Rabbi Deena sat down to discuss how her Sephardic heritage informs her family’s celebration of Passover, and how researching your own family’s and communities’ history can help you craft a more engaging, meaningful Seder. If you want to hear the full interview, you can listen now on the Contact Chai podcast. If you need help putting together a haggadah, check out our Passover Resources. And if you are looking for a second night Seder, look no further! You are invited to Mishkan’s third annual Virtual Passover Seder on Thursday, April 6th.
You have Sephardic heritage on your father’s side. Did that inform the way you celebrated Passover?
Yes, but only somewhat. My dad is a history buff and loves looking into his family’s history. But we celebrated Passover with my mom’s family who are Ashkenazi. And there’s also just American Ashkenormativity. It’s just hard to find Kosher for Passover foods in America that are not Kosher for Passover according to Ashkenazi customs. Because of this, like a lot of families with Sephardic heritage in America, our observance looked very Ashkenazi. So now, my brother and I really love to use the Seder as an opportunity to express and explore our heritage.
We’re always trying to bring new flavors to the table, which our family loves. I have to say — Sephardi charoset is better.
Just a fact. It’s usually like a combination of stewed fruits, dates and prunes and things like that. And it makes this delicious, sweet paste that actually spreads on matzah. Also, Sephardi matzah traditionally was not the crumbly thing that we have now, it was soft baked — like a non or a roti, perfect for a wrap or a spread. And so, you know, originally, the Passover meal would have been roasted lamb with some spicy greens and a schmear of something sweet wrapped up in a wrap, which sounds delicious. And nothing like the experience of trying to eat a crumbly walnut Apple thing on a crumbly cracker. Sephardi communities treat the afikoman a little differently, too. In one of our Staters, we did not hide the afikoman for the kids to find. Instead, we followed the tradition where the kids would try to steal it from the Seder leader. Way more fun, frankly, than just wandering the house looking for a piece of crumbling cracker. We would like make a whole game out of it. The whole Seder is more playful and fun. Somebody will get the scallions — frequently on the Sephardic Seder plate — and we whip each other with the scallions during the singing of Dayenu.
Are there any other differences about what goes on the Seder plate between Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities?
The Seder plate is a reflection of what is around us! So while elements of the Seder are fixed, the ingredients have always been based on what was regionally available to a community. In America today, we can pretty much get any produce we want year-round, but family Passover traditions remind us of what was available to our ancestors in early spring. And actually, those things were constantly evolving as communities migrated. We tend think of the tradition of our great grandparents, or whoever our family was that emigrated to America, as tradition with a capital T — maybe even in the tune of Fiddler of the on the Roof. But that’s only because that’s where our great grandparents happen to be from! If our great grandparents happened to be somewhere else, they might have dressed differently and eating different foods. So for example, horseradish that most people think is a given on the Seder plate doesn’t grow in many of the areas that Sephardi and Mizrahi communities come from. Karpas, the greens, is of course totally dependent on what is growing in spring in your area of the world. While a lot of Ashkenazi families dip parsley in saltwater for their karpas, many Sephardi communities actually dip in vinegar because they had a lot of vinegar as as part of their cuisine, especially Persian communities who love that tangy-vinegar-fermented taste. Sephardi communities also tend to eat things like bitter greens like endive and romaine for their maror, and Latino Sephardi communities often put jalapeños on their Seder plate. That’s actually something that my family has embraced recently — I highly recommend a quick shot of tequila if you’re looking to liven up a long Seder!
There is another Sephardic community’s Passover tradition in particular that has gotten pretty popular in the wider Jewish community, or rather, a post-Passover tradition.
Yeah! I can’t pretend to be a total expert on this, but you are thinking of the Maghrebi community’s festival, Mimouna. It’s a Moroccan tradition that as soon as Passover ends, it’s basically like a festival of delicious wheaty things like cake. Mimouna is sort of like a rejoicing, celebratory opportunity to do a reverse Seder. If the Seder is all about the pinnacle experience of eating matzah for the first time all year mimouna is a gathering of everyone you know, to have a big party of eating things that are decidedly not matzah. And, you know, this is it’s pretty common in Israel, now, because there’s a huge Moroccan Jewish community there. And as Israeli society starts to integrate between areas of origin — much more than the United States has, in fact — more and more people have Moroccan in-laws or cousins or co workers. And so traditions like Mimouna, which originate from this very ancient and well known community in Morocco, are becoming part of the cycle of what it means to observe Passover: you do a Seder at the front end and you do Mimouna at the back end.
What about those of us who don’t have Sephardic heritage? How can we be mindful of cultural appropriation as we celebrate Passover?
It’s true that we need to be cautious about appropriating other cultures, and to that end I think intentionally citing your sources is very important. How did I learn about this custom? Who originated it, and how am I honoring or not honoring them in practicing it? It’s important to remember, though, that many in our community are Jews by choice, and don’t have any family customs at all to draw upon during the Seder. Yet, we are all one Jewish people, united in the recitation of this story of liberation. The Passover is a story of many tribes and peoples escaping a common oppressor and becoming one people through that shared experience, and remembering that experience. One of the things that’s so interesting about the Passover Seder is how much it continues to unite us. Yes, not all of these customs are familiar to all of us. But one of the way that things become familiar is that we do them, and in doing them to carefully recount how we came to find and admire these traditions. I want to encourage everyone to look at where your family comes from, and to look up the cultural and culinary traditions that you come from, to find out about the people who are going to be at your Seder, and find out about the people who matter to you — aunts and uncles and teachers and mentors and rabbis — find out about their traditions, and bring those to your table. But cite your sources. In the Talmud, you see rabbis quoting “in the name of their teacher, in the name of their teacher, in the name of their teacher.” So I’m not saying to just appropriate your friends’ and families’ customs, I’m saying bring them in, and cite those traditions in their name to honor the impact they have had in your life. I think Judaism is richer when we bring in all sorts of cultural identities and preserve them as traditions.