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“How good is the gefilte fish?” my mother asks my then-boyfriend-now-fiancé before requesting that he pass the horseradish. “Can you believe it’s from Costco? It’s honestly my favorite,” she tells him for the second night in a row. We’ve been dating for a few months and it’s the first of the Jewish high holidays we’re spending together as a couple. After a successful first night’s seder, we’re in the midst of seder number two and I’ve never seen him, a nice Jewish boy, look so out of place at a table of his fellow tribe members.
As an Iraqi-Persian Jew, Alex was never exposed to an Ashkenazic seder before meeting me. Gefilte fish. Matzo ball soup. Brisket. Dessert. That’s the order we follow ever Passover for two nights in a row, religiously (no pun intended). Naturally, you throw in the holiday requirements, like charoset (an apple and nut chutney representing the mortar the Jews used to build the Pyramids), fresh horseradish (representing the bitter times we endured as slaves in Egypt), and matzo (the unleavened bread we made in a hurry before escaping through the parted Dead Sea). I can vouch that there have been literal tears shed when this succession wasn’t followed to completion.
On our way home, he asked, “Why would you have the same meal, in the same order, for two nights in a row?” I couldn’t find an answer. It was simply just the way we’ve always known it to be. Even our haggadahs tell us where to pause for each course. “And where the hell is the rice?!” he exclaimed in confusion. While rice is contraband for us on Passover, it’s Kosher for the Sephardim and Mizrahim to enjoy along with legumes. Again, just the way we’ve always known.
Fast forward to the following year, where we spent one seder at his aunt Diana’s in Great Neck, New York, who threw a Mizrahic feast for the books. Bowls of kubbeh (Iraqi beef meatballs encased in a dough of ground rice and chicken, stewed in a sweet and sour beet broth) and ghormeh sabzi (a Persian herb stew with beef, dried Omani limes, and red kidney beans) filled the table alongside platters of whole roasted fish, braised leg of lamb, and enough rice to feed an army. I kid you not, there were probably five or six different rice dishes, each one more fragrant and delicious than the next.
While I was familiar with the concept of a seder, this experience was completely new to me, from the food to the fact that you hit each other with scallions when you sing Dayenu. I left finally understanding how Alex must have felt the year before, simultaneously part of the group, yet still an outsider. Since then, we’ve been able immerse ourselves in each other’s culture, becoming familiar with both Ashkenazic and Mizrahic traditions.
This year, we’re combining the seders into one huge family feast and I wanted to serve a dish that could feel familiar to all, ensuring no one feels out of place. I landed on a hybrid of classic Ashkenazic brisket with fragrant and hearty Persian ghormeh sabzi. A big ol’ beef brisket is seared until golden before getting braised in a flavorful broth of minced herbs, dried Omani limes, fenugreek and turmeric with red kidney beans. The resulting brisket is not only beyond tender, but the brightness from the dried limes and fresh herbs cuts through the traditionally heavy dish.
Now, before you start cyber-bullying me, I know beans aren’t kosher for Passover for the Ashkenazim. However, I got the blessing from my family to embrace the Middle Eastern half of the seder with open arms, beans included. Just don’t tell my rabbi.
I’m looking forward to the first of many joint seders, where we can continue to marry traditions from each side, building our own shared Jewish experience. Since at the end of the day, rice or no rice, brisket or no brisket, both of our families only want the same thing: leftovers.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 5-to-5½-pound beef brisket, untrimmed
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon dried fenugreek
- 1 tablespoon dried turmeric
- 2 bunches parsley, minced (4 cups leaves and tender stems)
- 2 bunches cilantro, minced (4 cups leaves and tender stems)
- 2 bunches scallions, minced (12 each)
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 6 dried Omani limes
- 2 cups red kidney beans, soaked overnight and drained
Tell us your stories about inviting a significant other to your family seder, in the comments below.