The following post was written by Toby Press author Dr. Susan Weingarten. Dr. Weingarten is author of the newly released book Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History.
My Life with Haroset
By Susan Weingarten
I grew up in a tiny Jewish community in the north of England, so small that even most of the British have never heard of it. Forty Jewish families we were, in the little seaside town of Wallasey, but although small, we had a rabbi and a synagogue. During the Second World War, Jews had been afraid that the great port city of Liverpool would be bombed by the Germans, and many of them fled over the river. In the end the Ministry of Defence put up barrage balloons over the Liverpool docks, and the Luftwaffe pilots couldn’t see their target and just bombed indiscriminately. So I grew up with bomb sites as playgrounds: perhaps that’s what made me an archaeologist. There was no Jewish shop in town: our kosher meat came on the ferry-boat once a week from Liverpool. There was no Jewish school either: all of us, boys and girls together learned in a cheder three times a week after school and on Sunday mornings. So my father sent for Jewish books for us from America, and I grew up with Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s What the Moon Brought, about the Jewish festivals. Here I learned the ingredients of haroset:
Chopped up fine;
And sweet red wine.
This was completely recognizable: it was almost exactly how my mother made her haroset, like her mother before her. Apples and nuts came from the greengrocer, but the rest had to be ordered from the Jewish grocer in Liverpool weeks before Passover, in a long list. And woe betide the housewife who forgot something from her list – everything was ordered months in advance and there was no hope of restocking if you ran out. My mother always remembered the cinnamon and wine, but raisins were often not available with a rabbinical stamp of approval in post-war Britain. We held our Seders in the oak-panelled formal dining-room of our Victorian house, only used on festivals, under a sparkling crystal chandelier, with the foods set out on a white tablecloth embroidered by my grandmother.
It was not until I immigrated to Israel that I realised that there was any other way of making haroset. Here I learned that Ashkenazi haroset, like Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s, was almost always the same, just like ours. But Sephardi haroset came in many, many versions, and was based on dates, rather than apples. And in the geographical middle, in the Balkans, in Greece and Turkey, haroset was actually based on these raisins so often missing in Britain.
In Israel I went back to university to study archaeology and completed a doctorate at Tel Aviv University on the Church Fathers in the Holy Land, especially the ascetic Saint Jerome, who had translated the Bible into Latin from the Hebrew. But I got tired of Christian asceticism and decided to move on to study Jewish food. I specialised in food in the Talmuds. There is a saying among historians, that no matter what subject you want to research, someone will have written a doctorate about it in Germany in the nineteenth century. Sure enough, there was an excellent book (in old Gothic typeface) written about talmudic archaeology with half a volume on food, but since then no one had done any serious research. The field was open for me. And since the Jerusalem Talmud had been written in Greco-Roman Palestine, there was plenty of comparative material, while there were parallels to the Babylonian Talmud in Baghdad of the caliphs. Then my youngest daughter decided to study history at Tel Aviv, and came home one day saying I must come to her class, because the lecturer, Vered Noam, was talking about ancient Jewish food. I arrived in the class to find Vered analysing the foods of the Seder in their Greek and Roman contexts. She pointed out the many parallels between the Seder and the formal Greco-Roman meal called the symposium: lying on couches, pouring and drinking wine, beginning with eggs and lettuce, talking about the foods eaten – there were so many similarities. Then, knowing I was studying ancient food, Vered turned to me and asked if there were any Greek or Roman parallels to haroset. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘I’ll have a look.’ That summer I was due to go the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, a meeting every year of scholars of food – historians, anthropologists, sociologists, chemists and many more – as well as people who just enjoy eating food. The subject at Oxford changes every year and that year it was to be authenticity. I decided to look at haroset. What is the most authentic version? The answer, I found, was not simple: I wrote a long paper on what the rabbis thought, and what their congregations did – which was often not the same thing at all. I looked at haroset right through history, not just concentrating on ancient times. At the Symposium my paper on “authentic harotset” was chosen for publication, but there were more aspects of haroset which did not fit in that paper.
Haroset, according to the Jerusalem Talmud, is in memory of clay, or according to some rabbis, of blood. The Talmud does not specify which blood – the blood of the first plague, or the blood of the suffering Jewish slaves beaten in Egypt. No one today mentions the blood symbolism of haroset – we are far too squeamish. But perhaps there is another reason too. In medieval Europe at Easter time Christians had often turned on their Jewish neighbours, the descendants, in their minds, of the original ‘Christ-killers’, and accused them of stealing and murdering Christian children and baking their blood into matza. In two cases in medieval France I found that these terrible and baseless accusations centred not on dry matza wafers but the wet, reddish mixture that was used for haroset. There were accusations, torture of prisoners, trials – but unlike many of the matza-centred blood libels most of the Jews were found innocent at the haroset trials, although at least one died of torture. But in consequence there were rabbis who forbade the use of red wine at the seder. Today we do use red wine at the seder, both for drinking and in the haroset, but we have censored out the suggestion that haroset is in memory of blood.
Haroset and the blood libels made another paper, at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Morality, but Vered’s question was still unanswered. Eventually I found the answer, in the Cairo Geniza. A fragment of an ancient glossary of difficult words in the Mishnah translated the Hebrew word ‘haroset’ into Greek (written in Hebrew letters), using the Greek word ’embamma.’ Embamma was the Greek word for a sauce made by pounding ingredients, which food was dipped into, just like the pounded apples or dates or raisins we dip the bitter herbs into at our seder. I wrote another paper, “How do you say haroset in Greek?” but at this point my husband pointed out there was enough material for a book. So I wrote a book: Haroset: The Taste of Jewish History. ‘A whole book about haroset?!’ people would ask. ‘You must be Ashkenazi,’ I would answer. ‘I also never knew there was enough for a book before I started.’ It is amazing how many varieties of haroset there are, and how much it has developed and changed throughout history. There is no one ingredient that is common to all varieties, and some of the ingredients have to been seen (or tasted) to be believed!
Susan Weingarten is the author of Haroset: A Taste of Jewish History, published by The Toby Press.