Countless Jewish families will sit down together for the traditional first-night Passover Seder meal tonight. That’s why the Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, celebrates the holiday by focusing on the cuisine.
The museum’s annual Passover Nosh and Stroll combines Lower East Side history with its Jewish food traditions. The mile-long walking tour visits iconic Jewish eateries of the past and present, highlighting the essential foods for a traditional Passover meal along the way.
“Food is a very important way of keeping memories alive,” said Amy Stein-Milford, deputy director of the museum, who led this year’s tour. “People have so many memories around the holidays—especially Passover.”
The Pickle Guys on Essex St. provided the maror, or traditional bitter herbs that symbolize the bitterness of Jewish slavery in Egypt, of the Passover Seder plate. The shop is the last pickle store in the old “pickle district” of Essex and Ludlow streets that once boasted 80 pickle outlets.
The Pickle Guys draw from nearly a century of tradition to produce horseradish that is freshly ground on-site. Samples of the red horseradish are strong and spicy enough to make your eyes water.
According to tradition, people are obligated to drink four cups of wine on Passover. Stein-Milford brings the tour past the old site of Schapiro’s Kosher Wine in honor of that custom. Now all that remains of the original kosher winery, which opened in 1899, is a faded mural on Essex St.
Economy Candy on Rivington St., a neighborhood institution since 1937, provided dessert. The family-owned candy shop is packed to the gills with sweets. The shop sells three different kinds of macaroons for Passover, and the chocolate-covered coconut clusters are both creamy and rich.
The essential Passover food is the matzo. The tour concluded at the celebrated Streit’s Matzos, a kosher grocery since 1925. The strong scent of fresh matzo permeates the Rivington St. shop. Customers can watch employees bake the matzo in the gleaming oven before trying the unleavened bread while it’s still warm.
“Even though you can get this from the grocery store, people still love that they can come here and see the matzo being made,” said Hanna Griff-Sleven, the museum’s director of cultural programs, of the famous matzo shop. “It means a lot to get it hot and fresh.”
The shops that have now vanished from the once predominantly Jewish neighborhood were also a powerful presence on the tour.
Gertel’s Bakery, which closed in 2007 after 93 years in business, is now just an empty lot on Hester St. Milford-Stein recalled the handmade shmurah matzo, or “guarded” matzo, Gertel’s Bakery once made. This special matzo is made from grains that are specially supervised from harvest to baking, in order to ensure that they never fermented and, therefore, are suitable for eating during Passover.
“I went there with my husband years ago,” Arlene Provder, a tour participant who lives in Brooklyn Heights, recalled. “When I saw the empty lot, it made me weepy.”
Sometimes, Milford-Stein noted, the places associated with foods become truly special.
“You never know what holds importance for people,” Milford-Stein said. “Places we take for granted, like candy stores and wine shops, become beloved places that we hold on to in our memories.”