If You’re Serving Mint and Pistachios, it Must be a Syrian-influenced Seder

Jennifer Felicia Abadi’s Passover memories hover between the matzah balls and briskets from her father’s family — and the mint and pistachios that flavored her mother’s and grandmother’s cooking. Intoxicated by the aroma of exotic spices, she also savored stories about her grandmother’s youth in Aleppo, Syria, and the Syrian Jewish world of Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, where her mother grew up. Recalling the piquant seasoning of her great-grandmother’s food, Abadi explains that in her family cooking techniques have been passed from one generation of women to the next. Three decades ago, her mother and aunt gathered a substantial number of their recipes and placed them in a three-ring binder, which moved back and forth between their homes.

In her 20s, Abadi decided to throw dinner parties and introduce her friends to Syrian food. She consulted the black binder and realized that in many recipes ingredients were missing and directions unclear. “Holding the binder in my hands, I thought about the importance of traditions and the ease with which they are lost.” She decided to flesh out this valuable recipe collection, starting where her mother and aunt had left off. “I began to spend time in my Grandma Fritzie’s kitchen,” says Abadi, the author of “A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen” (The Harvard Common Press, 2002).

“At first, my grandmother cooked without explaining what she was doing, making it impossible for me to write down recipes. My initial attempts to help her were met with resistance. As I earned my stripes, her resistance waned, and advice came fast and furiously.” Although Abadi was exposed to Syrian food from an early age, she always felt like an outsider looking in. Unlike many of her Sephardic relatives who lived in Brooklyn or Deal, N.J., Abadi whose father was Ashkenazi grew up in Manhattan, somewhat secluded from the Syrian Jewish world. Her grandmother Fritzie hosted Passovers for years, but to please everyone at her table, she served a mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi cuisine.

“My grandmother merged two seders into one,” says Abadi. “We always had matzah ball and spinach-mint soup.” She created a haroset that was a cross between Ashkenazi and Sephardi styles, made from apple butter, cinnamon, walnuts and sweet wine. Yet as warm as these Passovers were, Abadi eagerly questioned her mother about the Syrian seders of her youth. “Every year on the afternoon of Passover eve, my father went to temple,” says Abadi’s mother, Annette Hidary. “He came home and gave me a sweet wrapped inside of a napkin. I received it, because I was the first born.” This sweet symbolized how the Angel of Death had spared the first-born son of the Hebrew slaves, while he visited sorrow upon the Egyptians during the last of the 10 Plagues. Hidary explained that she had no brothers.

“Even though I was a girl, I had this sweet all to myself, which made me feel special. I wasn’t allowed to share it with my sister, who was very jealous.” This dessert, which could be anything from sponge cake to macaroons or the pistachio cookies that Syrians adore, was always kosher for Passover. “During seders on Ocean Parkway, the men sat separately from the women,” says Hidary, explaining that her grandfather, a rabbi, led the seder from the head of a long table, flanked by uncles and male cousins. During much of the ceremony, the women busily clustered in the kitchen overseeing the meal’s many courses. Because lamb shanks are integral to seder plates, Syrians customarily serve them as an entree. “It’s nice because they’re not just ceremonial,” says Hidary. “At no other time besides Passover do we eat lamb shanks — they’re a seasonal thing.” Rice always accompanies the lamb. According to Sephardi law, it is permissible to eat rice during Passover.

“The honor of carrying the main course to the table was given to the next marriageable female in a family,” says Hidary, explaining that Syrians probably brought this custom from the Old Country to prepare young women for their future role. The glory was Hidary’s for many years, partially because her younger sister married first and never got a chance. “My mother and aunt would open the swinging doors between the kitchen and dining room as I waited in the wings,” says Hidary. “Both nervous and thrilled, I carried a tray of steaming lamb shanks and rice, terrified that I would drop it. All eyes were on me as I approached my grandfather.”

The men in her family were scrupulous about reading every word in the Haggadah. Passover celebrations were long, often ending at midnight. After dinner while the women cleared the dishes, the men returned to the table to finish the ceremony. “As my grandfather read the 10 plagues in Hebrew, his tone grew serious,” says Hidary. “One of the children stood by his side holding a pot, as he poured a generous splash of wine inside for each plague. The act was so intense that the women stopped their work to watch. He really dramatized the severity of the penalties. We children got the message that our enemies were severely punished.”

As a child, Abadi watched with excitement as the afikomen was made by wrapping a napkin around a piece of matzah. At Grandma Fritzie’s seders, the afikomen was hidden according to Syrian tradition. The youngest child swung it over his shoulder like a satchel as a symbol of slavery and the hasty travel that followed freedom. People at the table asked him in Hebrew: “Where do you come from?” “Egypt,” he replied. “Where are you going?” “Jerusalem,” he answered. “What provisions do you carry?”

“At our seders, everyone answered ‘matzah’ in a chorus,” says Abadi. “As in other Syrian homes, we passed the afikomen around the table and everyone asked and answered the same questions. That was a nice tradition. I really enjoyed it.” Equally pleasing, Syrian haroset is a medley of dried fruits, which is versatile and delightfully sweet. “My mother loves haroset,” says Abadi. “During the seder, we spread it on matzah, making sandwiches. Throughout the week, we eat it for breakfast with cream cheese or yogurt, and consume it by the spoonful for dessert.” Grandma Fritzie always prepared huge amounts of haroset, because after seders, she sent each family home with a jar of this treasure. “We kept up that tradition,” says Abadi. “Today my mother hands haroset to cousins on their way out the door.”

As Passover approaches, Abadi will be teaching a class at Manhattan’s Edmond J. Safra Synagogue featuring Syrian holiday specialties. Yet more than the recipes themselves, she feels she is conveying the concept of hospitality, which in today’s fast-paced world has become a dying art. While every culture offers unique ways of entertaining guests, Syrian hospitality in particular is concerned with opening your home to friends and family in the most gracious, generous way. “I was lucky to find something I can bring to life and pass on,” says Abadi. At Passover, which resonates hospitality, there’s no better way for Abadi to honor her Sephardic heritage than by sharing the holiday recipes she learned in Grandma Fritzie’s kitchen.

For Syrian Passover Recipes go to:
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