Worldwide Passover Traditions: Passover celebrations embody many religious and local traditions
Deborah Morosohk, education director of Temple Beth El, recently explained that customs and food evolved as Jews absorbed aspects of local cuisine, using foods from available crops and animals.
Passover for most members of Detroit’s Jewish community usually includes a recitation of the Haggadah, sometimes a contemporary or family version, a meal that includes ceremonial foods such as charoset and matzah, and Ashkenazi dishes – soup with chicken with matzah balls, minced liver, roast chicken, tzimmes and beef brisket. Passover songs can be sung and children enjoy searching for hidden Afikomen matzah. Families of Sephardic origin may enjoy a somewhat different menu. But, in other parts of the world, traditions vary.
While all seders include the charoset to symbolize the mortar used by Hebrew slaves building for the pharaoh, its components vary by country. Deborah Morosohk, education director of Temple Beth El, recently presented a program called “Passover Around the World.” She explained that customs and food evolved as Jews absorbed aspects of local cuisine, using foods from available crops and animals.
Apples, for example, are common in Europe, so Ashkenazi Jews use them in charoset. In South Africa, Jews simmer apples with cinnamon and cloves for dessert, she says. In North Africa and the Middle East, dates, figs and almonds are abundant, so they are used in charoset and other foods. Morosohk adds that in Gibraltar, the Jewish community includes brick dust in their charoset to intensify the memory of the Hebrew slaves working in Egypt.
Ethiopian Jews made matzah from chickpea flour, Morosohk says, and ate lamb because these foods were readily available. They don’t eat yogurt, butter or cheese during Passover. Also, Ethiopian Jews read the Passover story of Exodus in the Torah rather than a Haggadah.
Israeli families generally maintain some of the traditions of their family origins. Arye (Larry) Schwartz, a former resident of Detroit and Jerusalem since the 1970s, says, “Customs are passed down from generation to generation, especially special dishes during the holidays. A family that emigrated from Tunisia 70 years ago will still remember a special dish served during the Passover seder today. This applies to all communities, especially new first generation immigrants. New olim (Israeli immigrants) will generally do exactly what they did before they arrived, without incorporating any new “Israeli” customs.
However, he adds that those who have lived in Israel longer often include a mix of dishes from different cultural and religious traditions. He has a friend, a Sephardi chef, who cooks gefilte fish (an Ashkenazi dish) for his family’s seders.
An increasingly popular Israeli Passover custom is Mimouna – a post-Passover celebration that includes lots of desserts, music and dancing. Mufleta – a Moroccan crepe/pancake and donuts are featured. Prosperity is a Mimouna theme, reflected in gold decorations and guests who wear chains with mock gold coins around their waists.
The Mimouna tradition originated in North Africa and some Israelis wear traditional Moroccan clothing, including a fez, during these festivities. Mimouna celebrations have extended beyond Israelis of Moroccan and Algerian descent. Families hold large-scale parties that have become very popular across Israel, with many Ashkenazi Jews taking part. Jews of Moroccan descent who live in other countries sometimes celebrate Mimouna.
Morosohk points out that Passover customs extend beyond the menu with special customs to help tell the Passover story. Afghan Jews “whip themselves” with green onions or leeks – mimicking the cruel Egyptian slavers – while chanting “Dayanu”. She says a Romanian tradition includes women walking around during the seder carrying pillowcases with heavy weights to symbolize the painful burden of Hebrew slaves.
“In Hungary, there is a tradition of bling – having gold and silver on the table. In Poland, seder participants reenact the crossing of the Red Sea by pouring water on the ground while lifting their coats and other clothes,” she says.
Myriam Cohen, a West Bloomfield resident of Moroccan descent, follows some Sephardic traditions in her family seder. A signature dish is Passover soup with vegetables and beans. She says they use Sephardic melodies when reciting the Haggadah. Another tradition is for a father or grandfather to hold the Seder plate above each individual’s head and say, “May you succeed.”
She held Mimouna festivities – post-Passover feasts with pastries and traditional mufleta (pancakes) – to symbolize a wish for sweetness in life. Cohen says she added pizza to please her children, who missed it during Passover. She adds that in Sephardic communities, families often went from house to house, participating in multiple Mimouna events..