While I’ve not yet had the opportunity to celebrate Pesach, or Passover, in Morocco itself, my experiences sharing Moroccan Pesach traditions with friends have convinced me that I need to do so!
Moroccan Jewish History
As a small country in North Africa, Morocco doesn’t get very much press, but it’s a fascinating country with a small but strong Jewish community – one that carries on centuries of Moroccan Sephardic traditions. While hundreds of thousands of Jews once lived there, the 1948-1967 exodus to Israel greatly reduced its Jewish population, which numbers only around 5,500 today. Moroccan Jews largely have a Sephardic heritage, strongly reflected in their Pesach observance.
The Moroccan Flavor
The Moroccan Pesach experience is quite community-oriented and lively. At Moroccan-influenced events I’ve attended, activities have been loud, festive, and very communal. I always associate Moroccan Pesach celebrations with vivid colors, mildly spiced and unusual foods, exotic song and dance, and constant conversation – primarily in French. Traditional Moroccan clothing is also frequently worn, and there’s a sense of vibrancy in the air.
The Seder Meal
The centerpiece of any Pesach is its Seder, and a Moroccan one is no exception. Its Mediterranean roots are evident in its rich foods and rituals. Let’s start with the foods, as I can personally attest to the wonder of a Moroccan Seder meal! You’re likely to find such dishes as dried fava bean soup, stewed lamb with truffles, matzo, and a lemony fish dish. Unlike most Seder tables, Moroccan menus include rice dishes, and no table’s complete without lots of salads. From my favorite Moroccan-style Seder, I still recall the fruit and nut charoset balls garnished with peppermint, served with grated horseradish and speckled quail eggs. I’m also partial to the Moroccan take on gefilte – lots of cilantro, jalapeno, tomatoes, and garlic.
Of course a Seder is about more than food, and Moroccans have some unique customs in the enactment of Seder rituals:
- When the Seder plate is brought to the table, it’s covered in a brightly colored scarf, and everyone sings at its arrival. But before being set down, the plate is set on a child’s head and rotated for display to everyone.
- During the Haggadah, three pieces of matzah are tied together in a napkin, making a sack, then passed around the table, from shoulder to shoulder, as the four questions are asked.
- Before the Magid section begins, the Seder plate is lifted and passed over each person’s head, along with the recitation of “Bibhilu yasanu mi-misrayim, halaham’anya bené horin” (“In haste, we went out of Egypt with our bread of affliction, but now we’re free people”).
- When it’s time to count the plagues, it’s not done with one’s finger, but by the mixing of water and wine in a bowl.
The Mimouna Celebration
But by far the most unique and fascinating Moroccan Pesach tradition is the Mimouna celebration. Falling on the day after the end of Passover, Mimouna provides that ritual doesn’t have to be solemn. Entire neighborhoods throw open their doors to welcome family and friends to festive wheat- and flower-strewn tables, filled with sweets ranging from gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins to buttery muffaleta pancakes and stuffed dates. A friend describing her childhood in Casablanca told me how she fondly remembers going from house to house to enjoy sweets and honey-based drinks. It almost sounds like Halloween, doesn’t it?
The Moroccan Experience
So I’m ready to celebrate Pesach in Morocco itself. I’ll start with the traditional walk to the seashore on the first morning of Pesach, and join other celebrants who have come to dip bare feet into the water in commemoration of the Israelites’ Red Sea crossing. I’ll probably end my visit in the Djemaa El Fna Square, with its teeming mix of animal trainers, juggles, singers, and fortune tellers. Its bright, noisy din serves as a hallmark of this lively country –one that seems a fitting setting in which to experience ancient rituals of Jewish history and religion.