What Ashkenazim and Sephardim bring to the table

What Ashkenazim and Sephardim bring to the table

A young host masters the recipe for pleasing palettes at a culturally mixed seder

The family sits down for the seder.
The family sits down for the seder.

Passover is a special and meaningful holiday for many reasons. It is an annual reminder of who we are and where we come from. Family and friends gather to retell a critical event in Jewish history, with a sense of community and connection to those who came before us and sacrificed so much. Jews often quip on the holidays: “They came, they tried to kill us, we prevailed. Let’s eat!”

So, let’s get to it — the foods of Passover.

Growing up in a Jewish home, I was familiar with Passover traditions: cleaning out the chametz, eating matzah and macaroons, and helping my mom as she prepared familiar delicacies: matzah ball soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish with red horseradish, and her signature stuffed cabbage.

And so it went. My grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins would arrive, carrying bags of Passover goodies from the Bronx. There was no dinner until after you earned the right to eat by reciting the Haggadah. Even if my mom gave us something at 4 p.m. to hold us over, we were starving throughout that seder, so focused on the feast to come. We could hardly wait.

Debby Mazon

After we ate the sumptuous meal, we would race around the house trying to find the afikomen. For years, this was the way it was.

Then I met Richie, my husband-to-be. I don’t think I ever thought about or realized how different his family was from mine. After all, we were all Jewish. But they were Sephardim. Not only did they descend from a different part of the world, they also had different customs — right down to the foods on the seder table.

At the time, this did not worry me. Since both my parents and my soon-to-be in-laws lived in Paramus, I envisioned going to my traditional seder at my parents’ house one night and then a Sephardic seder at Richie’s  parents’  house on the second night, for years to come.

After Richie and I were married, I figured we would invite the families to our home for birthdays, anniversaries, the Fourth of July, and so on, and leave the hosting of Jewish holiday celebrations to our parents.

The family masks up for the plagues.

No such luck. My in-laws moved to Florida three years after our wedding, and I was faced with making our first seder when I was 26.

By that time, I had sat at a Sephardic seder table with Richie’s family a few times. The differences between their traditions and those of my family were stark. The Haggadah was in Ladino and Hebrew, with little English. Chopped liver? Gone. Gefilte fish? No way. Charoset? Made with dried fruit and almonds, not apples and walnuts. Spinach pie and meat pie with a matzah crust? Two must-haves.

How delicious those delicacies were when my mother-in-law, Estelle, baked them. I, however, didn’t have a clue how she did it. And my mother-in-law did not believe in sharing recipes. If anyone asked for an Estelle recipe, she would say, “Come to my house, darling, and I will make it for you.” And she did.

She and my father-in-law were flying up the night before for the first seder I made, so there was no time for us to cook together. I remember calling my mom, quite upset, and asking her what I should do. “Mom, do I make spinach pie or matzah ball soup? Do I put dates or apples with walnuts in the charoset?”

This is Estelle Mazon’s secret recipe, shared with Hadassah.

My mom was modern and wise, so she simply said, “Make the dishes that please your in-laws. As long as it is food, Dad and I will eat whatever you cook.”

Still, there was the challenge of having no recipes to follow, no internet to Google. I did not even realize there was such a thing as a Sephardic cookbook out there in the world. So I called my mother-in-law and asked her to explain how to make spinach and meat pies with a matzah crust.

She told me to skip the meat pie because the recipe was too complicated. For the spinach pie, she instructed me to mix fresh chopped spinach with eggs, feta, and parmesan cheeses and then to lay matzah pieces across the top and bottom. She said the juices from the spinach would seep into the matzah and soften it. (To be clear, my mother-in-law’s seder was both pesachdik and kosher. Her spinach pie did not have cheese. Now, our seders are kosher-style and pesachdik.)

Nope! My spinach pie smelled great, but the matzah on top was the darkest brown, crumbled and totally dried-out. If I had served it like that, we would have been giving our guests the Heimlich maneuver. I was holding back tears at the thought of throwing the pie in the garbage after all that work. Have you ever cleaned four pounds of fresh spinach? In those days, there were stalks and bunches that had to be soaked, rinsed, dried, and then cut up. There was no such thing as ready-to-eat spinach that came in a cellophane bag.

The table is set for the seder.

Richie told me to remove the top crust and serve it, so everyone had open-faced spinach pie. No one complained.

Now that we have hosted Passover more than 40 times, I have refined my recipes and varied the menu to a true blending of Ashkenazi and Sephardic dishes that seems to please everyone, family and friends alike, who return year after year.

However, there is one more thread to this tale — a Hadassah connection. At one point, my young women’s Hadassah group, Bat Sheva, merged with the Paramus chapter, whose multigenerational members included Richie’s mom and aunt. With the influx of 40 younger women, the fundraising chair thought it would be a clever idea to bring the cookbooks that the Paramus chapter had put together to a meeting for us to buy. Of course, we did.

A few days later, when I was leafing through the book, I spotted a familiar dish — Passover Meat Pie, Mina de Carne. But the real surprise came at the end of the recipe: my mother-in-law’s name. It was signed Estelle Mazon! She had shared the recipe for the benefit of Hadassah but never gave it to a relative or friend. I realized then how important Hadassah was to her.

Sometime later, a Hadassah colleague from Rochester, N.Y., lent me her Sephardic cookbook, which contained many of the recipes I still make today. She also gave me her own recipes. Lucky for me and for everyone who comes to our seders, she believed in sharing recipes to preserve our traditions for the next generation. And isn’t that what Passover is all about?

Generation to generation — or, in Ladino, generacion a generacion.

Debra Mazon of Emerson, the human resources director of a medical sales company, is chair of American affairs advocacy for Hadassah and has held many leadership roles in the organization, including president of its Northern New Jersey region. She and her husband, Richard, have two sons and four grandchildren.

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