How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Passover Seder

In her latest blog post, Vered Guttman recounts how this year's festive night reinforced her bond with both Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions, to delicious results.

This year’s seder was our first to host ourselves. Not a surprise considering we’re coming from a country where the decision where you’ll spend your next Shabbat dinner, not to mention the High Holidays, is made by your parents, at least until you have your own grandchildren.

I was happy we could lead the reading of the Haggadah, because as it turned out, and to my big surprise, I really wanted to hear the Haggadah the way I’ve heard it every year at my parents house in Israel. And it had to be in Hebrew.

Passover Tabbuleh of Pistachios and Herb
Vered Guttman

So while I was singing Ha Lachma Anya in the Iraqi tune, our friend Howie surprised us with an Ashkenazi tune for the hallelujah part. It was really like going back in time to when both my wonderful grandmothers, both named Rachel, were still alive and spent the seders together. The Polish Rachel, knowing that no house in the country is as kosher as hers, invited the Sephardi side to her house. The Iraqi Rachel, whose Hebrew had no accent throughout the year, adopted a heavy Iraqi accent especially for the seder and insisted on the melodies she heard growing up in Baghdad. At the same time, the Polish grandmother would try to compete with the Iraqi tunes by raising her voice in Ashkenazi chanting, encouraging my mother to join her. And us kids, staring from one end of the table to the other, well, we were just trying to figure out what our part is in this musical mix.

While we were having our seder in Washington this week, our dear friend Arthur Allen spent his in Warsaw at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Poland, in what sounds like a very different seder than those held by Jewish-Polish grandmothers.

“The seder was held at 5 P.M. on Saturday - the ambassador, Lee Feinstein, explained that he was holding it early so that his staff could go to their own homes and celebrate Easter night, which is quite a big deal in Poland.” Art wrote in an email. “The American residence here is a fabulous house on a hill in the Mokotow section of Warsaw. There were about 30 people, 20 adults and 10 kids, in a beautiful arched room with a glass ceiling on a garden overlooking the city. The party was about equally divided among Poles, Americans and Israelis. I found it a bit odd to be sitting next to the Israeli ambassador, since I'd spent a couple of days earlier in the week in the apartment of Marcus Klingberg.”

Art is in Europe doing a research for his new book, about two brilliant Polish scientists, Rudolf Weigl and Ludwik Fleck, and how they survived the war and tricked the Germans using their scientific knowledge about typhus and their simple human wisdom. His research brought him to meet earlier this week with Klingberg,a Poland-born Soviet spy who was caught in Israel in the 1980’s.

“Feinstein is a charming and very diplomatic guy and married to a swell Scottish journalist, Elaine Monaghan, who spent much of her career with Reuters in Russia and other Slavic areas. They have two kids, aged 8 and 5, who sat at the kid end... most of the children were just the right age to be very excited by the afikoman.”

“Feinstein had warned us (as if we had to be warned) that this was to be a 30-minute seder because of the young kids... even so he had trouble keeping everyone's attention given the very chill atmosphere and conversation -- why it was just like one of those diplomatic soirees in the movies! Food was yummy - nice matzoh ball soup with a lot of vegetables and parsley, salmon wrapped in spinach, tagine of beef with grapes in a thick gravy. Desserts were cheesecake and a strawberry/lemon confection made with matzo meal and meringue. Good Israeli wine. I was happy that I had foisted myself upon the event. Anyway, I was the closest to Elijah they were going to get.”

Back here, we’re done (at last!) with the seder leftovers and it’s time for Passover mid-week fare. I did have some mashed potato we did not finish and decided to prepare kibbeh batata, fried potato patties stuffed with spiced ground beef. It’s a simple dish(well, maybe not for the cook) that my Iraqi grandmother used to make in Hanukkah, but is popular for Passover as well in many Sephardi communities. The mashed potatoes are mixed with an egg and matzah meal and kneaded into a dough. It is then stuffed with the cooked ground beef with cinnamon and other spices and fried.

“Sounds like a knish to me.” said my husband, who’s becoming more Ashkenazi the more I write about Sephardi food.

“But it’s not,” I said, without even getting upset “the knish dough uses a large amount of flour with the potatoes, which makes it a little heavy and dry, while the kibbeh batata’s dough is mainly potatoes and is light and fluffy.”

And just to make sure dinner is truly light and fluffy I added a green Passover tabulleh of herbs and pistachios, no bulgar, in pomegranate dressing. I think both my grandmothers would approve.

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