Opening the Door to Passover Customs From Around the World


What’s on your list of items to buy for this year’s seder? Apples … parsley … wine … horseradish … shank bones … matzah?
What about some dark green scallions or a nice red brick?

There’s little doubt that you have a lot to do to get ready for Passover. Even so, you might want to add some unusual items to your list by taking a cue from Passover customs around the world.

In doing so, you’ll avoid the common condition that can afflict busy families whose seders have drifted into automatic pilot territory, somehow making the exciting story of how our ancestors fled Egypt amid plagues and miraculous Red Sea crossings seem a little ho-hum.

 It’s time to shake things up or, failing that, to be entertained by what fellow Jews do differently to celebrate this joyous holiday. Ready?

Whip It, Whip It, Good

At 99 cents for an organically grown bunch at one local supermarket, placing enough scallions on your seder table for every participant can be an affordable way to bring adults and children into the holiday spirit the way Jews of Persian ancestry do. The idea is to hold the scallion by the bulb and use it to “whip” your seatmates on their backs as you sing “Dayenu.” Why scallions? According to Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai of Society Hill’s Mikveh Israel, it’s not because the vegetable looks like a whip, and whips remind us of the slavery theme of the holiday. No, scallions are used because they represent the color of spring, and Passover is a spring holiday. So remember, as you are gently hitting your friends and family members, that what you are really doing is wishing them a green year.

Tami Lehman-Wilzig, author of Passover Around the World, says her family goes “berserk” for this custom at her seders in Kfar Saba, Israel. She says it’s a way to “let out your aggression, giggle and have fun.”

Eat My Dust

No doubt you make a great charoset, the delicious mixture of apples, nuts and wine meant to remind us of the mortar our ancestors used to make bricks on Pharaoh’s behalf. But think what might happen if you added a little more verisimilitude by sprinkling some actual brick dust into the mixture. Believe it or not, the Jews of Gibraltar put this something extra in their charoset; running a knife over a brick ought to provide enough dust for symbolism’s sake should you want to give this a try. Lehman-Wilzig, whose mother put brick dust in her charoset, says the dish should taste the same as it would if brick dust had not been added. (As a historical note, some Jewish soldiers during the Civil War took the brick business even further by using an actual brick as a stand-in when they could not obtain the traditional ingredients for charoset.)

Seder Plate Pass Over

You probably are proud of your seder plate and enjoy passing it around so everyone can help themselves to the ceremonial foods it holds. Maybe this year, however, you’ll do what Moroccan and other North African Jews do to feel as though they had personally been delivered from Egypt. Gabbai says the leader of the seder passes the seder plate over the head of each person at the table, repeating each time, “In haste, we went out of Egypt.” Jon Cutler, rabbi of Darkaynu in Warrington, experienced the custom at a seder given by Moroccan Jews. “It’s engaging,” he says. “You’re not just there as a passive participant.”

Reed Me a Story

Some Jews, like those in Yemen or Tunisia, don’t use a seder plate at all. Yemeni Jews put the seder foods on the table sans plates, according to Lehman-Wilzig, who suggests you could do the same thing if you use a table that is low to the floor — or the floor itself. Tunisians place their ceremonial foods in reed baskets, a nod to Moses’ birth story of being set adrift in a basket by his mother, Yocheved, and sister Miriam. At a Tunisian seder, the woman of the house circles the reed basket over the head of every guest. She tells them, “We quickly left Egypt” and they answer, “Yesterday we were slaves. Today we are free. This year we are here. Next year we will be free people in the land of Israel.”

Bring the Bling

Assuming you continue to have a seder table — low or otherwise — you’ll need to decorate it, perhaps by borrowing an idea from Hungarian Jews, who add their gold and silver jewelry to the tabletop. The practice is meant to remind them of the precious gifts Egyptians gave the Jews in their failed effort to get them to end the Ten Plagues that were ruining their lives. At your seder, you may want to substitute costume jewelry, Lehman-Wilzig suggests.

Dress up the Story

Egyptian and Iranian Jews dress up as ancient Israelites at their seders to get a better idea of what it might have been like to have experienced the original Passover story. Gabbai, who used to live in Egypt, says children and adults use bathrobes, sandals or slippers, and broom handles for staffs to outfit themselves for the role. When the costumed characters make their appearance at the seder, a question-and-answer format follows.

Assembled: “Where are you coming from?”

Ancient Israelite: “Mitzrayim (Egypt).”

Assembled: “Where are you going to?”

Ancient Israelite: “Yerushalyim (Jerusalem).”

Maybe there are some aspiring thespians who would be willing to dress up at your seder.

Cross the Red Sea in Your Kitchen

In the Polish town of Góra Kalwaria, Chasidic Jews do something remarkable on the seventh night of Passover. As part of their communal celebration of dancing and drinking at their synagogue, they pour a barrel of water on the floor. Lifting up the hems of their long coats so they don’t get them wet, they toast the towns they would cross on their way to freedom. The adventurous among us can try this in our own kitchens — provided the floor will not be slippery when wet. After removing shoes and socks, pour a bucket of water on your feet and walk through the pooled water.

Matzah Dance

No article about Passover traditions would be complete without mentioning traditions that feature the star of the Passover seder: the Afikomen, or dessert matzah. According to Gabbai, Egyptian Jews place the Afikomen in a sack that is passed from shoulder to shoulder as though it were a bundle a slave would carry. And according to Lehman-Wilzig, something similar occurs in the Central Asian city of Bukhara, where women dance and sing with packages of matzah tied to their backs. This year, why not play with your matzah before you hide it for the kids to find?

Four Questions, New Languages

At community seders held among the Abayudaya of Uganda, where the late dictator Idi Amin Dada once banned Jewish practices, participants spend about 30 minutes reciting the Four Questions in the eight languages spoken by the Jews of East Africa: Luganda, Lugisu, Lugwere, Lunyore, Lusoga, Swahili, Kikuyu and Langi. Then, led by a youngster, they recite the Four Questions in Hebrew, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu writes in an email. He leads the 100-year-old community of about 2,000 Jews. If any of your seder guests speaks Yiddish, Spanish, Russian, Italian or another language that reflects their heritage, perhaps they would be willing to ask the Four Questions in their native tongue.

Who knows, it might turn into a new tradition. After all, as Lehman-Wilzig points out, traditions usually begin with a single family and then get passed on.            o

Chalfont-based freelance writer Gail Snyder looks forward to beginning some new traditions at her family seder this year. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.



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