"Every person in every generation must regard themselves as having been personally freed from Egypt" (Talmud, Pesachim 10.5). Each Jewish community has its own unique ways to make Passover feel special: here are a few global traditions, many recounted by Israelis living in JUF's Partnership Together region in Israel's Negev, which you can try in your own family too.
Ethiopian-born Kiryat Gat resident David Maharat, with JUF staff on a mission to Israel this past winter. Photo credit: Elissa Polan.
Ethiopian Jews traditionally celebrated Passover with some extreme spring cleaning: washing and painting the walls of their homes. Many Ethiopian families even acquire brand new sets of dishes each year. "We had new clothing, new dishes -- everything felt fresh, and we felt renewed," explained Ethiopian-born Bizu Riki Mullu. (1)
David Maharat, an Ethiopian-born resident of the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat, part of JUF's Partnership Together region, recalls that his entire town would come together and watch their Kes (the spiritual leader of Ethiopian Jews) prepare a pre-Seder feast: "I remember that on the Seder eve we would go to our synagogue and eat... The entire community would gather, the Kes would do a special blessing and everyone would eat. Afterwards we would go to our house and hold the Seder meal, which consisted of homemade matzahs and a flax seed and sesame sauce."
Moroccan Jews mark the end of Passover with a special new celebration, Mimouna. Moroccan Jews decorate their tables with white tablecloths and place symbols of luck and prosperity on them: fish swimming in bowls (symbolizing life and fertility), bowls of flour and other foods (representing abundance), and coins (for wealth). Because Nissan, the month of Passover, is the first month of the Hebrew calendar, Moroccan Jews also eat sweet foods at Mimouna to represent a sweet new year.
Mimouna has become a popular holiday in Israel, celebrated by Jews with origins all over the world. Israelis visit friends and relatives, stopping by to sample delicious sweets and to wish each other Tarbakhu uts'adu, "May you have success and good luck."
In Tangier, fewer than 10 elderly Jews remain of what was once a thriving Jewish community: most live in a home called Residence Laredo. Chicago-area students visited these elderly Jews through KAHAL: Your Jewish Home Abroad, a JUF Breakthrough Fund grant recipient, and documented a beautiful local tradition that has all but died out elsewhere: Charoset is made using local edible flowers, then served inside flowers, creating a beautiful spring feeling on the residents' Seder table.
Merav Lipik's sister Orna Beharav and grandparents Ilana and Eliyahoo Nakar at their Iraqi Jewish-inspired Seder in Kiryat Gat.
At Iraqi Jewish Seders, instead of hiding the afikomen for children to find, families put it in a sack and give it to the youngest child present to place on his back. This way kids can recreate the Passover story and feel like Israelites, fleeing Egypt with their few possessions.
"All the kids go out" of the room recalls Merav Lipik, a resident of Kiryat Gat in Israel and a member of JUF's Partnership Steering Committee, whose family moved to Israel from Iraq. The kids return "like a group of b'nai Yisrael (children of Israel) and then the Seder leader asks them all kinds of questions: Where do you come from? Where are you going? etc. That way they tell the story (of the Exodus from Egypt)."
Jews from the Syrian city of Aleppo maintain the custom of saving a small part of the afikomen for a pregnant woman to eat after she delivers her child. This recalls Pharaoh's decree that all Jewish baby boys be killed "Lest they multiply" (Exodus 1:10). For Syrian Jews, this custom is a way of answering: "They shall multiply." (2)
While singing Dayenu in the Passover Seder, Persian Jews have the custom of hitting each other with leeks. It makes for a fun diversion, but it recalls something somber: the lash of the whips of the Egyptians our ancient ancestors suffered.
As Israel welcomes Jews from the four corners of the world, some Israelis are forging new Passover traditions too. That's the case in Eliav, a 15-year-old moshav (cooperative community) in the Lachish area, part of JUF's Partnership Together region in Israel's Negev, that's host to a special Passover tradition each year.
Each year, the entire moshav community of over 200 comes together for a pre-Seder re-enactment of the Exodus. "The idea is to create a performance of the Exodus that includes everybody," resident Yossi Schellas, one of the founders of the custom, explained. Children play the role of the Israelites, making sand castles, while adults dress up as Egyptian officials and bellow through loudspeakers that the Israelites should work harder.
The whole community acts out the story, from Moses' birth all the way through the plagues, the Jews' midnight flight from Egypt, and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Atmospheric music, costumes, and special effects make the event, which can last four or five hours, memorable. Children carry bags and walking sticks, re-enacting the flight their ancestors once took out of Egypt. "Every year we say this is the last one," Yossi joked, but each year the residents of Eliav put on another show -- forging a brand new Passover ritual in the Jewish state.
1. Quoted in Too Good to Passover by Jennifer Felecia Abadi, 2018.
2. From Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dwek, 2007.
Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D. lives with her family in the northern suburbs of Chicago.
Special thanks to Maya Abarbnel, Programs Manager, JUF Israel Office.