columnJewish & Israeli Holidays

Passover 2024

Judaism’s diversity needs to be part of the Passover conversation

Enriching our seder with stories about today’s hidden cultures is more important now than ever before.

Chefchaouen, located in the Rif Mountains of Morocco was established by Jews and Moors fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. It’s also referred to as the “Blue Pearl of Morocco.” Credit: Mark Fischer.
Chefchaouen, located in the Rif Mountains of Morocco was established by Jews and Moors fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. It’s also referred to as the “Blue Pearl of Morocco.” Credit: Mark Fischer.
Jan Lee. Credit: Courtesy.
Jan Lee
Jan Lee is an award-winning editorial writer and former news editor. Her articles and op-eds have been published in a variety of Jewish and travel publications, including the Baltimore Jewish Times, B’nai B’rith Magazine, Jewish Independent and The Times of Israel.

Each Passover, Jews throughout the world join together to celebrate their Jewish heritage. For two memorable nights in North America (one night in Israel), we pull out our best dishware, don our finery and recount the story of the Israelites as they escaped Egypt and started their 40-year trek to freedom. And as we do, we share our own families’ cherished traditions: the foods, customs and memories that we attach to our specific cultural heritage. If your family follows Ashkenazi traditions, it might be your bubbe’s sweet apple, walnut and honey charoset and her tasty cheese kugel that symbolizes Passover at your table. Or if your family hailed from Sephardic roots, it might be Moroccan chicken with preserved lemons or your Poppi’s favorite honey-almond cake.

Or these days, it may be the interesting conversation-starters we add to our seder plate: the symbols, colors and aromas that will inevitably prompt new questions and discussion, especially from the littlest guests. Take, for example, a banana from the tropics of Latin America and reminds us of the refugees at our shores and of the mitzvah of kindness to the stranger; the orange that symbolizes the struggles and rights of women and LGBTQ+ Jews, and the value of tolerance towards all; or the ruby-red tomato that represents the invisible, underpaid farm worker whose toil may well have made our Passover seder possible.

But curiously, what is often absent from dialogue at Passover seders I have found is that broader discussion about Jewish heritage: the valuable and many times instructive conversations about the traditions, history and aggadah (the imaginative realm of rabbinic literature and culture) of other Jewish cultures around the world, the ones absent from our table.

Passover, is after all, about educating the next generation of leaders. It’s about teaching the youngest about their very first ancestors. It’s about personally connecting with our history so we won’t forget our identity. It’s about reaffirming community and the cultural traditions that bind us as a people, including those traditions we don’t see as our own.

Granted, right now, educating our kids about the world’s ancient and often forgotten Jewish communities in Africa, South America and Asia may not be foremost on the mind of many. With the hostages still in Hamas’s hands and Iran’s recent attack against Israel, talking about the history of Diaspora Jewish cultures may seem a secondary concern this Passover. After all, what do the current events have to do with the fate of African, South American or Middle-Eastern Jews that aren’t already in Israel?

Plenty.

A month earlier, Jews around the world traveled back in time to the ancient Persian Empire and city of Shushan. We celebrated Purim by regaling the heroism of Esther and her cousin Mordechai as they fought to save their community from extermination. We held a sumptuous dinner and passed around hamantaschen—believed to be Persian treats—in their honor. For one short but significant night each year, we all recognize the Persian Jews.

And then they’re gone from our consciousness. It would be easy to believe that their existence vanished when the empire ceased to exist thousands of years ago. But amazingly, Persian Jewish culture lives on—both in small, dwindling communities in Iran and the major metropolitan centers of the Diaspora. Today there are about 350,000 in Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom, and 8,000 or less in Iran, undeterred by the relentless antisemitism and anti-Israel attacks of their government.

Koloocheh
According to Tabby Refael, hamantaschen aren’t the favorite Purim cookie in Iran. Koloocheh, with their rich taste and ornate design, symbolize the Purim festival of old Persia. Credit: Sfarah.

Tabby Refael, whose family fled Iran when she was a little girl in the 1980s, writes on Persian Jewish culture. She said Persian heritage and traditions still remain vibrant and alive. When it comes to holiday customs though, she admits that her favorite is the Persian version of the “Dayenu” song. What she calls, “whacking yourself with scallions,” a communal exercise that gives you license to gleefully pummel your neighbor, your kids, your parents—pretty much anyone at the table—with a fragrant green onion while belting out the chorus to “Dayenu” is the pinnacle event at Passover. “My kids are American born and American raised, and they get so excited for the seder.” So, apparently, do the adults.

Then there’s the hamantaschen mystery. How did the three-pointed cookies ever become our symbol for Persian sweets after all? And just where did they come from? Not from Persian Jews, Refael assures me.

“We didn’t have hamantaschen. Of course, we didn’t!” Instead, her mother made koloocheh, round carefully decorated cookies, the mainstay of a Purim cuisine in Iran. Those are the real Persian cookies.

Still, living in the theocratic republic of Iran isn’t easy for minorities, particularly Jews, who are constantly under the watchful eye of the government and are subject to harassment and arrest. It’s unknown how the current strife between Israel and Iran may affect the safety of the country’s Jewish residents.

So educating our kids (or ourselves) about unique Jewish traditions isn’t the only reason for talking about Judaism’s remarkable diversity. It’s also to help ensure its legacy continues.

Of the 100-some ethnic communities that exist throughout the world, many are shrinking, buffeted by antisemitism, migration and dwindling resources. The ethnic communities of Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Iraq, for example, no longer exist in their home countries. All eventually migrated to Israel or other parts of the world.

Weaver in Ethiopia
Roughly 10,000 Beta Israel descendants are still awaiting aliyah to Israel. This man supports his family with his weaving business. Credit: Meketa UK.

And has often been the case for Jews who sought refuge, moving can mean adapting or in some cases, abandoning their cultural traditions in order to survive.

Other Jewish communities, like the Lemba people of Zimbabwe, the Bnei Menashe of India and the roughly 10,000 Beta Israel descendants that are still in Ethiopia awaiting aliyah, are feeling the effects of the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Jewish Agency and many of Israel’s private aid organizations—historically stalwart supporters of Diaspora Jews—have for the time being been forced to turn their resources towards helping Israelis at home.

As our age-old traditions at Passover have proven, telling a community’s story and what its people went through is an exercise in compassion. We tell our children about the Israelites’ departure from Egypt not just so those stories won’t be forgotten, but because sharing their experiences “as if we too, were in Egypt” helps reinforce the importance of humanity. Incorporating stories about real-time Jewish communities not only enriches our appreciation of the Passover story but further protects Judaism’s remarkable legacy.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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