By: Dr Maurice M. Mizrahi

Maurice Mizrahi
Posted in Egyjews@yahoogroups.com
15 April 2005
Fort Belvoir Congregation, Virginia
Maryse Zeitouni wrote:
Maurice gave his talk at Fort Belvoir Congregation in Virginia last Friday. He incorporated much of what he had written in his "Growing Up Under Pharaoh" but I thought I'd post the few additions he made and the specific details on Pessah in Egypt.

<< So, being half Sephardic and half Mizrahi, I had no choice but to marry an Ashkenazic woman. She is known in Gentile circles as "Ms. Rahi".

..And so on, and so forth. Sometimes I try to make it short and say:

"I was born and raised in Egypt, in a Jewish Italian French-speaking family, and now I am an American."

But it doesn't work. Invariably, the response is: "Whoa! Whoa! Not so fast! You say you are... French?"

I tried other tacks.

-I am an African-American. I was born and raised in Africa.
-I am a Hispanic-American. My ancestors were Spanish.
For some reason, they don't work either.

... But since Passover is just a few days away, let me not dwell on the bad times and 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, and wondering: What are we still doing here, when things are getting from bad to worse for us Jews year after year?

As is the custom with Jews everywhere, the Passover 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

-Passover foods were special-ordered weeks ahead of the holiday. No Passover display at the corner grocery store!

-Our matza was round, a foot or more in diameter, and much thinner than the Ashkenazic boxed type.

-A favorite staple was the special round Pesach cookies, about 5 inches in diameter. They were yellow and soft, and their taste was 'taam haman' -- heavenly! Another was hard Greek cheese.

-Dry-roasted salted nuts -- almonds, pistachios, walnuts -- were an annual Passover treat, too expensive to have the rest of the year. My favorites were hazelnuts. I was good at discovering their special hiding places (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!

-We did not cook with matzah meal. Instead, we used matzah and eggs. Matza, whole or crumbled, was dipped in water and mixed with eggs or meat in casseroles. A favorite my mother made was the "Mina" or "Mayina" -- 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 crushed, boiled and pureed, then sprinkled with crushed dried nuts. The result looked exactly like mortar, as it was supposed to!

-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 [BROWS]. 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 become Sephardic on Passover!

-Our Haggadah was a local edition in French and Hebrew, and we used both languages during the seder. -Sephardim recite the Four Questions in the following order:


1."On all other nights, we do not dip
even once. Why on this night do we dip twice? ";
2. "On all other nights we eat bread or matzah.
Why on this night do we eat only matzah?
3. "On all other nights, we eat all kinds of herbs. Why on this night do we eat only maror?
4. "On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining. Why on this night do we eat only reclining?

Haggadah of Pessah pdf

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. 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 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?", and 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 -- 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.

Well, a few months before my 18th seder in Egypt, it was time to go. My exit visa came onVisa October 20th, 1967. Pharaoh decided to let *this* Jew go. It gave me two weeks to leave. On both sides of the exit visa stamp, there was a red "Y" in Arabic between quotation marks, added by hand in red ink. It stood for Yahudi -- Jew. A signal to those who would later check this visa to harass me as much as possible. 

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!

From the Haggadah:

Vehi sheamda lavotenu velanu
The promise God made to our forefathers holds true for us as well

Shelo echad bilvad 'amad 'alenu lechalotenu
Because it wasn't just one that rose against us to destroy us

Ella shebechol dor vador 'omdim 'alenu lechalotenu
In every generation there have been those who sought to destroy us.

Ve Hakkadosh Baruch Hu matzilenu miyadam
And God always rescued us from their hands.

Shabbat shalom and chag pessah sameach v'kasher to all.