There are various vegetables that Jews use for marror, the bitter herbs, at the Pesach Seder. Many use romaine lettuce, while some opt for the iceberg variety. Endives are popular in some cultures. There is even mention of chicory. But in the Landau house, horseradish always got top billing.
And not just any horseradish. It had to be ground from a raw horseradish root, using the hand cranked meat grinder that had been in the family for over one hundred years. Great Grandma Chana Tsirel used it for her seder, and so it has been passed down through the generations. The Landaus took the shredded horseradish and sprinkled onto their romaine lettuce for the mitzvah of marror. Then they would eat a chunk of horseradish in their traditional Hillel sandwich, wedged between two pieces of matzoh with a fine layer of charoset to sweeten the deal. You could use a food processor for the charoset, but chas vesholom that the horseradish should be ground any way but by hand.
Effy Landau would always buy the horseradish root himself, usually at the Shoprite in Paramus. He always hoped he would pick a root with some serious kick, but it was really hard to tell in advance which one would do the trick.
He had been standing in the vegetable aisle for a few minutes, fondling and smelling the various roots, trying to discern their essential character, when an older man in a green Shoprite bib walked up to him. He had long white hair and a handlebar mustache, and he looked at Effy with a conspiratorial look.
“Hey man,” he said in a voice that was little more than a whisper.
“Hi,” Effy said.
“You look like you really care about horseradish.”
“Can I offer you some of the good stuff?”
“What do you mean?”
The old man—his name tag read Carl-- looked both ways to make sure no one else was watching.
“Follow me, man.”
Effy followed Carl one aisle over to the Organic Vegetable area. Carl winked at Effy and pointed to a bin just down from the green peppers. It read “Organic California Cannonball Red Horseradish.”
“Is it good?” Effy asked.
“It’s the best,” Carl said, smiling a knowing smile. “It’s never let me down.”
“Thanks, Carl,” Effy said.
“Just doing my job, man,” Carl said as he sauntered off toward the frozen food aisle.
Effy tossed the horseradish root in with his other vegetable purchases and then made his way to the Passover aisle to get the other last minute purchases he needed to complete his list. He didn’t give it another thought.
The next day, on Erev Pesach, Effy went to grind the horseradish. As he cranked the handle and threw in the sliced pieces of root to shred, the smell was overwhelming. So powerful. He was not one who cried easily—in fact he hadn’t cried in many years—but he felt his eyes tearing up. This was some wicked root. He opened all the windows in the kitchen and finished his grinding, as so many Landaus had before him. Then he sliced small pieces to save for the Hillel sandwich.
The seder that night was glorious. The table was festooned with haggadas, various plastic plagues, the Landaus’ finest silver bechers and a beautiful seder plate. All the children gave scintillating divrei Torah. The shmura matza was divine. Everything was just so. They made the bracha on the matzoh and everyone ate with gusto.
Next came the marror. Effy offered no hint of what was to come. He just took a kezayit of romaine lettuce, sprinkled it with the California Cannonball Red, and passed it down.
“-al achilat marror,” everyone chanted together. Then they took a bite.
Yes, the horseradish was the real deal. Carl was a man of his word. There were red faces. There were gasps. A few reached for some water. Everyone was impressed. Then came the moment of truth.
Everyone made their Hillel sandwiches. Most people took a smaller piece of the sliced root, but Effy grabbed a big hunk and put it between his matzoh pieces. He dabbed on a thin patina of charoset. He was all in.
“-lekayem ma shene-emar, al matzot umerorim yochluhu.”
Effy popped the sandwich in his mouth and began to chew. And then something unusual happened.
He began to cry. It was not just small tears. He was sobbing. And it wasn’t just him. Everyone at the table was bawling, from Grandma Shirley, to Uncle Stan, to all the children. There was not a dry eye in the house. It was quite a spectacle.
It took a few minutes for everyone to calm down. Then Effy spoke.
“They say that to truly appreciate freedom, you need to first appreciate the bondage of slavery. To feel the sweet release of the Exodus that G-d provided for us you need to experience the bitterness of the years of oppression. Even to experience the eventual geulah, the redemption, for which we all wait, you need to feel what it means to be downtrodden. Perhaps that’s what makes us Jews strivers for freedom in the world, whether for ourselves or for others who are oppressed.
“I think that I can say without a doubt that this is the first seder at which I truly learned to understand the bitterness that our ancestors experienced. And my blessing to all of you is that as much as we just felt bitter, may we soon experience the sweetness of the redemption.”
And on that note, the table was cleared, the matzoh ball soup was served, and it was the most delicious soup any of them ever ate.
And the next night, at the second seder, when it came time for the marror, they all went with just the romaine lettuce. There was no more horse radish for the Landaus that year, thank you very much.