April 17, 2003
A Date With Passover Memories
Once a year, soon after Purim, my parents lug down the hydraulic press from their attic. For those of us more comfortable in the world of DVDs and CD-ROMs, a hydraulic press is an old-fashioned contraption that looks like a wooden bucket perched on a little metal table, with a metal pole you turn to squeeze whatever you put inside -- often, grapes to make wine. My parents use it to make halek, the date syrup that is the Iraqi-Indian version of charoset.
I won't give too many details about the arduous process that results in the glossy brown, intensely sweet halek, but for starters, let me just say it ain't easy. My parents produce enough halek not only for themselves, but for three daughters, eight grandchildren and numerous seder guests. Halek remains a favorite breakfast and snack food during the week of Passover. That's a lot of halek, so my parents begin with 15 pounds of pitted, crushed dates. After the dates are soaked overnight, the hydraulic press strains and liquefies the fruit so that the halek retains every drop of honeyed essence. The liquid is then boiled until it thickens; it is mixed with ground walnuts before serving.
I know some families who make halek without the dramatics of the hydraulic press (a cheesecloth and hand-squeezing can do the trick). But my parents wanted to reproduce the exact process they knew from India, for my great-uncle Elias -- the family's master halek-maker in Calcutta -- used a hydraulic press. In fact, Uncle Elias used to send us halek in sealed containers for 15 years after we moved from Calcutta to Philadelphia. When my parents bought the hydraulic press in Philadelphia's Italian Market, they continued the tradition on their own.
The haggadah tells us that on Pesach we must re-enact the story of the Exodus. But for many of us, Pesach is also a time to re-enact the customs of our parents and grandparents. Elana Goldberg of Teaneck, N.J., doesn't have a hydraulic press, but she devotes hours to making a sweet dish the way her bubbe did. The fried dough cake filled with raisins, prunes and raspberry jam, then soaked and baked in honey, lemon juice, cinnamon and sugar, brings back a taste she treasured as a little girl.
"I thought it was heaven. It was the highlight of the seder for me," Goldberg remembers. Today, with two sets of twins, 8 and 5, and a 3-year-old, Goldberg still puts aside a whole night to recreate this piece of her grandmother.
"Somehow it's not Passover without it," she said, "and the only way to get it is to make it myself."
Journalist and author Patricia Volk ("Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family," Knopf, 2001) sets her table with an inventory of heirlooms: Aunt Lil's nut dish with squirrels on the side for charoset; Granny Ethel's silver platter for matzah, and "place plates" to put under each place setting; Poppy's silverware; Aunt Dorothy's stemware; Nana's "peacock plates" and salt cellars in peacock-blue clear glass; her father's silver repoussé kiddush cup, and great-grandmother's vase.
Looking for the afikomen is the thread that takes Ed Koch back 50 or 60 years.
"My father always hid the matzah under the sofa pillow, year after year," recalled the former mayor of New York. "But we always played the game. We'd look everywhere, and then look under the sofa pillow. We received a few coins, but for a 7-year- old, it was a treasure."
Today, when Noah and Jordan, his 5-year-old grandnephew and 8-year-old grandniece, look for the afikomen, "there's no fix. You gotta really find it."
"We're up to a dollar," Koch said. "You don't want to spoil the kids."
At the Passover workshops he presents, Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president of the University of Judaism and author of "The Art of Jewish Living: The Passover Seder," (Jewish Lights, 1996) suggested matching the four cups with different varieties of the many good kosher wines now on the market. Last year, however, Wolfson got a complaint from a participant after Passover.
"Your idea backfired," the man said. "Everybody was looking for heavy Malaga. That's what they remembered from their youth."
"That taught me an important lesson," Wolfson said. "The great attraction of Passover is that we not only recite the haggadah -- this historical document -- but we also live and breathe and eat and touch and smell the history, with the additional layer of family memory. The seder becomes a family reunion, a powerful reliving of family history."
Wolfson enjoys reliving one particular episode of his own family history that took place on Passover, although he may not have relished it as much years ago.
"I almost didn't get engaged to my wife because of gefilte fish," he recalled. "When my future in-laws came to our family seder for the first time, they offered to make the gefilte fish. We sometimes had up to 50 guests, so they bought 100 pounds of fish, and worked for a week preparing it. They chopped it up by hand in a gehocker [a cleaver], poured cups of sugar on it, shaped it into balls, stuffed the mixture into the fish skins and sliced it. That was their tradition from Germany and Poland. My family, originally from the Russian Pale of Settlement, never saw gefilte fish like that before. They never tasted gefilte fish like that before. They expected it to be bland and unsweetened, and they were in shock."
"Familiarity is comforting," said Dr. Rhonda Yoss-Kaplan, a psychologist in Port Washington, N.Y. "It's grounding. It connects you to your own personal history and identity, to what's gone before and what you will hand down to your children."
The discomfort associated with change, she added, is the unknown aspect of things that are new and different.
But traditions don't have to be rooted in history. Anyone can start a tradition at any time, Wolfson pointed out.
"I would welcome anything that opens up the seder as an interactive experience that has the family's mark on it," he said.
He enhances his own seder in numerous ways. Steamed artichoke hearts for karpas (the green vegetable that serves as the appetizer) allow nibbling until the meal is served (there's parsley for the traditionalists). A "Chad Gadya" competition engages anyone who wants to prove they can get through the long last verse in Aramaic or English without taking a breath.
Aliya Cheskes-Cotel, director of education for the New York Metropolitan Region of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, listed many customs she follows from her childhood: the kids hide the afikomen and the adults search for it; everyone sings two songs off-key, the way Grandpa Isaac did; each person saves a piece of the afikomen and puts it away in a drawer until next year's seder, when it is eaten.
So it does, in this era where the new rubs shoulders with the old. Miriam's Cups, puppet shows, magic tricks, updated plagues, kosher-for-Passover pasta and nouvelle cuisine notwithstanding, an element of the old persists. Zinfandels and Cabernets haven't yet totally supplanted Malaga. Some things change, it's true, but it's also comforting to know that some things don't.
So when I asked my 9-year-old daughter, Shoshana, what one thing she would want to make sure her seder included when she grows up, I wasn't surprised that she answered me without hesitation.
"Halek," she said, licking her lips.
I'd better learn to use that hydraulic press.
Rahel Musleah, the author of "Why on This Night? A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration" (Simon & Schuster, 2000).