By SHIRA HARRIS
Most Jews around the world, especially those in the United States, had a lovely meal of haroset, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, brisket and or lamb, roasted potatoes, cabbage, asparagus and maybe some dried fruit for dessert at Monday night’s first Passover seder. But rice and beans? At a seder?
While that may seem foreign and maybe even non-traditional, for those of us who are Sephardic, a Pesach without rice and beans would have Savta (grandmother) turning in her grave.
Just like Ashkenazi Jews, we sit around the seder table. But it’s the leader of the seder, not the wife, who brings the first plates. And he doesn’t just plop them in front of your face.
He holds a plate on the head of each person at the table for a second, a minhag, or custom, to remind us of the heavy burdens we had on our heads when we were slaves in Egypt.
Then a few pieces of matzo are tied up in a napkin and passed around the table, shoulder to shoulder. Each is asked, “Where are you from?” as the matzo is being passed. The traditional reply is, “I am from Egypt.” Then a second question: “Where are you going?” And the answer: “I am going to Yerushalaym.” Then a third question: “Will you come with me?” The answer, of course, is “yes.”
Of course, in all of our traditions, we serve unleavened bread. But who among us really likes to eat matzos? We of the Sephardic tradition have an answer. One you Eastern European Jews might want to adopt.
We serve an unleavened bread called pane azimo (pa-knee ah-zee-moe). It’s made with olive oil, flour, sea salt and matzo meal. Some Sephardic families also toss some corn meal in as well. Of course, there’s no yeast so, like matzo, it doesn’t rise. But unlike matzo, it doesn’t taste like cardboard!
Of course, we use a Haggadah, so the story of the 10 plagues and the softening of Pharaoh’s heart and the escape from bondage – the wandering the desert – all that is the same. But here’s something I bet you’ve never seen unless you’ve been to a Sephardic seder: the leader pours wine into, of all things, a tin can. The tin can is then taken into the yard and the wine is poured into the ground. Then the matriarch of the family says, “May this go to all of our enemies and haters. May they create no suffering for us or themselves. Amen.”
The matriarch then presents the patriarch with a bowl and glass of water. He recites the plagues one-by-one and pours a drop of wine from a special glass each time into the bowl. The matriarch chases the wine with a bit of water. All of this takes place below table level, because we’re not supposed to look at the plagues for the fear of being contaminated.
Without looking, the matriarch takes the bowl to the bathroom and flushes the plagues down the toilet.
The singing of Dayenu, of course, will be familiar to Jews no matter what traditions they otherwise hold. But as we are singing, we take green onions with long stems, which we use to whip the person next to us, and pass them on. The whipping reminds us of the miracle that we were freed from the lash of oppression.
Then charoset, a mixture of apples, dates, nuts, apricot, cinnamon and wine is served, to remind us that, when we were slaves, we had to mix mortar to make the bricks. Then, the traditional four cups of wine.
But here’s a uniquely Sephardic tradition. We all dress in white cotton, and the leader, in this case my rabbi, wears a white caftan, or robe, and a crown, because he plays Pharaoh.
On the eighth night, we close out Passover traditionally with the Mimouna celebration. The synagogue is opened at one minute after midnight. The Torah is then taken from the arch. The Song of Songs is read while everyone dances in the aisles. (Something, I might add, that one rarely does in an Ashkenazi shul!)
We eat pita bread dipped in honey, representing the gluing together of the Jewish nation so that we will never be separated by oppression and slavery again.
But what about the rice and beans, you ask? It’s called kitniyot: rice, legumes, string beans, green peas, lentils, split peas, chick peas, sesame and sunflower seeds. A traditional kosher for Pesach staple. It doesn’t have any specific religious significance, but I promise you one thing. It’s a tasty addition to the seder table that we anticipate eating every year.