Just how happy are you when you take that first bite into a slice of bread after Passover? For the Jews of Morocco and other North African countries, the return to eating chametz is only one reason for celebrating the Mimouna, a holiday that starts at sundown of the last day of Passover. Mimouna commemorates the beginning of spring, with tables loaded with food and symbols of good luck and abundance.
There are several theories about the origin of the holiday and its name. Some think it derives from the name of Rabbi Maimon, the father of Moses Maimonides (the Rambam), who died the day after Passover. Some say the name comes from the Hebrew word for faith “emunah”. More recent research, however, connects the holiday to a Moroccan pagan ritual of appeasing a female demon named La Mimouna.
This past Saturday, right after Passover, I attended the Mimouna celebration at Sandra and Sharon Amar’s home in Rockville, MD. Sharon’s parents, Ronit and Mashiach Amar, who were both born in Morocco and moved to Israel in the 1950’s, were visiting, and Ronit prepared a banquet of traditional Moroccan sweets to celebrate the holiday.
Cooking and baking for the Mimouna starts during the weekdays of Passover. Ronit ground almonds and sugar to make marzipan and used it to stuff dates and walnuts. She prepared candied orange slices, eggplant jam, carrot and prune jam and grapefruit jam. And right after the holiday was over she sent someone to the supermarket to get the flour and yeast the prepare the most typical of the Mimouna dishes, the moufleta.
The moufleta - are pancake or crepe-like pastries prepared on a skillet and then spread with butter and honey.
The banquets at Amar’s family included also a huge variety of store-bought cookies, bars and cakes and a bowl filled with flour, five fava bean pods and five dates, all are symbols of good luck and prosperity. So much food!
“This is nothing compare to what the Jews in Morocco serve for the holiday,” said Sandra, who grew up in Casablanca until she was 18 and whose family still lives there. “Every home would have several tables, one just for the jams and sweets, one for savory snacks like pastrami, liver, cigars of phyllo dough. There is always a challah that’s at least 3 to 4 feet long and a fish of that size as well. And there’s always sushi.”
“Nobody hardly eats anything there,” added Ronit “there’s a secret competition of who has the biggest tables and the most food. Guests hop from one Mimouna to another, mingle and nosh a little and move to the next house.”
Sandra remembers the Mimouna in Casablanca as a very festive and fun holiday. They would sing the Mimouna song, dance, and drink, even the children.
“Muslim neighbors and colleagues would come to the Mimouna open house too,” Ronit recalled, “they would bring with them the honey, butter and milk they knew we missed during the holiday (many Moroccan Jews don’t eat dairy during Passover - V.G.) and we gave them our leftover food from Passover, which we knew they loved.”
The traditional blessing of “tirbachu u’tis’adu”, "be blessed and have a good luck," is said in each house.
Today the Jewish community of Morocco, of about 2,500 people, is concentrated mainly in Casablanca and is made up mostly of wealthy traders, who live very comfortably there. But the community is shrinking rapidly, as the young generation leaves to study and work abroad, mainly in France, Canada (Jewish schools in Morocco teach in French), the U.S. and Israel. Their parents follow and many synagogues and Jewish schools in Casablanca now remain empty.
In Israel the Mimouna used to be celebrated very modestly, in the privacy of the families’ homes. But that all changed in the late 1970’s.
“It was Menachem Begin,” said Ronit “he raised the Sephardi Jews to a higher social class, he gave them the backing they never had.” And the rest is history. There’s no other holiday in Israel politicians are so eager to be part of. And there’s nothing like a picture of a politician eating moufleta - LINK to ensure a few more Sephardi votes in the next elections.
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