In Israel, Passover (Pesach) is celebrated for seven days. The homes have been purged of chometz, leavening agents, and for us of Ashkenaz descent, this means no eating of breads, cakes, cookies, beans, peas, rice, peanuts, corn – basically anything that can be used to make flour that can possibly rise – in commemoration of the Children of Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt into the desert to freedom. They had no time for their dough to rise. Also, leavening is a symbol of sin, so it’s a type of spiritual purification as well.
I absolutely love the cultural diversity of this country. There’s just so much to learn and experience. Three years ago when I made my pilot trip, I stayed with my internet Hebrew teacher and her family in Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, for the end of Passover. They are of North African/Egyptian lineage, so I was introduced to a completely new celebration, one I’d never even heard of previously: Mimouna!!!! This festivity originated in the 1700s among the Sephardic Jews, mainly in Morocco, and there are quite a few stories about how it actually came to be. The Moroccan, Libyan, Algerian and Egyptian Jews of the diaspora lived among the Arabs, and were influenced by that culture. Some say Mimouna (My-moon’-ah) stems from the Hebrew word m’ammin, or “I believe.” It is a statement of faith in the belief in one G-d and in the coming of the Messiah, put forth in creed form with 13 tenets by the Jewish Moroccan philosopher, Maimonides (also a connection to the name). Others claim it’s a derivation of the Arabic word ma’amoun, meaning good fortune and G-d’s protection. There are those that connect it to the Hebrew word manna, which divinely fed the Israelites as they walked through the desert for 40 years.
It celebrates both past and future redemption. At the end of the Passover seder meal, the door is opened for the prophet Elijah to enter – a precursor of the arrival of the Messiah. Because Moshiach has failed to come at Passover, the Jewish people look forward to next year: even though he may tarry, yet I will wait for him to come every day (Maimonides). Maimouna is also an agricultural festival, a time when, in the past, both Jews and Arabs worked together to insure an abundant harvest. And because the Jewish people were fasting from flour, eating only matzah, their Arabic neighbors would bring them bags of flour, good wishes, and sweet things to celebrate the end of the holiday. I just wish relations were that good in this age!
There are over a million Moroccan Jews who have settled mostly in Southern Israel to escape the persecutions of the past century. They have elaborate mini-seder meals rife with symbolic foods to bring closure to the Passover holiday. The table is set with silver and gold elaborately embroidered tablecloths. There is a bowl of flour in which coins are hidden and green beans are arranged on top. This is a symbol of abundance, fertility and prosperity in the upcoming year. When I was in Ashdod, there was a plate of green onions – may we never experience the whips and scourges as under Egyptian oppression; hard boiled eggs – new life; and a whole fish, usually on a bed of citrus leaves; platters upon platters of sweet foods and pastries -a sweet future; grilled beef kabobs marinated in spicy spices, dripping with sweet pomegranate syrup and honey; lots of alcohol; and tons of rice. The specialty dish is muflitah, very sweet crepes filled with jams (honeyed carrots, date jam, syrupy prune jam, and these days, chocolate sauce) and then drenched with honey. Svenge, fried, thick donut shaped pastries coated in rose syrup or honey are also served. Can you say sugar overload? This is served with hot mint tea to wash it all down, a very typical end-of-meal Middle Eastern custom I’ve grown to love.
This year, we had dinner with Sephardic friends. The father took a big bunch of mint and dipped it in a bowl of water to sprinkle/spray on all those at table. The unmarried teens were blessed that they might eventually find their soul-mate, the girls wearing all white in anticipation of their wedding days. Some of the family arrived from other parts of Israel wearing brightly colored, elaborate costumes. Both the women and men get long beads in gold and many colors (plastic), which reminded me of Mardi-Gras. Many of the table decorations feature gold crowns, a symbol for King David and King Messiah. It also stands for wealth and wishes for elevated social status in the coming year, according to some. It is customary to bring the hosts fresh flowers and fruits (there are roadside stands set up just for this purpose in case one forgot…). So there were flowers everywhere in the house, and a rose scented incense burning. And of course, great Moroccan music was played, much of it very Arabic sounding – and very upbeat accompanied by lots of singing, dancing, and for the men, hookah pipes filled with fruit oil-soaked sweet tobacco on the porch outside. Totally a different cultural experience for us, but incredibly wonderful, nonetheless. Although it was definitely Jewish, there was a real Arabic/Middle Eastern/North African vibe, and I also felt even an Indian influence with the colors, flowers, and incense.
When I was in Ashdod, fireworks marked the end of Passover and the onset of Mimouna. People were dancing and partying in the streets all over the city. The local parks were filled with barbecues and families celebrating. By 2am, it seemed as if everyone in the town had formed lines in front of local bakeries to buy the first warm, fluffy pita bread of the new season. In Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, Beersheva, Ashdod, and parts of Jerusalem, the festivities last all night long. Here in Karmi’el up North, there is a much, much smaller North African influence. Still, the city and the Ashkenaz (Eastern European descent) community put together a rather small party celebrating this holiday. So, around 10pm, John and I decided to head over and check it out. There was a sampling of the typical pastries, muflitah, and mint tea being served. The main hall of the Baruch Center was decorated photo-booth style, which was fun – with lots of costumes, Persian rugs, tea sets, hookah pipes, and other fun props. Tables were set up – in the typical Orthodox Ashkenazi – segregated by sex. There was also a band playing a variety of Sephardic and modern Israeli hits. As soon as a group (mostly recent Russian immigrants) got up and started dancing, an Orthodox rabbi got up to make an announcement, that the only dancing done must also be segregated by sex, which was much different than the partying going on in Ashdod three years prior. The Karmi’el event was pretty tame in comparison with the revelry of the South. Still, it was a good introduction for my husband. Next year in Ashdod!!!!