Manischewitz: A Tale of Two Bottles

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This year was the first time we held a Passover seder in my childhood home, since my Episcopalian mother died. My father still lives in the house, and my siblings and I gathered this year to create a seder with, and for, him. At 93, Dad still sits at the head of the table and leads us through the prayers and songs in the haggadah (the booklet that sets out the service before and after the Passover meal).

To lead, he uses a sheet of yellowed paper with an outline of pages to include and pages to skip, tucked into our stack of haggadot. In my father’s penciled block lettering, the sheet is marked “First Parish, 1977.” That was the year he first edited a one-hour model seder for the Sunday School at the Unitarian church overlooking our town green. As one of the only Jewish people in our New England village in that era, he felt both honored and obligated to take on this annual educational duty. Dad’s distillation of the seder turned out to be the perfect length for our extended family of all ages and all religions. And so the “First Parish, 1977” seder became a part of our own tradition.

If my father was in charge of the service, my mother was always in charge of the kitchen. And we struggled this year with trying to replicate her seder. Her matzoh balls were always perfect. Mine fell victim to multi-tasking: they fell apart and floated out into the soup, more like stratus clouds than cumulus. My sister and I chopped the charoset, but then I kibbitzed as she sauteed the nuts in butter, just like Mom used to. Mom swore it made the charoset taste better, but this step seems “de trop,” and somehow not in the proper kosher spirit to me now.

Every moment of seder preparation this year felt like a meditation on time and tradition, with a hundred small decisions about whether to stick to the ways of our past or move on. So this became the year that I finally poured the last dregs of Manischewitz from a bottle we had used for decades down the sink. This is cheap wine, but the $2.59 price sticker (and the font of that sticker) spoke to the ancient origins of this particular bottle. No one in our family drinks the stuff: we only use a glug or two for the charoset each year. So the bottle had lasted almost forever, like a Passover miracle. The remaining wine was brown and cloudy with sediment, but I had a hard time letting go of the lovely old bottle, imagining how my mother’s hand had lifted it each year and poured the sacred libation into the charoset.

I thought about tucking the empty Manischewitz bottle into my carry-on bag and sneaking it home, but I am a notorious pack rat and decided to do the brave thing instead. Before I consigned it to recycling, I set up the old and new bottles side by side, and studied the changes over time. The wine has gone from 12 percent alcohol to 11 percent: my brother who lives in Napa Valley tells me this is presumably a cost-cutting measure. The lovely images of grape leaves are now smaller and less distinct and the dusty blue Concord grapes have become more standard purple grapes on the new bottle. There is less Hebrew, and the looping Hebrew cursive script is gone. The gold Star of David has become smaller. And most notably, the Old World rabbi with the long white beard on the original bottle has disappeared completely on the new bottle.

I don’t know what year Manischewitz edited out that rabbi. I tried to google for a date, but found only a piece from NPR describing how the wine was once popular with African-American men in particular, with a link to a marvelous television ad featuring Sammy Davis Jr. One can imagine that the company made most of the label changes in order to attract a consumer base beyond the Jewish community. As for the rabbi on the bottle, a Manischewitz brand manager was not sure what year the label changed. But she told NPR, “you’re not going to find it on the shelf—and if you do, goodness, don’t drink it, I don’t know how old it is.”

Oops. We did find it on a shelf, in the bottom of the wet bar, in the suburb of my youth. And we did use it in our charoset last year, with no ill effects. But this year, it was time to let go.

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Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Passover: Aimee Helen’s Southern-Style Charoset Recipe

From the archives: Originally posted on March 24, 2010. Happy Passover, all!

In the late 19th century, my great-grandfather Emanuel Michael Rosenfelder left Bavaria and became a circuit-riding rabbi, serving Jewish traders and merchants along the Mississippi River, in Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. When he registered to vote in 1876 in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, the clerk, obviously unfamiliar with Jewish theology, recorded Rabbi Rosenfelder’s profession as “Minister of the Gospel.” In New Orleans, he met and married my great-grandmother, a teenager who had been living in a Jewish orphanage after her parents died in a Yellow Fever epidemic. Fleeing the threat of tropical illness, the Rosenfelders journeyed north up the river and settled in Louisville, Kentucky. My grandmother was born and raised there, one of eight children, and they gave her a Southern francophone name, Aimee Helen.

In preparing for the Passover Seder next week, I turned to Grandma’s charoset recipe, written out for me in her shaky handwriting on a translucent scrap of onion-skin paper. The typical Ashkenazic (European Jewish) recipe for charoset is a mix of chopped apples, almonds, cinnamon and sweet kosher wine, and in many families, the big debate is whether to include raisins. Meanwhile, the Sephardim (Jews from Spain, Portugal and the Middle East) make charoset with desert fruits including dates, figs, pistachios and pine nuts. Charoset, served on matzah as part of the ritual Passover meal, is meant to represent either the mortar used by Jewish slaves when building the pyramids, or the sensual foods mentioned in the Song of Songs.

But Aimee Helen Rosenfelder Katz’s charoset reflects the sojourn of her family  in the Deep South, surprising us with oranges, bananas and pecans. I grew up on this charoset at Passover each year, and I love the tart sparkle of the oranges, the smoothness of the bananas, the sweet pecans. She was a bit of a southern belle, my Jewish grandma, with very proper manners, and a private girls’ school education. But she was also an intellectual role model, with a French degree from the University of Louisville, and graduate studies at Barnard. During Word War I, she taught French to American soldiers heading off to fight in Europe.

Someday, her first great-grandchild, my daughter Aimee Helen, will inherit the charoset recipe, a tangible reminder of the uniquely American story of her Jewish ancestors. At the Passover Seder, we are commanded to explain the religious significance of each of the seemingly incongruous objects arranged around the Seder plate: the egg, the roasted shank bone, the parsley, the horseradish… In the same way, I feel commanded to explain to my children the significance of each disparate family tradition, each story, each character on the colorful plate representing their heritage. Given the complexity and depth and resonance of the stories from our Jewish family, I cannot imagine raising my children solely as Christians. But neither can I imagine ignoring everything else on their family plate.

Aimee Helen’s Southern-Style Charoset

3 peeled and grated apples

2 peeled and grated oranges

2  chopped bananas

1 squeezed half-lemon

1 cup chopped toasted pecans

½ cup chopped raisins (optional)

½ tsp cinnamon

1 tbs sweet kosher wine

Sugar to taste

Mix all ingredients and give it some time for the flavors to mix and deepen. It only gets better the next day. Aimee Helen noted, “I prefer pecans, but almonds if you prefer.”

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Aunt Babette’s Cook Book: “Easter” Passover Dishes

As the week of both Passover and Easter approaches, interfaith parents may become as frantic or frenzied as children hunting for the afikomen, or for Easter eggs. On top of juggling the theological issues, we face the practical challenge of preparing more than one traditional family meal, and trying to squeeze in all of the foodways (dying the eggs, rolling the matzoh balls) that create sensory memories and transmit a sense of heritage to our children.

I returned to my Jewish grandmother’s house this week (she died in 1994 but we have kept her house), attended the Shabbat service at our tiny Temple Beth Israel (in Honesdale PA) to celebrate my cousin Bill’s 90th birthday, and spent time with my parents (now 80 and 87) looking through old family photos and cookbooks. My Jewish family is religious, but also Classical Reform, which means they love Torah, but see little reason to preserve every one of the hundreds of cultural restrictions that set Jews apart. My grandmother, raised in Louisville by a Rabbi and his Jewish wife from New Orleans, left behind handwritten recipes for baked ham, and creole shrimp.

Last year, I published Grandma’s recipe for southern-style charoset, made with pecans, oranges and bananas. This year, in her kitchen, I found a leather-bound 1889 third edition of Aunt Babette’s Cook Book, a hugely popular guidebook for Jewish housewives, published by the Bloch Publishing Company in Cincinnati. Edward Bloch’s sister was married to the greatest pioneer of Reform Judaism in America, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.

Aunt Babette’s is not a kosher cookbook by any stretch of the imagination. The recipe for Lobster Salad reads: “If you wish to have it extra nice mix in last a cupful of whipped cream.” I am a New England girl who loves her lobster in drawn butter, but some ancient tribal part of my soul does recoil at the idea of lobster slathered in whipped cream.

So what makes Aunt Babette’s a Jewish cookbook at all? Many of the German recipes (zviebel platz, leberknadel, wiener studenten kipfel) could presumably be found in German Catholic, German Lutheran, and German Jewish homes. The suggested menu for Friday supper gives no culinary hint of the Sabbath: speckled trout, potatoes, pistachio ice cream.

Ironically, all of the specifically-Jewish recipes are found in the chapter entitled “Easter Dishes,” which does not address the Christian Easter at all, but instead begins with a section on “How to Set the Table for the Service of the “Sedar” on the eve of Pesach or Passover.” Here we find what I believe is the only word printed in Hebrew in this book: חֲרֽוֹסֶת (charoset), in the midst of a careful description of each ritual food needed for the Sedar plate, though there is no reference to their religious meanings. In fact, the last line of this paragraph reads “In some families hard-boiled eggs are distributed after the sedar (Easter eggs).”

The purposeful cross-labeling of Passover as Easter here is fascinating to me, especially after reading the hundreds of comments on my post last week, in which I advised interfaith families on celebrating both Easter and Passover, but keeping them separate. Reading Babette’s book made me think I am in fact keeping them more separate than some of my Jewish ancestors did. My readers noted that in many languages, the word for Easter and Passover is the same–a variation on “pascal.” However, I have to wonder if this cookbook does not reflect both assimilation, and a desire to diffuse the anti-Semitism of the time by educating curious Christian housewives who might browse through the book about the connections and similarities between the holidays, despite their huge theological differences.

Both holidays do share the symbolism of the egg, or the circle of life, and renewal in spring, and many of my Huffington Post readers are debating these questions: Did Christians borrow the egg from Passover? Did Pagan egg symbolism predate Judeo-Christian eggs, and get incorporated into both, separately or in succession? Did the Easter egg hunt evolve from the hunt for leavened bread crumbs prior to Passover?

Aunt Babette goes on to give a dozen recipes for funky-retro Passover dishes, including matzoh kloesse (balls) with prune filling, and raisin wine. I was thrilled to find one dish my grandmother made for us when we visited her for Pesach each year, not because I don’t know how to make it (she taught me herself), but because it explained Grandma’s name for the dish: ueberschlagene (“overturned”) matzoh, known to most Jewish families as matzoh brei. I never understood why my grandmother used a different name for this dish. I realize now that she grew up with the German name (shared by Aunt Babette), rather than the Yiddish. Her father, the rabbi, had been a German teacher in the public schools. Anyway, it is a long and colorful name, for a simple seasonal treat that combines eggs, with all of their varied meanings, and matzoh.

Ueberschlagene Matzos

Beat up a dozen eggs, very light; add salt and soak the matzos in the beaten egg. (It is much better to soak the matzos in milk first, then in the beaten egg.) In the meantime heat a quantity of goose oil in a spider*; dip each piece of matzos in the eggs before laying in the spider; fry a light brown on both sides; lay on a large platter and sprinkle with a mixture of sugar, cinnnamon and grated peel of a lemon; the more eggs used the richer they will be. Delicious.

* spider=cast iron frying pan, originally with three legs

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Passover: Aimee Helen’s Southern-Style Charoset Recipe

In the late 19th century, my great-grandfather Emanuel Michael Rosenfelder left Bavaria and became a circuit-riding rabbi, serving Jewish traders and merchants along the Mississippi River, in Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. When he registered to vote in 1876 in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, the clerk, obviously unfamiliar with Jewish theology, recorded Rabbi Rosenfelder’s profession as “Minister of the Gospel.” In New Orleans, he met and married my great-grandmother, a teenager who had been living in a Jewish orphanage after her parents died in a Yellow Fever epidemic. Fleeing the threat of tropical illness, the Rosenfelders journeyed north up the river and settled in Louisville, Kentucky. My grandmother was born and raised there, one of eight children, and they gave her a Southern francophone name, Aimee Helen.

In preparing for the Passover Seder next week, I turned to Grandma’s charoset recipe, written out for me in her shaky handwriting on a translucent scrap of onion-skin paper. The typical Ashkenazic (European Jewish) recipe for charoset is a mix of chopped apples, almonds, cinnamon and sweet kosher wine, and in many families, the big debate is whether to include raisins. Meanwhile, the Sephardim (Jews from Spain, Portugal and the Middle East) make charoset with desert fruits including dates, figs, pistachios and pine nuts. Charoset, served on matzah as part of the ritual Passover meal, is meant to represent either the mortar used by Jewish slaves when building the pyramids, or the sensual foods mentioned in the Song of Songs.

But Aimee Helen Rosenfelder Katz’s charoset reflects the sojourn of her family  in the Deep South, surprising us with oranges, bananas and pecans. I grew up on this charoset at Passover each year, and I love the tart sparkle of the oranges, the smoothness of the bananas, the sweet pecans. She was a bit of a southern belle, my Jewish grandma, with very proper manners, and a private girls’ school education. But she was also an intellectual role model, with a French degree from the University of Louisville, and graduate studies at Barnard. During Word War I, she taught French to American soldiers heading off to fight in Europe.

Someday, her first great-grandchild, my daughter Aimee Helen, will inherit the charoset recipe, a tangible reminder of the uniquely American story of her Jewish ancestors. At the Passover Seder, we are commanded to explain the religious significance of each of the seemingly incongruous objects arranged around the Seder plate: the egg, the roasted shank bone, the parsley, the horseradish… In the same way, I feel commanded to explain to my children the significance of each disparate family tradition, each story, each character on the colorful plate representing their heritage. Given the complexity and depth and resonance of the stories from our Jewish family, I cannot imagine raising my children solely as Christians. But neither can I imagine ignoring everything else on their family plate.

Aimee Helen’s Southern-Style Charoset

3 peeled and grated apples

2 peeled and grated oranges

2  chopped bananas

1 squeezed half-lemon

1 cup chopped toasted pecans

½ cup chopped raisins (optional)

½ tsp cinnamon

1 tbs sweet kosher wine

Sugar to taste

Mix all ingredients and give it some time for the flavors to mix and deepen. It only gets better the next day. Aimee Helen noted, “I prefer pecans, but almonds if you prefer.”

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.