When I was a little girl, going to New York for Passover meant a number of things. An all-day journey in the car to see family, endless-seeming seders that ended in mountains of food, more matzo than I ate during the other 360 days of the year combined, and halvah.
For the uninitiated, halvah is a sesame-based food which originated in Turkey and is now a popular candy in Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. Made of crushed sesame seeds, it tastes a little like sweetened sandpaper grit — the flavor is incredible, while the texture takes some getting used to.
A Jew in rural New Hampshire, I savored each spring’s opportunity to eat this delicious, exotic treat. It just wasn’t something we could find at our local Shaw’s supermarket! Although my family was not observant and I felt more or less fully assimilated into the mainstream culture of my Christian friends, I knew that “my” people’s foods could only be found in the ethnic foods aisle at our grocery store, and even then, some things — like halvah — were only located in places where there actually were more of my people.Now I can buy halvah at lots of places in the Boston area — or, if I’m really desperate, order it online and have it shipped to my front door. As a child, it meant New York, at Passover, with my family.
When I went to Israel in my mid-twenties, I bought a chunk of halvah from a marketplace
in Jerusalem. Every night, I ate small nibbles in my hotel room and thought of my family members back home, on the other side of the world. At the end of the trip, I hadn’t managed to eat it all, but I couldn’t even get any other members of my tour group to help me finish it before we returned to the States. “Um, it tastes weird!” they said. Jews from California, Colorado, Chicago, they had not grown up with that gritty, sweet, savory treat like I had. It just didn’t mean the same thing for them.
This past weekend, one of the desserts my aunt served at our family reunion was halvah. The moment I saw the bright red and white package, the vaguely racist Joyva logo, my heart leapt with saccharine anticipation.
Even though Passover isn’t for another month, the experience of sitting around a table with my extended family, having a cup of tea and snacking on halvah — I was transported back to those seder dinners of my youth. That is the magical sweetness of food and memory.