This Sweet, Fruity Spread Symbolizes a Dark Chapter of Jewish History
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This sweet paste memorializes a historical struggle for freedom.
By Carly Stern
For carb-loving kids, Passover is not the tastiest of Jewish holidays. Sure, it might have a leg up on Yom Kippur — which involves a day of fasting — but that isn’t saying much. Food for Rosh Hashana, which begins tonight at sunset, is usually not all that memorable. But one treat that Jewish families always look forward to is the charoset served during the Passover Seder.
Eating the sweet, cinnamon-infused spread — which is often slathered on top of matzo or spread into little sandwiches — might bring some people a surge of dopamine. But the paste, which is made of nuts, honey and apples, is, in fact, rooted in an ancient political struggle.
Although charoset is consumed at the start of the meal, its sweetness seems more apt for dessert. It turns out that nobody quite knows its origin. But as with most Jewish tradition, which is all about storytelling, there is a narrative. The function of the Passover Seder dinner is to tell children the story of the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt — it’s a story Jewish children around the world grow up reciting. On the Passover Seder plate, maror (bitter herbs) symbolizes tears shed in manual labor, while the cracker-like matzo is eaten because there wasn’t time for dough to rise before the escape. And charoset represents the mortar used to make bricks for the pyramids that the slaves were forced to build under the hot Egyptian sun, as the Old Testament goes.
Every community puts its own spin on charoset — the variety of versions across cultures today exemplify the global Jewish diaspora.
The charoset is prepared by peeling and dicing apples, chopping handfuls of nuts and adding a sweetener — usually some combination of cinnamon, honey, sugar and Manischewitz red wine. After combining the ingredients, the mixture can be refrigerated until serving time, where it accompanies its far-less-tasty counterpart, the matzo.
Every community puts its own spin on charoset — the variety of versions across cultures today exemplify the global Jewish diaspora. But because the holiday takes place at the beginning of springtime when less fresh fruit is available, communities have typically used whatever they had in store, explains Renana Shvil, a Jewish woman who runs a cooking studio for children. Ashkenazi Jews who came from Eastern Europe usually make charoset with apples and cinnamon while Iraqis often use date syrup also known as silan. Balkan communities typically use raisins, while many Persian families mix in pomegranates. Shvil’s mother, who is from Tunisia, served charoset made of dates, wine and groundnuts.
There are modern versions too. Some Moroccan Passovers even include “charoset truffles,” not unlike the date and energy balls that you can buy in cafes. Jewish delis, at least, usually only prepare charoset for catering around the holiday, which typically falls in March or April.
Even though the origins of the sweet spread are unknown, it’s the message that charoset carries that endures — especially as religious and ethnic oppression and persecution persist around the world. In the charoset, Shvil hopes that her children can find and foster pride in where they came from. “I look at it in a broader sense,” she says, “not only as something that happened to my great-great-great-grandparents but as something that can happen to anyone.”
For many, nibbling this sweet treat is both an ancient and modern reminder that freedom can never be taken for granted. And what could be more political than paving the way for the next generation to come?