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Jewish World Review
April 1, 2004
/ 11 Nissan, 5764
The Horseradish Chronicles: The Pain of chrain
Michael Arnold Glueck
So the Hebrew school teacher asks little Johnny:
"What is the meaning of most Jewish holidays?"
Replies little Johnny: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat."
Little Johnny had a point. Most Jewish holidays celebrate deliverance of
one kind or another, and most have special foods associated with them.
Purim, for example. Evil Haman tried to kill us, so now we eat
"Hamentaschen," little cakes shaped like the three-cornered hat he wore
until Queen Esther and Uncle Mordechai arranged a terminal neck-stretch on
the gallows he'd built for the Jews.
Or Chanukah, which commemorates
victory over an exceptionally the Greeks. We eat "Latkes" thin little
potato pancakes symbolizing how the Maccabees whipped, pureed, pounded,
flattened into little bite-size pieces, and then fried the Hellenes. Or
something like that.
But I must confess, although somewhat warily, that my favorite holiday,
food-wise, is Passover and its Seder, the feast of deliverance from
Egyptian bondage. One delicacy in particular. Not lamb or matzoh, the
unleavened bread that the Israelites hurriedly baked before beating feet
out of Egypt. Nor even the "charoses," the mix of apples, nuts, and wine
that symbolizes the brick and mortar of slave labor. And no, not even the
traditional four cups of Manischewitz.
I love the horseradish, the "Mahror," the uncut, super-strong variety put
out at Passover to symbolize the bitterness of slavery.
Now, the horseradish is a noble root. But like any other mild addiction, it
can be worrisome. And not everybody understands when I explain that an item
meant to symbolize bondage is also my favorite comfort food. So, in a
blatant attempt at self-reassurance, I decided to do some research.
According to "Horseradish Trivia," over the past few millennia, this plant
has been used as an aphrodisiac (a matter I pass over in silence), a
treatment for rheumatism and lower back pain, and a kind of cough syrup.
The Egyptians knew from horseradish. So did the Greeks.
In "The Root Queen's Guide to Horseradish," Judy McCann informs us that the
word first appeared in English print in 1597, in a medicinal guide to
herbs. The original word may have been "harsh radish," the word "radish"
deriving from the Latin "radix," meaning "root." It also goes well with
chicken, brisket, and roast beef.
A noble root, indeed. But I was still uneasy. So I got in touch with Dr.
Phil. Not the TV potentate, but Dr. Phil Gold, a Seattle-based historian
Not to worry, said Dr. Phil. Horseradish goes deep in Jewish history.
Although the Hebrew word is "Mahror," meaning "bitter," the Yiddish term is
"chrain." This word is actually Sephardic in origin, and goes back to the
Spanish Inquisition, when roving gangs sought out secret Jews who were
surreptitiously celebrating Passover. It being too dangerous to bake
matzohs, these Spanish Jews emphasized horseradish, because it was easy to
dispose of when the bad guys knocked on the door. Hence the proverb:
"The chrain in Spain goes mainly down the drain."
Dr. Phil also related an incident from his childhood. As the first-born son
of his family, he was expected to fast all day before the Seder, in
gratitude that when the Angel of Death slew all the first-born in Egypt the
Israelites were passed-over. Not wishing to pass up the delicacies in his
high school cafeteria, he adopted a common alternative. Go to the synagogue
before dawn, pray with the old men, study with them a bit, then
symbolically break your fast with the only item more prohibited during
Passover than leavened bread.
Canadian Club -- not the soda!
The old men, Dr. Phil relates, took great pleasure in sending the kids off
to school reeking of spirits. It made for some interesting encounters with
the homeroom teacher.
Even that long-ago bitterness of slavery can bring good things about.
During the final stages of the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations, the Abu
Rudeis oil fields, seized by Israel during the 1967 war, proved a problem.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was ready to hand them back but
Egypt's Anwar Sadat also wanted compensation for the oil the Israelis had
taken during the Sinai occupation. Finally, at least according to legend,
Begin told Sadat, "Look, if you don't charge us for the oil, we won't
charge you for the Pyramids."
Sadat laughed and agreed, and perhaps chose not to mention that Hebrew
slaves never worked on the Pyramids. After all, when there's a chance to
make peace, what's a little oil or a few Pyramids to stand in the way?
Something to ponder the next time you taste something bitter.
A Happy Passover to all.
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JWR contributor Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning
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© 2004, Michael Arnold Glueck