I am waiting for my young cousin to confirm whether she and her brother, his fiancée and her brothers will be coming to us for the Seder this year. If not we will go to my friend''s sister, who is waiting for us to confirm. If not, she will go to Eilat to be with her husband''s parents, who are waiting for her to confirm. If not, they will go to Ber Sheva to be with their in-laws parents, who are waiting for them to confirm, and on and on it goes. At the end of this line I imagine Moses shaking his head in disbelief at the social complexity he has created, while his mother just wants to know how many eggs to cook for the Seder. In the meantime we discuss the menu over coffee as if we are coming because at this point I suspect my young cousins may not actually be in the country come erev Pesach due to their age and B.C. (Before Children) disposition to a spontaneous and adventurous life.
During our discussions about our various Pesach customs, I am interested to learn that the Moroccans do not eat kitniyot. I was under the false impression that all Sephardi Jews did, but like the Ashkenazim, the Moroccans'' do not eat any beans, legumes, corn, rice, millet or any of their bi-products during Pesach. I am equally fascinated to learn that the Kavkazi Jews who come from the eastern Caucasian Highlandsare not Ashkenazi like their Russian neighbors but originate from Persia, as early as the fifth century, and they do eat kitniyot, as do the Jews from Ethiopia and Yemen.
When we first made aliya, I decided I would eat kitniyot, even though our rabbi advised against changing our Ashkenazi family tradition. I did a little research and interrogated all my Ashkenazi friends who had made aliya. I found that with time, the majority had loosened their hold on the Ashkenazi customs of their childhood simply because it was too hard to be so strict in Israel where so many products contained kitniyot. Laying claim to my great grandmother''s Spanish lineage and quoting Maimonides as my source, I bravely made the change. Maimonides said "there is no hametz in kitniyot" and "even if rice were ground into flour, and it were to rise like leavened dough, it is permissible to eat it as it is not hametz". So who was I to argue with the great Rambam? Also since we were now living in a majority Sephardi country and since I could barely read and understand the contents of a six by two advertising billboard in Hebrew, what were the chances of me reading and understanding the tiny, six point font ingredient listing on the side of a jar ?
In Australia it was easy. The shelves of the local kosher supermarket that stocked products containing hametz and kitniyot were promptly covered over with the sale of the last pack of Hamentashen and the three remaining items; Beit Hashita pickled cucumbers in brine, Osem soup stock and Manischewitz coloured Cereal Balls, were what remained for the chag - a no-brainer, as they say. Here in Israel, the supermarket shelves are left exposed and fully stocked until half an hour before Pesach comes in, but even after they are covered what remains are rows and rows of shelves of pickled cucumbers, soup stock and coloured Cereal Balls, in all their brilliant varieties of flavours, tastes, brands, packaging and kashrut certifications. Guessing that three minutes before candle lighting, I might receive a text telling me that my young cousins and their extended entourage will indeed be joining us after all, I will have no time to determine the kitniyot content of the cereal balls I will be serving for the Seder meal, and so it is that I embrace my newly reclaimed Sephardi roots.
"Thank G-d there''s only one Seder night in Israel" I say to the religious guy at the health food shop who is married to a young Australian. But he disagrees, prefering two nights where the pressure of where to go for the Seder, is significantly reduced by the fact that observant Jews have an average of ten yom-tov meals, over an eight day period to distribute themselves evenly amongst families and friends, providing the Seder nights and end of Pesach Yom-tovim don’t coincide with Shabbat, which would leave only eight. I think I prefer ''one'' myself and you can throw in a Mimouna, on the last night to make up for any lost calories. Mimouna is a traditional North African celebration observed by Moroccan and Algerian Jews who open their homes for a communal celebration where mofleta (pancakes) smothered in honey and deep fried pastries filled with date syrup are served amongst other sweets.
I ask my Moroccan friend how the women manage to produce such an array of delicacies moments after the sun goes down on the last day of Pesach and they tell me, everything has been pre-prepared and frozen before Pesach (in case the women didn’t have enough work cleaning their shutters with a toothbrush and preparing for a hundred and fifty guests in the week leading up to the Seder). However, most of the delicacies are flourless; almond cookies, preserved fruits and round sweetmeats representing fertility and luck, but the mofleta are made on the spot using flour that has been kept specifically for this purpose, which seems a little strange given the whole idea of Pesach is to get rid of all chametz. Still, who am I to argue with tradition, especially when it tastes so good?
In the end, families in Israel gather to celebrate Pesach much like families all over the world. Each bringing to the weeks leading up to Pesach their own particular individual neurosis, and each bringing to the Seder their own particular family customs, while staying loosely in the framework of reading the Haggadah and eating more than the body can healthily digest in one sitting. The women work too hard, the children stay up too late, and everyone eats too much, and in the end, after the men have dissected the political issues of the day, the problems in the Middle East remain, while the women stand washing dishes on legs bursting with varicose veins, and the small children bribe their fathers for I pads in exchange for returning the Afikomen to the table so we can finish the Seder and all go home to sleep.