Twenty-six years of marriage to a Moroccan Jew has impacted my life in every possible way. With traditional holiday celebrations, stirring prayer melodies, mystical superstitions, deep spirituality and warm hospitality, Moroccan Jewish customs infuse every aspect of our lives. But perhaps some of the most significant of them all are on the epicurean front, where expansive culinary delights and exotic spices are showcased by elaborate table presentations.
There may be no better example of such a tradition than the famous and beloved Mimouna, a celebration that takes place at the conclusion of Pesach. It is an open house of sorts, where families visit neighbors and friends to celebrate the end of the Pesach holiday together. Some say that the word Mimouna is derived from the Hebrew word emunah (faith) and may also be a reference to Maimon, the father of Rambam, whose yahrtzeit is marked on this day.
Mimouna used to be celebrated exclusively by Moroccans, but when Moroccan Jews emigrated en masse to Israel, Montreal and France, they brought Mimouna and many other beloved traditions with them. Today, Mimouna is widely celebrated in Israel, and not just by Moroccans. Many Israelis gather in parks all over the country to picnic and compete over who has the best moufletta.
Depending on your Moroccan city of origin, you will have different ways of celebrating Mimouna. Personally, I have experienced Mimounas throughout the world, including some in Paris, New York and Israel. Despite differences between one beautifully-laden table and the next, the essential symbols of spring, good luck, prosperity and freedom from slavery are always present.
A beautiful, decorative bowl, filled with white flour, signifies prosperity. The symbolic number five (the chamsah – the hand of G-d) is represented in multiple ways: five eggs, five whole fava beans and five silver coins pressed into the flour. Stalks of wheat grace the table as an allusion to both matzoh and moufletta. Other standard fare includes a bowl of sculpted butter and another of sweet honey. Pitchers of milk and buttermilk, dried fruits arranged like artwork and sweet couscous known as berkooks grace the table. As a symbol of fertility, a whole, raw fish is presented on a beautiful platter decorated with flowers and greens, and oftentimes adorned with a gold necklace or pearls!
The dish that takes center stage at Mimouna is the moufletta, a delicious, thin, crêpe-like pancake that is delicate, yet stretchy. Round, like shmura matzoh, but definitely chametz, the moufletta signifies a gastronomic bridge between matzoh and bread. Before arrogantly running to eat bread, which represents the ego, the Moroccans transition from the matzoh. The main idea, according to Rabbi Raphael Benchimol of Manhattan Sephardic Congregation, is that the month of Nisan is a time for geulah (redemption) and Mashiach, and even though Nisan is almost over, we should not lose hope. By eating the moufletta, we are reminded of the matzoh of geulah from Egypt and the possibility that Mashiach can come at any time.
After the mistress of the house presents the moufletta, it is spread with butter and honey and then rolled like a cigar. She would announce “Terbeh ohsa’ed!” – be successful and happy.
One year, my family traveled to Israel for Pesach. Here I was, longing for my Passover dishes, my dining room and my cooking. (Don’t worry, though, being married to a Moroccan means that you still have to clean the house from top to bottom, even if you’re not home for Pesach. We also set the table, complete with matzoh and a full seder plate!) While I missed the familiarity of Pesach at home, my husband’s only concern was where we would celebrate Mimouna at the conclusion of Pesach.
We ended up spending the last days of Pesach in Teveria. Just before candle lighting, I phoned Rabbi Elkabetz, a local mekubal (someone who gives blessings). In my broken Hebrew, I introduced myself, “Ani Kim Amzallag,” (I am Kim Amzallag) to which he responded, “Ima v’aba sheli mishpachat Amzallag!” (My mother and father both come from Amzallag families.)
I asked Rabbi Elkabetz, “Midaber anglit? Tsfartit? Sfaradit?” (Do you speak English? French? Spanish?) We then proceeded to converse in Spanish! “Benga en neustro casa para Mimouna!” (Come to our home for Mimouna) he urged. Baruch Hashem, we had a place to go!
As it turned out, the mashgiach at our hotel was also Moroccan. We spent Shabbos and the three-day holiday with him, his wife and their ten children. Despite my lack of Hebrew and her lack of English, we got along just fine. She immediately invited us to her mother’s house for Mimouna. It turned out, of course, that they lived in the same neighborhood as Rabbi Elkabetz! My husband was relieved – and we were thrilled – because he simply could not fathom ending Pesach without celebrating Mimouna!
For the Recipe “Moufletta” that accompanied this article click here.
This Recipe was featured in Kosher Inspired, Issue 4, April 2011. Kosher Inspired is brought to you by Mishpacha Magazine.
Kim Rosenberg Amzallag has taught Sephardic cooking classes and serves as Director of Sales and Marketing for Kosher Inspired. Kim Kushner, who holds kosher cooking classes ar ound NYC, contributed to this article and photo shoot. Visit her at kimkushnercuisine.com