Kasher LePessah: Different strokes for different folks

The holiday greeting is “Have a happy and kosher Passover,” yet the concept of a kosher Passover means different things to different people.

(photo credit: Courtesy/MCT)
The traditional holiday greeting is “Have a happy and kosher Passover,” yet the concept of a kosher Passover means different things to different people. It’s bound up with stringency, national and/or ethnic traditions, and the stream of Judaism to which people adhere.
In Chabad and most other hassidic movements, stringency takes priority. When Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg and his wife Shoshi, codirectors of the Chabad Rechavia Center in Jerusalem, got married, the standards and customs they kept and the food they ate were more or less the same, even though he was from Canada and she from Bnei Brak – because they are both from highly observant Chabad families.
Chabad and most other hassidim don’t eat what they call gebrochts – which is matza or matza meal that has come anywhere near liquid. In other words, you won’t find any matza balls on their Passover menus – though in many Chabad households abroad, where Passover is celebrated for eight days instead of seven as in Israel, matza balls are eaten on the eighth day. In avoiding gebrochts, there was something that Rabbi Goldberg learned from his father-in-law – to place a plastic cloth on the table for the first part of the Seder, and to remove it and the matza from the table once the actual meal begins. In this way, not a drop of liquid comes into contact with the matza.
There is one tiny exception – haroset – but Chabadniks use the least possible amount of wine in the mixture, and quickly dip just the very edge the matza in the haroset and remove it almost immediately.
BUT THAT’S only part of the story. They don’t eat any processed foods during Passover, nor do they eat dairy foods. “We eat only natural foods,” says Rabbanit Shoshi, adding that the only fruits and vegetables they eat are those that can be peeled. Some Chabad households are so strict that they make their own wine for Passover, but the Goldbergs are fully aware that nearly all kosher wines in Israel are kosher-for-Passover all year round, so they buy their wine. This year, they won’t be making the communal Seder that they made in the past, because they have a family wedding to attend in America.
Most Chabadniks, they say, do not eat in other people’s homes during Passover. Some don’t eat in others’ homes – even that of a sibling – during the rest of the year either. That way there’s no suspicion, no judgment, no guilty feelings.
HELEN AND BENNY MIZRAHI, also from Jerusalem, come from worlds apart. She was born in Australia to Polish parents.
He’s a native Jerusalemite of Kurdish background.
Helen has completely sublimated her Ashkenazi traditions. Matza balls are not part of the Mizrahi family’s Passover fare, unless they have an Ashkenazi guest.
Their matza is handmade and looks like pita. It gets hard after a day or two, and then they have to soak it in water to make it sufficiently soft to be edible. There’s no apple in the haroset, just dates, nuts and wine. The eggs are brought to the table in their shells, and everyone knocks their eggs against those of others seated at the table to see, after the egg banging, who will have a whole egg remaining, with or without the shell.
Kurdish families eat rice on Passover, Ashkenazi families don’t. Helen Mizrahi has forgotten what it is not to eat rice on Passover. It’s a staple. The Passover hamin, or cholent, that the Mizrahis eat is eaten by them all year round, but some Kurdish families eat it only on Passover. It is comprised of balls of rice stuffed with meat and cooked in chicken soup.
ISAAC SHASHOUA, who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, spent his boyhood in Bombay before it became Mumbai. Most of the Jewish community, he recalls, followed the Baghdad tradition. “We were much stricter than the Ashkenazim,” he said.
Not only did they abstain from dairy products during Passover, but they did not even drink from the outdoor water fountain. The haroset, like that of Kurdish families, was made with dates soaked overnight, boiled and mixed with ground walnuts. Though permitted to eat rice, they did not put it on the table if they had Ashkenazi guests. Their matzot were handmade and very thin, since during the rest of the year, the women were used to making chapatis, and rolling them out very fine.
Whether in Sephardi, eastern or Ashkenazi circles, especially among haredim, handmade matza is preferable, because the person who makes it is careful with the measurements of the ingredients and with the time that the matza is in the oven. Most haredim will not eat machine-made matza, for fear that the mixture has lodged in the machine, thus leavening the dough.
IT’S WELL-KNOWN that ever since he took up residence in the White House, US President Barack Obama has hosted a Seder for the Jewish members of his staff.
How kosher it is is anyone’s guess, but for those who are not fussy about kashrut, it’s a nice gesture.
David Thorne, who was the non-Jewish US ambassador to Italy, was the twin brother of deceased writer Julia Thorne, who was the first wife of US Secretary of State John Kerry. Ambassador Thorne decided that if the chief could host a Seder, so could he. So he and his wife, Rose, invited the then-Israeli ambassador Gideon Meir and his wife, Amira.
Meir said he could not come unless the Seder was kosher. Thorne – who knew about kashrut because he had come to diplomacy from the world of business, where his partner had been a Jew by the name of David Weiner – said it was no problem, and ordered the best kosher caterer in Rome to come in and do what had to be done. He also asked that Amira Meir, a Bible expert, prepare a brief lecture about what Passover means.
Weiner flew in for the occasion, and among the other guests were two African- Americans who had studied together with Obama. Everyone had been asked to prepare something related to the festival.
Amira Meir spoke of the meaning of freedom, and asked her fellow guests if they knew what had been eaten by the people who came to America on the Mayflower. Of course, they couldn’t tell her. But she could tell them about the matzot that were eaten by the Children of Israel who left Egypt.
One of the African-Americans had been apprehensive that Amira would discuss the same topic she had prepared. But freedom, like kashrut, means different things to different people, and the American woman gave her freedom dissertation on Martin Luther King Jr.
The Meirs, who are back in Israel and living in Mevaseret Zion, say they never attended a more interesting and memorable Seder – and even though the host was not Jewish, the Seder was strictly kosher.
The writer is an Australian-born veteran journalist, who has written for the Post for more than three decades. Covering a wide variety of subjects, she has contributed to almost every section of the paper, and continues to write news and features.

His first Seder
Preparing a Seder is a daunting prospect for almost anyone, even when the number of people at the table is relatively small. But for Franco Luise, the executive chef at Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria, who is preparing a Seder for the first time in his life, it’s not just daunting – it’s a major challenge.
It would have been that under any circumstances, but more so considering that approximately 200 people are expected to spend Seder night at the Waldorf Astoria, whose owners specifically decided to open for Passover to avoid the kashrut hassles experienced by other hotels.
Luise, who has worked in top-class hotels and restaurants in his native Italy, Switzerland and Portugal, is not Jewish, but in the year he has been in Israel, learning to become accustomed to the limitations imposed by kosher cuisine, he has developed an excellent relationship with the hotel’s mashgiah (kashrut supervisor). He has also spent a lot of time with Avigdor Brueh, the executive chef at the Tel Aviv Hilton, learning firsthand what is and what is not permitted in accordance with Jewish dietary laws.
Luise also did a lot of reading on the subject before coming to Israel.
During the first couple of months here, he wanted to run away. In Europe he had the freedom to experiment with anything he wanted, and could be as creative as his imagination took him in the kitchen.
But in Israel, there were so many products that he could not use, or if he could use them, could not be used together.
That more or less meant that Luise had to throw his repertoire of recipes out of the window. If he wanted to eliminate any of the ingredients, the dish would not be the same – even if he found good substitutes.
So he had to start again from scratch, and devise recipes which conformed with kashrut requirements.
It made him realize that this was an opportunity to use his talents in a different way, and now Luise is enjoying the experience immensely.
According to hotel general manager Guy Klaiman, Luise now knows more about kashrut than many Jews.
Not that Jewish cuisine was entirely alien to him. In Padua, where he was born, the Jewish community dates back some 800 years, and for centuries was one of the most important in Italy. Jews still live in Padua, and in his youth Luise had several Jewish friends who told him about their traditions and customs.
Padua is quite close to Venice, which is famous not only for its gondolas but also for its Jewish ghetto. When researching Jewish culinary history, Luise made what was for him a startling discovery. Many so-called traditional Italian foods had their origins in Jewish kitchens, “and went out of the walls of the ghetto.”
In Italy, spices were expensive and gradually all but disappeared from Italian cuisine.
Luise is having great fun with spices in Israel, but the only spice he will use in his haroset for the Seder will be cinnamon.
He is basing his haroset on a Padua recipe, which unlike Ashkenazi, Sephardi or Yemenite recipes, includes chestnuts. In Padua, they also included pine nuts, he said, but he’s leaving them out. In addition to the cinnamon and chestnuts, his recipe includes apples, pears, almonds, walnuts, honey and sweet red wine. In Padua, the chestnuts were soaked overnight, then cooked on a low flame for an hour.
Unless there happen to be Italians from Padua or Venice staying at the Waldorf Astoria over Passover, Luise’s haroset will be the beginning of a whole new taste experience at the start of the Festival of Freedom.