Sweetness #sol16

slice of lifeWhen 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.

halva-on-white-background
from http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-halva.htm

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

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This is what Jewish heaven looks like

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.

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My favorite brand of commercial halvah

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.

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5 thoughts on “Sweetness #sol16

  1. Food memories are so powerful and important! Do you think you will share with K when he is old enough? I want to write food memories with students. I think they would be amazing. Again, I’m so glad you had such a wonderful weekend, with enough memories to carry you until your family gets together again.

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  2. “That is the magical sweetness of food and memory.” What a beautiful homage to Halvah. Your piece exudes a eloquent nostalgia….I love the image of you “nibbling”away at heaven during your stay in Israel. It must have been great to share and enjoy Halvah with your family.

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  3. “That is the magical sweetness of food and memory.” Yes, yes it is. I think most families have that one thing that is served at certain occasions. It is akin to how cranberry sauce (out the can!) is solely for Thanksgiving. If you did not grow up with it – it can seem weird. Passover will be here soon enough. Enjoy your Halvah

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  4. I love the idea of writing food memories with students. This would make a fun mentor text. Ms. Labaze wants to have a celebration after we finish this month-long writing challenge… maybe you can bring Halvah to share with us? Sounds delicious! I’ve seen it but have never tasted it. Also, I loved the photos and your wonderful captions.

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