Alizah Benchetrit is from Vaughn, Ontario and attended the University of Toronto. She is a Community Advocate at Apna Ghar, an organization which provides culturally-appropriate, multilingual services, including emergency shelter, to survivors of domestic abuse with a primary focus on the South Asian and other immigrant communities.
Following this year’s Passover, I hosted Mimouna, a Moroccan Jewish holiday, with the Chicago AVODAH community. We celebrated with friends and neighbors, whose own diverse backgrounds – hailing from Israel, India, and Iran (to name a few), and faiths, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, captured the spirit of the tradition.
Moroccan-Jews traditionally celebrate Mimouna at the end of chag, the evening of the last day of Passover. The door is left open and guests arrive without invitation. Family, friends and neighbors gather to break the week-long prohibition on eating leavened bread and mark the beginning of spring.
In Morocco, Jews invited their Muslim neighbors to their homes and it was customary for Muslim neighbors to bring a basket of yeast and flour. It was a gift to their Jewish neighbors that was much needed, since Jews could not buy flour at the market until the following day. The flour was used by the women of the house, who would gather to knead dough and prepare mufleta, a crepe filled with honey and butter, served at every Mimouna.
Apart from the usual festivities of wine and the mufletas, Chicago-based, Egyptian-Lebanese musician, Rami Gabriel, played a few Middle Eastern musical pieces on the Oud. The Oud is a pear shaped spring instrument common in North African and Middle Eastern musical traditions. The music of the Oud mesmerized everyone, transporting them to a different place and another culture. Rami played the Ladino version of Tzur Mishelo, (a Jewish song traditionally sung on the Shabbat) and I felt transported to my synagogue’s Seuda Shlishit (the third meal eaten on the afternoon of Shabbat). This music awakens a part of me, so much of it sounds like prayers from the high holidays.
It was an interesting realization that occurred to me as this music was playing. This music and culture is a part of my culture, and it is a part of Jewish culture. For many of my fellow American AVODAHniks, raised on yiddishkeit and a Reform tradition deeply rooted in Western Europe, listening to the Oud was an experience of observing and learning about someone else’s culture. Yet when I join in singing to tunes of kiddush and songs at every communal Shabbat, that I have learned by now, but which remain foreign to me, there is an assumption that here there is a shared Jewish culture. This, I believe, really prompts us to ask in what ways can we truly build, pluralistic Jewish communities that are inclusive to our diverse traditions.
Celebrating Mimouna was not so much for me, sharing a tradition with which I was raised, but rather an attempt to tap into a rich cultural repertoire, that I did not have access to growing up. My parents were born in Casblanca, at a time that it was French protectorate, and neither were fully immersed in Moroccan culture. I grew up in Israel, in complete ignorance of their country of origin, in schools that taught me the history and traditions of Ashkenazi Eastern European Jews, and rarely acknowledged the rich and diverse history of Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin. It is difficult to convey the sense of loss of growing-up in a cultural void and the ongoing search to recover a sense of history and a lost narrative.
Although celebrations of Mimouna continue today around the world by a vibrant Moroccan-Jewish diaspora, in Israel, France, the U.S and Canada, Mimouna has lost the complicated web of meanings in which it was embedded. Mimouna was a reflection on the relationship between Jews and Muslims, and a testimony to the strong relations and peaceful coexistence between the two communities.
As Israel recently celebrated its 63rd birthday, it is heart warming to see that Mimouna celebrations have finally moved from the periphery, as a tradition of a marginalized community, to the mainstream where it is embraced across the society and widely attended by politicians. Those same politicians, however, have also pursued policies marginalizing other neighbors: Arab citizens of Israel. The Nakbah law came into effect this year, revoking government funding from organizations that publicly mark the catastrophe of the Palestinian people in 1948, effectively silencing their narrative.
Beyond the food and music, the celebration of Mimouna at the Chicago AVODAH community, was an attempt to recapture a silenced narrative of Moroccan Jews that celebrates peaceful coexistence, while using it as a bridge to build relationships with individuals, across national and religious backgrounds. I am hopeful that as Jews pursuing social justice we can learn to revisit and tap into the richness of our histories, knowing that not only can they bring us joy, but also power to pursue the change we wish to see in the world.