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My Minhag Avot – My Charoset

Date Nut Cookies - Photo by Daniel Albanese

*Photo by Daniel Albanese

The Jew & The Carrot is a blog about Jews, food and contemporary life. We strive to maintain a diverse and inclusive community on the blog – one which welcomes posters and readers from across the Jewish denominational spectrum and beyond, and from all walks of culinary life…Our aim is to ensure that this community is inclusive and safe, as well as being a platform for vibrant discussion.

I thought this quote from the blog’s Community Guidelines was particularly relevant in my post last week, A “Traditional” Passover Seder or How to Make Everyone Happy Around Your Table.  One of the comments on my post came from someone who identifies herself only as J. who pointed out that I had conflated the words chametz (the five grains – wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt, according to the torah are prohibited on Passover) and kitniot (which apparently can be literally translated as “little thing-a-ma-jigs,” that are also prohibited on Passover but are not chametz and are subject to debate as to what exactly falls into this category).  I was pleased to get such a correction through the blog as it taught me something new.

However, I will disagree with J.’s point that as a convert I don’t have minhag. As I do feel that I carry with me a minhag avot (traditions or as defined by Michael Makovi in the comments specifically as “what your forefathers did”).  Although I do not have a Jewish family, I still have a loving family and traditions that I was raised with.  Traditions that I have tried to incorporate, the best that I can, into my new Jewish life – which brings me to charoset.

According to Wikipedia, charoset can be made from “chopped walnuts, grated apples, cinnamon, and sweet red wine” while Sephardi recipes also “call for dates and honey.”  That combination of ingredients reminded me of an afternoon when I was very young, making date cookies with my mom (I was supposed to be taking a nap, but I hated taking naps so this day my mom relented and I got some very special alone time with her while my other sisters slept).  The memory is pretty fuzzy, but I remember rolling a sweet, dark brown, sticky paste into little logs that we dusted with coconut.

Unsure of the details from this memory but thinking I was onto something, I called my mom and asked her if we had ever made date and coconut cookies together.  “You remember that?” she said, “They were date and nut cookies, and that would have been a very long time ago.”  And in fact it was, when she later unearthed the recipe (hand-written by a little old lady from my parents’ church) we realized I would have been about  three years-old when we made those cookies (my mother writes copious notes on all the recipes she tries).   The recipe is as follows (copied directly)

  • Melt ¼ C. oleo [margarine] in an iron skillet.  Add: 1½ C chopped dates, 1 C sugar and 2 eggs (well beaten). Cook for 15 minutes on low.  Cool slightly.
  • Add 2 C Rice Krispies, 1 tsp. vanilla and ½ C chopped nuts.  Roll into small balls or about 1-inch fingers.  Then roll in Angel Flake Coconut.

The next day when I made the date-nut cookies rolled in coconut, they were pretty much what I remembered – and apparently sold in many grocery stores.   But it really got me thinking – could this be my (rather unique) charoset at my Seder this year?  I realize that charoset is served in a bowl to be scooped out and not as individual finger-like cookies.  And charoset doesn’t include eggs and would never include kitniot (which some of those ingredients would be by some standards) – but this was something from my family history, which strikes a chord with me.  So if I were to follow my own minhag avot could I serve this childhood memory at my Seder table?

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12 Responses to “My Minhag Avot – My Charoset”

  1. patti Says:

    my childhood version of those was just called “skillet cookies” and i recall that they had cornflakes instead of the rice krispies. i remember them being very messy (and therefore fun!) to make.

    this actually sounds a lot like some of the sephardic charoset recipes i’ve seen. if you want to avoid the kitniyot issue, you could try increasing the volume of nuts in place of the cereal. and if you reduce or eliminate the eggs and stir in the coconut, you’ll probably get something more spoon-able, but still very close to what you remember. maybe toasting the coconut would replicate the crunch of the cereal…

    as a (reform) convert myself, i’ve always rejected the extremely separatist strain which would have us completely cut off all contact with our non-jewish origins. i think your wish to honor this meaningful memory is a lovely idea, and i say go for it.

  2. Jason Says:

    What a great idea! And a troubled one. Judaism is full of tensions. One being between “law” and “tradition,” or as *I* like to say – between “what Jewish people supposedly did a few hundred years ago” and “what my family happened to do for a couple of formative years when I was a kid.”

    I would scream at the thought of rice krispy treats at my seder table. But that’s mostly because my parents never did that when I was a kid. Our tradition was to disallow anything that looked like breakfast cereal at the dinner table (unless it tasted like cardboard).

    I would totally love to have date rolls on Pesach, if they didn’t contain kitniot (which, btdubs, should totally be the name of a breakfast cereal).

  3. J. Says:

    Please let me clarify: I was making a distinction between minhag avot, as a specific halakhic category, and family traditions in the broader sense. I also have lots of worthy family traditions from non-Jewish relatives that I intend to pass on to my children. I certainly didn’t mean you should forsake all the positive things your parents gave you.

    I’m sorry if I caused offense — it wasn’t my intention.

  4. Michael Makovi Says:

    I wrote the following words in a different context (viz. in response (http://www.jewcy.com/post/baal.....ment-31981) to a a discussion (http://www.jewcy.com/post/baal.....nsive_term) of how many Haredi kiruv educators hold a baal teshuva must disown his past and previous identity), but I think it will take only a little bit of imagination to adapt my words to a convert’s having a minhag (a convert and a baal teshuva can, in fact, almost be practically conflated):

    I’d consider myself a baal teshuva, but this doesn’t need imply any contempt or shame. I’ll still speak of how great Maryland blue crab tastes (and the wonderful family experience of cracking them open with mallets…”Maww, get out the newspapers and crab mallets! Where’s the Old Bay?”), I’m still as interested in computers and science as I ever was, I still received my Maximum PC and Scientific American magazines, and I still speak of all the Judaism my mother taught me growing up. My newfound observance need not imply any disdain for my past.

    When I became observant in high school, I was advised to transfer to a yeshiva high school. Instead, I continued in my public school, through graduation. In retrospect, I realize now how valuable those extra years of yeshiva education could have been. All the same, I met so many wonderful teachers of mine in high school, with whom I still have contact in fact, that I suspect I’d choose to remain in my public high school, even if I could do it all over again.

    There’s the butterfly effect; I realize that many things I did once, are things I’d no longer do today, but do I really want to undo them? Everything I did once, has somehow made me who I am today, and who knows, perhaps undoing my past would be to my detriment. I’d rather nostalgically remember my past and look towards directing my deeds choicefully in the future, rather than second-guessing my choices in the past.

    My rabbi at BT yeshiva (viz. Machon Meir) has stressed to us how important it is to not forget your past. Rav Kook, in Orot haTeshuva, notes that at first, teshuva is like shock therapy (my rabbi replaces this with chemotherapy); even as the sins are cleansed, the vital forces are atrophied as well. In an effort quell the yetzer hara (evil inclination), the yetzer hatov (good inclination) is hurt as well. Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits teaches similarly that really, the yetzer hara is nought but man’s primal vital forces; thus, “the greater the man, the greater his yetzer hara”. Thus, teaches Rav Kook, the real goal of teshuva is take all all of your good and retain it, while redirecting your vital energy from the yetzer hara to the yetzer hatov. I.e., don’t kill your vital forces, but simply refocus them in a new direction. My rabbi says, if you knew how to play a musical instrument, keep playing!

    The problem isn’t with the term [or phenomenon of] “baal teshuva” [causing the baalei teshuva (plural) to disown their pasts]. Rather, the problem is with teaching baalei teshuva (plural) that their pasts must be despised and rejected, that they must despise and condemn themselves.

  5. Mia Rut's Mom Says:

    What a lovely article – and such nice responses!

  6. Lois The Shmethicist Says:

    I was raised in the Conservative movement; though my grandfather (who died long before my sibs and I were born) was a kosher butcher, we were far from kosher. I know we ate peanut butter on our matzah. I know my mother wouldn’t have ever considered looking to see if there were corn products in the mayo used to make our tuna-on-matzah sandwiches. And now that I’m a vegetarian adult, I don’t feel compelled to give up peanuts or other legumes during Pesach (I was a lone vegetarian kid, too, but in my meat-eating family, there wasn’t really a plant-based protein alternative besides peanut butter). I figure not eating meat is a more pressing moral calling.

    And yet, I still feel compelled to confess to the jcarrot community that I’m breaking a rule that until a few years ago I never even knew existed. Moral relativism? Or inescapable guilt? Either way, welcome to Judaism. It’s no more clear cut if you were born into it, at least not for many of us.

  7. Jaki Levy Says:

    This looks amazing. This reminds me….

    I remember eating a date version of charoset at my sephardic seder table. I actually grew up in a mixed sephardic and ashkenazi house, but followed mostly ashkenazi customs (my friends were mostly ashkenazi).

    So, I only knew the apples + chopped nuts ashkenazi variety of charoset.

    Until…

    One year I went to my father’s family for a sephardic passover seder. They served some sweet + syrupy concoction of dates + nuts. As an observant do-gooder child, I was shocked. I thought “Why are we not eating charoset?”

    I simply assumed everyone at the table would all be going to hell, or the jewish equivalent thereof.

    However, after tasting the dates and violating my previous minhag hamakom, I knew we were all in heaven.

    I hope your passover guests will get to try your reworked version of charoset. Just don’t be suprised if some of them think you’re going to hell (wink).

  8. Avigail Says:

    Mia (and Mia’s mom) – thanks for sharing this yummy recipe. I love the adaptation of your childhood memories into something you can share on the blog. I hope that many more people will continue to give us their own memories.

    It occurs to me, however, that these cookies aren’t charoset in the strictest sense that I understand it from *my* family. Our seder table looked forward to charoset that resembled the mortar that the Israelite slaves would have used to build Pharoh’s empire. http://www.davka.org/what/haggadah/korech24.html It was literally ground to a paste, and though it tasted wonderful, it looked like cement.

    Mia, your charoset, served as cookies, is more like bricks then like mortar – which is another interesting and relevant food “midrash.”

    I’ll share my father’s charoset recipe here before long!

  9. Michael Makovi Says:

    Elsewhere (http://www.jewcy.com/post/baal.....nsive_term), regarding an essay on the Haredi conception of “baal teshuva”ing (meaning a non-Orthodox Jew becoming Orthodox) the article suggested that given the Haredi conception, viz. that a baal teshuva must scorn and despise and reject his past, the term “baal teshuva” itself must be considered inherently offensive), I responded there with words that are relevant to our present context. It shouldn’t take too much imagination to determine the relevancy of the the experience of a baal teshuva, to that of a convert. So hereafter is a direct quote, at length:

    I’d consider myself a baal teshuva, but this doesn’t need imply any contempt or shame. I’ll still speak of how great Maryland blue crab tastes (and the wonderful family experience of cracking them open with mallets…”Maww, get out the newspapers and crab mallets! Where’s the Old Bay?”), I’m still as interested in computers and science as I ever was, I still received my Maximum PC and Scientific American magazines, and I still speak of all the Judaism my mother taught me growing up. My newfound observance need not imply any disdain for my past.

    When I became observant in high school, I was advised to transfer to a yeshiva high school. Instead, I continued in my public school, through graduation. In retrospect, I realize now how valuable those extra years of yeshiva education could have been. All the same, I met so many wonderful teachers of mine in high school, with whom I still have contact in fact, that I suspect I’d choose to remain in my public high school, even if I could do it all over again.

    There’s the butterfly effect; I realize that many things I did once, are things I’d no longer do today, but do I really want to undo them? Everything I did once, has somehow made me who I am today, and who knows, perhaps undoing my past would be to my detriment. I’d rather nostalgically remember my past and look towards directing my deeds choicefully in the future, rather than second-guessing my choices in the past.

    My rabbi at BT yeshiva (viz. Machon Meir) has stressed to us how important it is to not forget your past. Rav Kook, in Orot haTeshuva, notes that at first, teshuva is like shock therapy (my rabbi replaces this with chemotherapy); even as the sins are cleansed, the vital forces are atrophied as well. In an effort quell the yetzer hara (evil inclination), the yetzer hatov (good inclination) is hurt as well. Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits teaches similarly that really, the yetzer hara is nought but man’s primal vital forces; thus, “the greater the man, the greater his yetzer hara”. Thus, teaches Rav Kook, the real goal of teshuva is take all all of your good and retain it, while redirecting your vital energy from the yetzer hara to the yetzer hatov. I.e., don’t kill your vital forces, but simply refocus them in a new direction. My rabbi says, if you knew how to play a musical instrument, keep playing!

    The problem isn’t with the term “baal teshuva”. Rather, the problem is with teaching baalei teshuva (plural) that their pasts must be despised and rejected, that they must despise and condemn themselves.

  10. nachum Says:

    yummy sounding treats.. consider using puffed qinua in place of those rice krispies and you side step the Kitniot issue all together. I’ll admit not an exact replacement but does do the trick.. b’teavon

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