(RNS) The ritual Passover meal requires each participant to eat matzo, drink four cups of wine and — in many Jewish households — end the feast with some really questionable candy.
Ring gels, fruit slices, macaroons, almond kisses, chocolate-covered marshmallows and chocolate-covered matzo.
When these sweets appear in supermarkets before Passover, which begins at sundown Friday (April 22) this year, some Jews grimace — and buy a box or two anyway.
Mentioned in neither the Torah, nor the Talmud nor any other sacred Jewish text, Passover candy makes a beloved holiday even sweeter for many Jews, even as their relatives complain that the stuff is loaded with dye, overly sweet or just plain disgusting-tasting.
“People feel strongly about it,” said Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder.
The rabbi received more than 100 responses when she posted a picture of candy fruit slices on her Facebook page this year in the week before Passover (“Pesach” in Hebrew.) “Good or evil?” she asked. Among the comments:
“It wouldn’t be Pesach without the fruit slices!!”
“The highlight of the holiday.”
Passover comes with food rules that go beyond those of the kosher diet followed by observant Jews. For the eight days of the holiday, they abstain from bread to recall the liberation story in Exodus, the second book of the Bible. The Israelites 3,000 years ago had no time to bake as they fled oppression in Egypt, so they ate flat matzo instead.
But it’s not just bread that is prohibited on Passover: Pasta, crackers, pretzels or any leavened food made from certain types of flour are out. Many Jews add corn, rice, millet and legumes to the list of prohibitions. Candy made with corn syrup doesn’t make the cut. Neither does candy held together with ubiquitous soy lecithin.
That leaves candy manufacturers with a list of substitute ingredients that make for confections that taste distinctly pesadich – the Yiddish word for “kosher for Passover.” The most iconic? Many American Jews can’t imagine Passover without coconut macaroons and fruit slices.
The slices — cut to resemble oranges, watermelon, lemons and lime — contain no fruit but typically sugar, tapioca syrup and agar. Then there’s the yellow #5, red #40 and blue #1 dyes that make the product pop in the supermarket Passover candy display.
“I love the fruit slices!” said Larry Banker, a dentist from Washington, D.C., who buys them every Passover. “Just brush and floss after you eat them.”
“I don’t like coconut and neither does my wife, so that really cuts down on your pesadich options,” said Rabbi Kenneth A. Kanter, director of the rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. “Thankfully, they make almond macaroons so that saves the day.”
Tina Wasserman, the Jewish cookbook author and food editor at ReformJudaism.org, has a soft place in her heart for Barton’s Almond Kisses. She keeps a tin in her kitchen, but not because she thinks almond kisses are an especially delectable addition to her Passover table.
“My father, may he rest in peace, loved them,” she said.
And that is what many Jews’ strong feelings about Passover candy are all about, Wasserman continued. Passover is the holiday when the whole family gets together. At the Passover seder, or ritual meal, certain traditions are expected to be followed. And for many people a certain candy — or even just its familiar packaging — summons up familial feelings.
“It connects us to our heritage. It connects us to memory. That to me is the most important thing,” she said.
As one woman commented on the Facebook query on the fruit slices: “Warm memories of my grandmother’s seder. She cooked everything from scratch except these. I still buy a box every year in her memory.”
And what about Rabbi Abusch-Magder, who put the fruit slice question to her Facebook friends?
“Personally, I have not been able to eat them since an incident as a teen where laughter got out of hand and my brother had the jellies come out his nose,” said the rabbi.
This is not just a Jewish thing, she added.
Buying them at her local supermarket, the rabbi chatted with the cashier, who said her devoutly Christian mother had requested a box.
“So go figure,” the rabbi said.