"Mom, why is our charoset smooth and not chunky like the Friedmans'?"
I had picked up Mom from the airport the first weekend in April fueled by Jewish guilt. Why? For the same reason I'm pushing 30 and have yet to roast my own turkey: Mom has always done all the holiday cooking.
Maybe it was a sincere desire to establish my own tradition. Or perhaps I had simply run out of options. Whatever the reason, while Mom had visions of cable cars, I saw this weekend as Passover 101. I was locked in. Invitations to my first Seder were in the mail.
Up until this year, I'd breeze home the afternoon of the first night (Passover lasts eight crazy days), maybe help chop a salad and then reappear for a Seder table so dazzling it could put the color back in Moses' beard.
When I couldn't go home, I went to Hillel, or to my sister's-in-law, or a professor's house, or a co-worker's. I straddled the kiddie table for as long as I could, indulging myself in the graciousness of others.
This year, I said, di, enough. Call me meshugah, but too many young professionals rely on "adults" to pull them through the holidays. What are we? Chopped don't answer that.
You can eat all the lox in Manhattan and light the Sabbath candles every Friday, but, as I was about to find, you haven't experienced true Jewish ritual until you've held your own Passover Seder.
I was determined to be true to my Sephardic roots but didn't want too much pressure, so I invited three goys (conveniently, their first Seder, too).
Sephardics (African, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Jews) eat rice and meat dishes tinged with figs, dates, pistachios and saffron.
Dishes my guests might have been expecting beef brisket, potato kugel and matzo ball soup are particular to Ashkenazis (Jews from Eastern Europe, France and Germany).
Other traditions are common to both.
"So, do we have to drink Manischewitz on Passover?" I asked when our cable car got stuck on the steepest part of Powell. ("Jam water" a guest would later describe it.)
"You know," my mother said, ignoring my question. "If you moved home, I could show you how to make dishes all the time."
Later, back in the kitchen, she was at it again.
"Why don't I just make the food for you and you can freeze it until your Seder?"
But I resisted. Instead, on her last night, my mom led me through a trial run of shirin polo, saffron-stained rice with almonds, raisins and carrots.
Feeling more confident, I let her go back leaving her notebook of handwritten recipes.
I was on my own.
The day of, I spent $65 at four grocery stores. I was home and cooking by 4 p.m. I had told my friends to arrive at 8.
My menu paid homage to various Sephardic traditions. The rice was Iranian, like me. My main dish, Honey and Lemon Cornish Game Hens, is commonly served at Moroccan Seders. I stuffed them with biryani from Trader Joe's, a shout-out to Indian Jews.
I had researched kosher wines and discovered that it's now a booming business, with dozens of varietals to choose from. I had brought home a Baron Herzog Zinfandel with a bottle of Manischewitz as a backup.
Good thing I did. Shortly after my guests arrived, my fancy wine opener broke, splattering zin all over the kitchen and on a few of my friends.
I heard a voice: Heed the 11th commandment: Thou shalt not stray from Manischewitz.
It was then that I looked around my kitchen in disbelief. Chunks of charoset clung to the oven. Wine and turmeric stained the counter. Matzo crumbs were everywhere.
Why did I do this, again?
The answer came when I took my seat at the "head" of my tiny round dining table. I led the Seder like my father, and prepared it like my mother. My friends dutifully read their parts from the Haggadah, the Passover book. I found myself nodding as my understanding of the various steps grew.
A new ritual happened unexpectedly: Each time we said a prayer over the wine, we clinked glasses. Passover, after all, is a celebration filled with joy and laughter. It felt right.
The old rituals did, too. We dipped our pinkies into wine and dotted our plates 10 times. The act is an expression of our gratitude to G-d for freeing the slaves from bondage, but it also expresses our dismay over the misfortunes or 10 plagues He visited upon the Egyptians.
As is customary among Iranian Jews, my friends and I hit each other with green onions. The tradition reminds us of the lashings the Jewish slaves endured. Older Persian Jews will tell you that the custom expels negative energy.
My friends loved it so much they were double-fisting scallions.
We finished our first Seder with Chocolate-Covered Toffee Matzo, a new-world Ashkenazi staple, before they shuffled out, after 10 p.m., gushing thanks.
The phone rang right when I expected it to. My mother's voice came through as it usually does this time of night: tired and scratchy, but inquisitive.
"Did you soak the saffron long enough? Did you set the table like I told you to?"
Her stream of questions continued, and I sunk to the kitchen floor from fatigue, landing on a chunk of hardened charoset. All hadn't gone smoothly on my first Seder. My blender had flung, rather than ground, the nuts and fruit for my charoset. I ended up using my Cuisinart Mini-Prep and making a mess.
But I didn't tell Mom.
I knew my next Seder would be less stressful. As the Jewish tradition tells us, may we meet again then, and celebrate in Jessica's home.
But I just might serve my charoset chunky next year.
Editor's note: Rice, which is forbidden to be eaten by non-Sephardic Jews on Passover, must be certified kosher for the holiday.
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