cup of tea in the afternoon or putting it on top of matzah brei for a delicious Passover breakfast.

But the real reason why I love charoset is because it symbolizes the diaspora of the Jews and celebrates the diversity of our people. In my collection of haggadot, various cookbooks, holiday readers, and articles from a wide range of publications, I have come across charoset recipes from all over the world, revealing that as Jews wandered, they changed their recipe, adapting their charoset to make use of ingredients that were available where they lived. From chestnuts in Italy and mangoes in India to coconut in Surinam and macadamia nuts in Hawaii, the possibilities go far beyond the chunky mixture of apples, walnuts, and cinnamon most familiar to Ashkenazi Jews in North America. This mélange of ingredients we make to commemorate our journey from slavery to freedom is as varied as the people chopping, dicing, mixing, and eating it, and Passover is a fitting time for us to celebrate the many lands and nations that we Jews have passed through, whether on a brief sojourn or having planted roots for centuries.  

As MaNishtana (the pseudonym of Shais Rishon), an Orthodox African-American rabbi, writer, and activist writes:

When it comes to culture and history, no food merges the two as deftly as the chunky concoction knows as charoset… Gibraltarian recipes use real ground bricks, and Persian ones include forty different ingredients for each year the Jews spent in the desert, while the charoset of African American Jews consists of the slave crops of pecans, cocoa powder, figs, and sugarcane. No matter what recipe you use, charoset pays homage to our ancestral story of slavery while representing a unique expression of Jewish Diasporic experiences anywhere across the globe.

(From The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List, edited by Alana Newhouse with Stephanie Butnick, p. 64)

Years ago, my mother developed her own recipe for charoset, blending together flavours from Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions, something we eventually started calling “Ashke-Sephard” charoset. In case you need some menu inspiration this year, or like famed cookbook writer Joan Nathan, you plan to have five different kinds of charoset on your seder table, I have shared my mother’s recipe below in her memory.

Wishing you— 
Shabbat Shalom
Pesach Alegre
A zissen Pesach
Chag Pesach Sameach
Happy Passover

Cantor Audrey

Nancy Klein’sz”l Ashke-Sephard Charoset

½ lb. walnuts

¼ lb. dried apricots

¼ lb. pitted dates

3 apples, peeled and seeded

½ c. sweet kosher wine

2 tbsp. kosher for Passover brandy

½ tsp. cinnamon

¼ tsp. clove

¼ tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. lemon juice

Sugar to taste

Place everything in a food processor. Pulse all ingredients until they begin to come together into a paste.

Makes a lot. 
(a direct quote from my mom)