Not Your Grandfather’s Manishewitz: My Mission to Bring Good Wine to Your Seder

At this time of year, I have a mission… to save Jews from bad wine. Now, I know that some of you are lovers of the dark, sweet, sticky substance that passes for wine when making kiddush. In many ways, it is a very efficient and economic way of bringing some sweetness in to sanctify Shabbat and the festivals. Once opened, it seems to last forever, does not require refrigeration, and a large bottle can go a long way in those little cups that many of us use for kiddush at synagogue.

But for me, Passover Seder is different. For those who do not drink alcohol, there is grape juice in a variety of shades. Even sparkling grape juice if you want to be extra-festive. But I enjoy wine. And if I’m going to be commanded to drink four cups of it at my Seder, I know that I can do a lot better than Manishewitz, and I feel obligated to share this information with you. Nowhere in halachah (Jewish law) does it say that we are commanded to drink bad wine!

READ: What It Means to Be Kosher for Passover

And so, last week, I co-hosted a Kosher-for-Passover wine tasting at our local liquor store, Julio’s Liquors. Located in the heart of Central Massachusetts, we are blessed with a particularly exceptional store that has several event spaces and hosts several free tastings a week. Over 70 people responded to the invitation to attend this particular tasting, drawing from two congregations, and the local community in general, Jews and non-Jews. You can read about the wines we tasted on my own blog, where I shared tasting notes for those who were unable to attend the event.

For me, what I found wonderful was that, in an area with a vast majority of Jews who do not keep kosher, there was great interest in this opportunity. A lot of wine was sold that evening. I think this is for a number of reasons. While many Jews do not keep kosher either strictly or at all, there is something about Passover that makes more of us attentive to the details, and more likely to make choices that are more aligned with traditional Jewish food practices as part of our observance of this holiday. And, for many of us, the reasons for this are cultural. They are about memory and heritage. There was pride in learning about the ancient roots of Jewish wine-making in the land of Israel. And, knowing that there are some products used in part of the wine-making process (fining – a way of removing some soluble particulates from the wine) that are derived from animal products and therefore distinctly not kosher, there was a desire for something that was better aligned with the purpose of sanctifying a Passover Seder.  For many, having permission to enjoy good wine at the Seder was a revelation!

READ: What Makes Wine Kosher, and What Is Kosher Mevushal Wine?

During my presentation I gave a brief history of Jewish wine-making, discussed what makes a wine kosher, or kosher-for-Pesach, and the role of wine in the Passover Seder. Each participant went home with a flyer that included ideas for making a Seder more meaningful and interactive. One of the things that we’ve learned to ask of our rituals and our festival occasions at Rabbis Without Borders is the question, ‘What job does it do?’ Sometimes, we imagine that we, as rabbis, know the answers to these questions. We think we know why people will choose to keep kosher because of their belief or their observance of Judaism in particular ways. We think we know why people experience the Seder, do or do not follow a Haggadah, and engage in the rituals because of the ways we’ve learned about them or practiced them ourselves.

READ: How to Choose a Haggadah for Your Passover Seder

What I’ve come to learn, over and over again, is that Judaism is a process of engaging with the structures, rituals, and moments of Jewish practice, and people seek out meaning in many different ways. Providing opportunities for experiences, opening the door to tradition through gatherings that are social and not intimidating, people will connect to and engage in these opportunities and make them their own. Last week, the opportunity was drinking good kosher wine. Next week, many of those participants will have a new story to tell at their Passover Seder, and a different lens on the rituals that they engage with in their celebration of the holiday.

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