By; Dr Maurice M. Mizrahi
Fri 15 April 2005 (before Pessah)
Well, spring is here, Passover is about to begin, and this week's Torah portion is a special one for Pessah. It's always a special time for me, because I was born and raised in Egypt during just about the worst period to be a Jew in Egypt. I saw my community shrink 99%, from 100,000 when I was born in 1949 to less than 1,000 when I left in late 1967.
But today I don't want to dwell on the bad times. I just want to tell you a little about our Pessah customs.
In Egypt, as everywhere else, Pessah was always a happy time. But still, you can imagine the incongruity of sitting at the seder table year after year, in Cairo, Egypt, to celebrate how God took us out of the Land of Egypt, the land of slavery, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with signs and wonders, when the reality was that we were STILL in Egypt, STILL the subjects of a malevolent foreign ruler, and our situation was getting from bad to worse from one year to the next?
As is the custom with Jews everywhere, the Pessah season would begin right after Purim, with vigorous spring cleaning. Let me rattle off a series of recollections, in no particular order:
-Traditionally, the first-born male children fast before the seder. In Egypt some families made the first-born girls fast as well!
-We had to get rid of the hametz by 9 am the day of the first seder. My mother gathered it all in the middle of the dining-room table, and gave it to the maid.
-Pessah foods were special-ordered weeks ahead of the holiday from kosher providers. No Pessah display at the corner grocery store!
-Our matzah was round, a foot or more in diameter, and much thinner than the Ashkenazic boxed type. It was shmura matzah.
-A favorite staple was the special round Pessah cookies, about 4 inches in diameter. They were yellow and soft, and their taste was heavenly -- "taam haman"! Another was hard Greek cheese.
We did not cook with matzo meal. Instead, we used matzah and eggs. Matzah, whole or crumbled, was dipped in water and mixed with eggs or meat in casseroles. A Sephardic favorite my mother made was the "Mina" or "Mayina". It consisted of layers of matzah, spinach and ground beef cooked with hard-boiled eggs thrown in. The eggs were cooked at low temperature for a very long time. In Ladino, they are called "huevos haminados", or "browned eggs".
Our haroset was based on dates, not apples. You use what's plentiful in your country. In the Middle East, it's dates! The dates are soaked in water, boiled, crushed, and pureed, then sprinkled with crushed dried nuts. The result looked exactly like mortar, as it was supposed to!
An annual Pessah treat was dry-roasted salted nuts, such as almonds, pistachios and walnuts. They were too expensive to have the rest of the year. My favorites were hazelnuts. I was good at discovering their special hiding places, which was different each year, and stealing a few every day ahead of the holiday. One year I overdid it and there were only a handful left when Pessah came. Boy, was my mother mad at me!
-Our maror was romaine lettuce; sometimes celeri stalks. Boy, was I surprised when I ate horseradish for the first time in this country! Quite a different taste from romaine lettuce!
-Sephardic Jews, like all other Jews, prohibit the use of the five basic hametz grains on Pessah. These are barley, rye, oats, wheat, and spelt. However, unlike Ashkenazic Jews, they permit the use of other grains, or kitniyot, such as chick peas, corn, beans, peas, lentils, and, most importantly, rice. An important part of our "shulchan orech" - our "set table" - was grape leaves stuffed with rice, meat and spices! I hear that a lot of Ashkenazic Jews convert to Sephardic Judaism for the duration of the holiday!
-Our Haggadah was a local edition in French and Hebrew, and we used both languages during the seder.
-Sephardim recite the Four Questions in a different order from Ashkenazim: Why do we dip twice?, Why only matzah? Why only maror? Why do we eat only reclining? I could not find a source explaining the reason for the difference.
-Now let's talk about the ten plagues. There was no dipping of fingers in wine. We were much too refined for that! My mother would walk up to my father with a large bowl and a glass of water. My father would recite the plagues one by one, and for each plague he would pour a bit of wine in the bowl from a special large wineglass, and my mother would pour a bit of the water. It was all done under the table. Nobody was supposed to look at the "plagues" for fear of being "contaminated"! Then my mother, without looking directly at the bowl, and with the rest of us looking in another direction, would go to the bathroom and flush the "plagues" down the toilet! I remember fear traveling down my spine!
The wine was said to represent justice and the water mercy. Justice tempered with mercy is how God is operates in the Jewish tradition.
-The Jews in Egypt also had a peculiar local custom. Each participant would sling the napkin containing the matzah over their right shoulder. Then the leader of the seder would ask them "Where are you from?". They would answer "Mitzrayim -- Egypt". The leader would then ask again, "And where are you going?". They would then sling the napkin of matzah over their left shoulder and answer: "Yerushalayim -- Jerusalem!".
-It gets better. In some families, the leader would take the seder tray and go around chanting and lightly banging the tray over each of the participant's heads! Some say this is to place each person under the "protection" symbolized by the seder plate. Each person was "passed over", as it were!
-Before the meal, unmarried young women would hide behind a door to eat a hard-boiled egg. It was a symbol of fertility suggesting that marriage was in the not-too-distant future.
-Finally, we did not hide the afikoman matzah or have a Cup of Elijah, although our seders were every bit as long as the next Jew's seder.
When I got my exit visa in October 1967, my official permission to leave Egypt, theEgyptians added by hand, in red ink, the letter "Y" in Arabic between quotation marks, on both sides of the exit visa stamp. It stood for Yahudi -- Jew. It was a signal to those who would later check this visa to harass me as much as possible, which they did.
Years later, when I started having children, I stuck this exit visa in our family Passover Haggadah, next to the traditional words, "B'chol dor vador, hayyav adam lir'ot et 'atsmo, k'illuhu yatsa mimmitzrayim -- In every generation, every Jew must consider that *he, himself* was *personally* rescued from Egypt." That's always been easy for *me* to say!
Let me conclude with the words of the Haggadah, summarizing Jewish history, still applicable today:
Vehi sheamda lavotenu velanu
Shelo echad bilvad 'amad 'alenu lechalotenu
Ella shebechol dor vador 'omdim 'alenu lechalotenu Ve haKadosh Baruch Hu matzilenu mi-yadam
The promise made to our forefathers holds also for us. For not just one enemy has risen against us to destroy us. But in every generation they rise against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, Blessed Is He, saves us from their hands.