Passover is just around the corner, and Jews all over the world are preparing to undergo all the motions of remembering that one time, three thousand years ago when we were slaves for a little bit, then got freedom, vindication, reparations (in the form of Egyptian gold, silver, and jewelry),Â andâ€”followingÂ a 40-year interludeâ€”aÂ country.
For African-American Jews, however, Passover feels evermore real; tangible.
For us, theÂ Seder plate isn’t something symbolic of an event that happened to “ancestors” a long, long time ago in a country far, far away. It’s about experiences that happened to familyâ€”our grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparentsâ€”of whomÂ we own photographs and maybe even have had the privilege of actually knowing, in the country we still actually live in.
“If the Holy One, Blessed is He,” reads the haggadah, “Had not freed us, then we, our children, and our children’s children, would still be slaves.”
This passage states the obviousâ€”that the Jews would still be enslaved in Egypt were it not for God’s intervention. But it alsoÂ tells us that evenÂ if the Egyptians had freed us in their own right, the Jews would have been stigmatized in the eyes of the Egyptians (and the world), as having been slaves who should be beholden to the Egyptians for the privilege of freedom. It would be a freedom that, at any given whim, could be presumably revoked at the Egyptians’s leisure.
Clearly, thisÂ has a particular resonance for African Americans, whose historyÂ canÂ been distilled into three time periods in the public consciousness: the present-day, the Civil Rights era, and slavery. A freedom which can be revoked at any time? Do the repeals and attempted repeals of the Voter Registration ActÂ or Affirmative ActionÂ sound familiar to anyone? So manyÂ aspects of the African-American experience post-slavery illustrate how miraculous the Jewish Exodus was.
The Jewish people did not have to endure struggles for citizenship, voting rights, or against Jim Crow laws. There was no need for a Civil Rights Movement. No generational wealth disparity, racial profiling, or disproportionate incarceration rates due to discriminatory crime bills. The Jewish People went from being slaves one day to being completely utterly free the next, with none of the aftermath that “real world” slavery to freedom entails.
Because of this,Â the celebration of Passover is more than just window dressing for African-American Jews, and some of usÂ reflect this on our Seder plates.
Seder plates across the Jewish world exhibit variety in many different way, but no one aspect showcases regional or ethnic diversity as much as the charoset recipe. Meant to represent the mortar from which the Jews formed their bricks in Egypt, the traditionalÂ (read: Ashkenormative) recipe for charoset is apples, red wine, cinnamon, and walnuts or almonds. But that is just the tip of the charoset recipe iceberg.
The Jews of Gibraltar, for example, actually use ground up brick dust in their charoset. There is a Persian recipe for charoset which uses forty different ingredientsâ€”one for each year in the desert. Charoset from more tropical regions include fruits likeÂ dates and bananas.
And then there is the African-American charoset, consisting of molasses or brown sugar, figs, pecans, cocoa powder, rum or white wine. In order to prepare forÂ a more African-American-centric Seder plate this past year, I altered Michael Twitty’s originalÂ recipeÂ of molasses and pecans to include the fruit and alcohol ingredientÂ that manyÂ other recipes containÂ (for, you know,Â guests who areÂ allergic to nuts and don’t really want to slurp down molasses all night long).
Twitty’s recipeâ€”in fact, the entire Seder plate he presentsâ€”is an homage to and a blending of the Jewish and African-American slavery experiences; he marries Jewish symbolism with African-American foods ofÂ equal resonance. Cocoa, figs, pecans, and sugar cane (from which brown sugar, molasses, and rum are all derived) were all prominent slave crops of the transatlantic slave trade. What better ingredients to create a dish representative of slave labor with meaning for African-American Jews?
There’s no need for “symbolism” in thisÂ charoset because… it’s already composed of actual blood and sweat and tears. Of human trafficking and shattered families.Â For African Americans, Passover is just as joyous as it is for any other family.Â It’s alsoÂ a lot more real.