This secular Jew makes the case for hosting a Seder anyway

I’ve only been to a few Seders in my life, but none like Tamir Kalifa’s.

Even though Kalifa grew up in a Jewish household and still feels a strong connection to Jewish culture, he’s not exactly religious. Nonetheless, the Statesman photographer and Mother Falcon band member hosted his seventh annual Seder to celebrate the story of Passover and the power of ritual.

Tamir Kalifa hosted his first Seder in 2011 with three roommates and five close friends gathered around the dining room of his East Austin home. Tamir Kalifa / American-Statesman

MORE: Austin360Cooks: Just because it’s secular doesn’t mean it’s not Seder

When we showed up to Kalifa’s Seder, I was surprised just to see how many other non-Jews were there. Of the 50 or so folks in attendance, only a handful grew up attending Seders, and that’s one of the reasons Kalifa feels so compelled to host this dinner every year. Exposing people of all faiths to this singularly Jewish dinner helps us all learn more about Judaism and the principles behind it.

At Kalifa’s secular Seder, this means acknowledging the suffering in the world, the pain of the oppressed and the miraculously feeling of being free. He encouraged us to ask ourselves the hard questions: What are we free from? Who pays for that freedom? What ways do we support oppression, even in that freedom? So many existential questions to consider over the course of a three-hour dinner. (Good thing there was Lone Star to water down all that wine.)He wrote a really beautiful story for last week’s food section that I hope you’ll this Passover.

At Tamir Kalifa’s Seder, he served Lone Star beer with the traditional wine, and his haggadah featured emojis. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

I imagine that most of you already have your Seder dinner recipes ready, but if you wanted to learn more about haroset, one of the key dishes served at Seders around the world, here’s a primer from Joan Nathan, whose new book, “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World,” is a must-buy for anyone with an appreciation for Jewish cuisine.

Persian Haroset with Dates, Apples, Pistachios and Pomegranate Juice (Halleq)

Haroset, a popular dipping sauce for feasts in Babylon, was brought to Jerusalem and later added to the Passover Seder after the destruction of the Second Temple. For centuries, the sauce, originally made of dates, was slowly cooked in copper pots, used to cook down the fruit into a syrupy honey, making the biblical date honey. Then, it was topped with ground walnuts.

Later, in Baghdad (about miles from Babylon), it was traditional to buy the dates, press them through a special machine, letting the syrup ooze out, and then heat the dates very slowly in a copper pot until they were the thick consistency of a jam-like syrup. I have heard stories about men and women who would roam the streets of Baghdad hawking this date honey served with clotted cream on bread or matzo for breakfast.

As Jews settled on the Silk Road or throughout the Mediterranean, they either brought with them their recipe for haroset, if they could find all the ingredients, or created new ones, based on ingredients where they lived. Egyptian haroset includes raisins, dates and nuts, and Persian haroset, called halleq, is filled with nuts and dried fruits, pomegranate juice, bananas and cardamom as the prominent spice, but uncooked.

Every Passover, I make about five kinds of haroset from different parts of the world. For me, the various blends, representing the mortar used to make bricks in slavery in ancient Egypt, reflect the regional dispersal of the Jews throughout history.

— Joan Nathan

1 cup almonds
1 cup roasted, shelled pistachios
1 cup walnuts
1 cup black raisins
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup dates, pitted
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 large apple, peeled, cored and quartered
1 large pear, peeled, cored and quartered
2 bananas, peeled
2 to 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 to 1 cup pomegranate juice
1/2 to 1 cup sweet kosher wine

In a large food processor, combine the almonds, pistachios, walnuts, black and golden raisins, dates, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and nutmeg. Pulse until the nuts are coarsely chopped.

Add the apple, pear and bananas, then pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 2 tablespoons of the vinegar, 1/2 cup of the pomegranate juice and 1/2 cup of the wine. Pulse again, adding more vinegar, juice, or wine to taste or as needed to make a coarse paste. Do not purée; the mixture should retain some crunch. Makes 6 cups.


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