Passover customs give insight into cultures


So you think you know a thing or two about Passover. So did I, until I started looking at the way it is celebrated in places where I didn’t even know there were any Jews.

You may have Jewish friends, and maybe you’ve been to a Seder (you may even be Jewish), but even most American Jews, who are descended from European ancestors, are unfamiliar with some ways that Passover is celebrated around the world.

The Jewish Diaspora (c. 70 C.E.) spread through the Middle East and beyond: Iran (Persia), Iraq (Babylonia), Yemen, Afghanistan, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia, the Caribbean, Central and South America and other places.

In 1948, about 900,000 Jews from Morocco to Yemen were driven from their homes by social, economic and political pressure. Many lost all they had except their faith and the customs they brought to wherever they wound up. For many, that meant the new State of Israel, where customs mentioned in this column were remembered and recorded.

Passover demands that we see ourselves as if we had just come out of Egypt, so every year at the Seder we recall events that shaped our history and our people. Many communities added dramatizations to their Exodus re-enactment. Most depicted a Jew departing Egypt and wandering in exile seeking (and in skits, getting) redemption from slavery.

In Tunisia, before the Seder starts, young people, carrying sacks on sticks like hobos, stop by the rabbi’s house to pay their respects. “Where are you going?” the rabbi asks. “We’re leaving Egypt!” they say. “But you are slaves!” the rabbi says and they respond, “Now we are free people!”

During all Seders, the middle of the three matzahs on the Seder plate, called the Afikomen, is broken and half is wrapped to save until the end of the meal. The meal cannot be finished without it, so children frequently steal it and hold it ransom.

In some Mediterranean Jewish communities, the cloth-wrapped Afikomen is tied to the shoulder of a child who takes the role of an Israelite on his way to Jerusalem carrying matzah. The child looks at the specially arranged table and asks “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This sets in motion the set of four questions in the Hagaddah, the telling of the story of redemption from slavery.

In the Caucasus, it would be an adult who walks around with the Afikomen on his shoulder, like our ancestors leaving Egypt, with “their kneading troughs bound up in their clothes on their shoulders” (Exodus 12:34).

One young man, a good actor, is chosen to portray a ragged fugitive, showing up at the door from Jerusalem to announce the coming redemption. The others act as if they do not believe him, so he must persuade them to let him in. Amid celebration, he answers questions about life in Jerusalem.

Other folk customs surround the Afikomen. In Asia, Iran, North Africa and Greece, Jews saved a piece of it in their pockets or houses for good luck during the year, sometimes making a small hole in it so it could be hung like a good luck charm. (The thing about matzah is that it won’t get moldy.)

Kurdistani Jews thought that keeping the bit of the Afikomen in rice and salt would protect them against the depletion of these needed foodstuffs. Based on a verse from Psalms (54:9), a Hebrew acronym of which spells the word “matzah” (unleavened bread), Moroccan Jews believed this charmed matzah had the power to protect them during ocean travel. Some believed that if one kept it for seven years, it could stop floods, or fire, or even protect a woman and newborn during childbirth.

In Morocco, Tunisia, as well as in southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia, there are customs for bringing the Seder plate, arrayed with ceremonial foods, to the table. In some places, it is covered with a beautiful scarf and the family sings as the plate arrives at the table. Before it is set down, the Seder plate may be placed on a child’s head and then rotated for everyone to see, or passed around the table and held for a moment on each person’s head to demonstrate that we were once slaves in Egypt and carried heavy burdens on our heads.

Many of these dramatizations are designed to keep children awake during the recitation of the Hagaddah. In Morocco, they came at the end of the meal, when the participants quote, “So you shall eat it: your loins girded…” (Exodus 12:11).

These skits also extend to the synagogue the next morning, where water is sprinkled on the floor during the reading about the parting of the Sea of Reeds in the Torah.

The people in the congregation take off their shoes to dip their toes into the water to experience the sea. Also in Moroccan communities, families refrain from eating black olives for the entire Hebrew month of Nisan, in which Passover falls. They believed that black olives made one forgetful, and this is the month in which we remember the Exodus.

At all Seders, we pour a little wine out as we mention the 10 plagues visited upon the Egyptians to secure the Israelite release from bondage. We cannot be fully happy, with a full cup, when we know how people suffered for our freedom.

Originally a Yemenite custom, but known today from Italy, comes the following: As each plague is said aloud, the Seder leader pours a bit of wine from his cup into a tin can.

When all the plagues have been repeated, the matriarch of the family takes the tin can out into the farthest part of the yard, pours the wine into the ground and says in a loud whisper, “May this go to all of our enemies and haters. May they create no suffering for us or for themselves. Amen!” Those at the table remain quiet, so that the loud whisper can be heard. In Greece, this same ceremony is done with vinegar poured into a can as each plague is said.

We sing the song “Dayenu” (“It would be enough for us”), with each verse naming another way that God helped us as we left Egypt on our journey to the Promised Land. The meaning of the song is that had God stopped after any of these blessings it would have been sufficient, but he did it all.

The Italian Seder table is set with each person getting a green onion with a long stem. During “Dayenu,” they use the onions to “whip” the wrists or backs of those sitting next to them. This recalls the sounds of the whips of our slave masters.

In Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, a bunch of green onions also are used; one person “whips” the next and passes it down the table. It is also a custom to have a crown on hand and to select someone as “pharaoh.”

During the singing of “Dayenu,” the pharaoh wears the crown and moves from table to table, supervising the whipping. Why during Dayenu? Because Dayenu is the song of miracles, so the whipping reminds us that it was a miracle that we were freed from the lash of oppression.

Charoset (we know it in America as chopped dates and/or apples with nuts, cinnamon and wine) is part of the ritual food on the Seder plate. It reminds us of mixing mortar to lay the bricks for pharaoh’s buildings.

It’s roughly the same color as mortar. In Cuba, where Jews have had difficulty practicing their religion, traditional fruits are often not available.

So Cuban Jews created a recipe called “Charoset of the Oppressed.” The mixture is basic and includes only matzah, honey, cinnamon and wine. Using this charoset at our own Seder table could remind our families, especially the children, of the plight of Cuban Jews and all oppressed people around the world.

Here’s another example of a way to remember the Exodus: As far away as Kai Feng, China, where a Jewish community lasted until the mid-1800s, there was a custom at the time of the Chinese spring festival to dip a brush in red cinnabar and draw a line on the scrolls that flank the doorway of the typical Chinese home, recalling the smearing of blood that saved the firstborn of the Israelites from the plague of death.

Whether or not you’re Jewish, you may be headed to a Seder tonight. It’s a time to remember and celebrate that night thousands of years ago, when freedom as a concept was born.

X Rabbi Joel Berman leads the Ohev Tzedak-Shaarei Torah Congregation in Boardman.

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