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Ashkenazi and Sephardic Passovers

by Jay Kitterman, culinary and special events consultant and adjunct instructor, Lincoln Land Community College

Yiddish, which combined Hebrew with primarily Medieval German, was only spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. When they were busy “noshing” (eating) and “kvetching” (complaining). Sephardic Jews had a variety of their languages, including Ladino, Hakitia and Spanish. My article this month is about Passover and some of the differences in how the holiday is celebrated by Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. 

First a quick reminder about what Passover is. Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is one of the most important festivals in the Jewish year. Passover commemorates the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt and the “passing over” of the forces of destruction, or the sparing of their firstborn. This year it begins April 5 and lasts for seven or eight days depending on where you live or how you observe the holiday.

I am often asked why Is Passover is on a different day every year. Passover, like Easter, is based on a lunar calendar rather than the solar calendar we use. The holiday starts with a special ceremony/meal called a Seder that takes place in the home. During the meal, the story of Exodus (think of the movie The Ten Commandments) is told from a book called the Haggadah.  

Ashkenazi vs Sephardic: Living in America most Jews are what we call Ashkenazi. Ashkenaz is the Hebrew word for German. Ashkenazi Jews originally came from Germany, France and Eastern Europe and migrated eastward at the time of the Crusades. Sephardic Jews were originally from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey and other parts of the Mediterranean and Middle East. Sefarad is Hebrew for Spain. In America there are roughly 7,000,000 Jews and only about half a million are not Ashkenazi. In Israel, the majority of Jews are not Ashkenazi . 

One of the primary differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews is the food. Bagels, matzo ball, gefilte fish are all Ashkenazi. Think cold Eastern European fare. Sephardic foods represent the warmer countries they came from, are often more colorful and spicier. In short, both groups adapted dishes from the countries where they lived. Some Sephardic examples are Adafina (Spanish savory stew), Shakshuka (Mediterranean breakfast dish) and Mofletta (Moroccan crepe). Both groups also have a long tradition of keeping kosher, the Jewish dietary rules. 

The dietary laws for Passover can be complicated and interpreted differently. My Ashkenazi background does not allow us to eat anything leavened or any food product made from wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt that has come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment and “rise.” Prior to the start of the holiday, you can find Carol and myself following the tradition of removing “Chametz” from our food pantry. Chametz includes, for example, beans, corn, lentils, chickpeas and rice. Most Sephardic Jews are allowed these items. After a week of matzah, I am very happy to return to traditional bread and Chametz.   

A mainstay of the traditional Passover Seder/meal is Charoset. Charoset is a sweet, dark-colored paste made of fruits, cinnamon and nuts. Its color and texture are meant to recall mortar (or mud used to make adobe bricks) which the Israelites used when they were enslaved in Ancient Egypt. Remember the young and virile Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments movie? For Ashkenazi Jews the Charoset is made with apples while the Sephardic version uses dates. You can find numerous Sephardic recipes for Passover online. I have included a Sephardic Charoset recipe that even Ashkenazi Jews can eat.     

Sephardic Date Charoset


  • 1 lb. pitted Medjool dates, coarsely chopped
  • Zest and juice of one orange
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts


  1. In a large saucepan, combine the dates, orange zest and juice, lemon juice, cinnamon, and ginger with a cup of water. Bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened and the dates have broken down, about ten minutes.
  3. Puree the date mixture using an immersion blender or transfer the jam to your food processor and puree for 20-30 seconds. Leave some chunkiness for texture.
  4. Toast the almonds and walnuts in a dry skillet set over medium heat for a few minutes until fragrant. Allow to cool.
  5. When cool, add the nuts to the date mixture and stir to combine.
  6. Store in the refrigerator until needed. This can be made several days in advance.

We are commanded to pass on the Passover Story to the next generation. Carol and I feel very fortunate that we will be sharing it with our son and our daughter’s family. I believe poet Maya Angelou said it best: “The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”  

 Happy Pesach!


Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through LLCC Community Education.

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