Like chocolate for maror Hillels play on a seder

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San Francisco Hillel's chocolate seder, like the Oscar-nominated "Chocolat," used the confection's gustatory and olfactory magic to break down barriers, create camaraderie and hasten the arrival of Johnny Depp…or…Elijah.

But even though the thespian and the prophet were no-shows at two consecutive seders — one at the University of San Francisco and the other at San Francisco State — the Four Questions were answered, and everyone raised a glass of chocolate milk in hopes of meeting next year in Jerusalem.

At the pre-Pesach event at USF on April 4, there were a few minor glitches. One student couldn't read from a specially prepared Haggadah because it was stained from all-purpose marshmallow cream. And those who were counting plagues had an easier time than those counting calories. On hand was an endless array of chocolate — from standard chocolate bars and green M&Ms to s'mores and chocolate-filled eggs.

Deborah Shapiro, 22, the seder's organizer, and a Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps fellowship recipient, said the event far exceeded her expectations.

"Usually we get between six to 10 people at these events, and this time we had over 20, so I'm very pleased." Shapiro added that the chocolate seder was meant to appeal to non-Jews with a sweet tooth and an interest in other cultures, as well as unaffiliated students who are still on their "journey of Jewish discovery."

The following night, 32 attended the S.F. State seder.

For non-Jewish USF students such as Julian Lute, 23, and Scott Raub, 24, the seder marked an entree in the Passover tradition, minus the stumbling block of gefilte fish. Upon hearing a description of the delicacy, both admitted that they were happier munching on green M&Ms.

"I think that people need to repeat and retell their traditions in order to keep them living and breathing," said Lute, who added that, for him, food has always been an important conduit into different cultures.

Both Lute, who was raised Baptist, and Raub, who was raised Catholic, said that the seder gave them a chance to enhance their limited knowledge of Jewish rituals.

"I always thought that there were many similarities to Catholicism," said Raub. "After all, Christianity sprang from Judaism. Before tonight, I'd heard a lot about the different symbols and stories, but I was able to piece it all together."

After Vera Lev, 20, explained some of the intricacies of Passover– mentioning that Jews from Poland and Jews from Ethiopia often have completely different takes on the tradition — each of the students took a turn reading from the Haggadah.

This Haggadah gave thanks for the cocoa tree (and offered a brief history of chocolate), using bittersweet chocolate as a stand-in for maror, or bitter herbs. Although many brands of chocolate are kosher during the rest of the year, the chocolate at last week's events was not kosher for Passover.

"It's extremely difficult to find chocolate that meets the kashrut requirement" for the holiday, Shapiro said.

If chocolate seemed like a departure from the traditional horseradish, Shapiro offered no apology. In fact, she told the students at the seder, she comes from a Passover tradition that honors the unusual. She mentioned the significance of the afikomen, or hidden matzah, and said that, in her family, it was always hidden in the same place.

Although she didn't divulge the hiding place during the seder, she did spill the beans after the event.

"My grandfather always sticks it under his toupee," she admitted. "It's old hat for most of us, but it kind of freaks out the people who have never had Passover with us before."