Purim in Tunisia: The sweet taste of being with family

Memories of Tunisian Purim

Peggy Cidor as a young Queen Esther in Tunisia (photo credit: Courtesy)
Peggy Cidor as a young Queen Esther in Tunisia
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 When we still lived in Tunisia before making aliyah, I could tell that a Jewish festival was soon arriving by the unusual amount of cookies and candies my mother and grandmother were preparing. For Purim, it was even more than usual. 
Each day, upon returning from the French school where I studied and where no one ever mentioned any of the Jewish festivals, I found a new pile of cookies on the buffet table wrapped in cellophane, each more tempting than the next.
Sensing our enthusiasm to taste them, my brother and I were warned not to even touch them. “It’s all for the mimanot,” my mother would say, using an abbreviated term for mishloach manot.
Sometimes, my mother would simply call the mimanot “the plates,” but they always meant the same thing – a large dish always taken from our finest china, loaded with samples of the cookies she prepared, wrapped in delicate and colorful paper or one of Mom’s embroidered napkins.
Sometimes, I arrived back from school while my mother was still busy in her kitchen preparing these cookies. I particularly remember the mekrud, made of semolina, dates, tangerines and nuts, baked in the oven and then dipped in homemade honey sugar, tangerine syrup and water. The dabla were the Oriental counterparts of the Eastern European hamentashen made of a very thin dough cut into long strips and rolled around a special fork, dipped into boiling oil and then honey. And there were more, including almonds mashed and fried in the shape of cigars, and so on. 
When the day itself arrived, my brother and I changed into our Shabbat outfits, put all the mimanot in large baskets and began our tour to all the aunts and other family in the area. Needless to say, we returned from our route having received the same amount of mimanot from all of them. Around the table that evening, my parents would dare, here and there, to compare the traditional homemade cookies they had received – always stating their preference for my mother’s.
That was the only evening I can recall from my childhood when the menu included just sweet dishes, enhanced with large cups of hot chocolate. The next day as I went back to school, where no one seemed aware of the drama transpiring in my home, my father and brother would go to the synagogue and read the megillah, the scroll of the Book of Esther. 
FOR DINNER that day, there were traditionally large plates of grilled meats, accompanied by red wine and a dozen or more different salads. We usually had guests, members of my mother’s extended family who would bring more of the traditional cookies with them for dessert. 
I was told that my grandmother would listen to the reading of the megillah, and that she knew exactly what it was about, but for me, the first time I heard it and could understand what it meant was when I arrived in Israel. 
Being a student in a non-Jewish school, I was exposed a few times a year to a strange situation. At home, all the traditions were perpetuated, strictly followed from one generation to the next. Yet I was literally jumping between one reality to another: the strictly secular atmosphere at school alongside the warm Jewish traditions of my family. 
But it was not always this way. As a toddler, I was sent to a Jewish preschool/kindergarten, located close to our home. Not only that, the neighborhood synagogue was situated inside the same building. The principal of that kindergarten was always an emissary from Israel, through the Jewish Agency; the other kindergarten teachers were all locals. I was sent there for three years. In the first two years, I was chosen to play Queen Esther, required to wear a long white dress, lots of jewels (all belonging to my mother) and even some makeup, as a queen should.
As far as I can remember, the character of Queen Esther was very important and a lot of focus was on her, of her readiness to risk her life for the sake of her people and the fact that she was spared by King Ahasuerus. The scepter was a key accessory, since it saved her when facing the mighty monarch. Therefore it was very important that I, as her substitute, should also have one.
I didn’t exactly know who that Queen Esther was, but I realized she was greatly admired. I also loved the idea of wearing a long white dress and the jewels, and of course appreciated being treated like a queen all day long. This was exactly the reason why a few mothers of the other little girls in the kindergarten protested and requested that the following year, the honor should be bestowed upon someone else.
And indeed, in the third year, I was told by one of the teachers that this time, I would have to suffice with only a small mask covering my upper face and would be part of the “ensemble” of the children for the festival. I was deeply hurt but I had no choice, and even the gentleness of Paul – a neighbor for whom I was obviously the love of his life – was not enough to erase the insult. 
One of the tasks of the children before the Purim festival was to paste the colored pieces of paper prepared by the teachers to form a chain of clowns around the large room. As a way of expressing my anger over the decision to dismiss me as Queen, I pasted all the pieces upside down, causing some embarrassment among the teachers. The salvation came thanks to the Israeli principal/teacher, who loved the idea, declaring: “That’s the spirit of Purim, everything upside down.” She saved my honor. 
In Tunisia, we didn’t have the tradition of getting dressed in a disguise. We only discovered that in Israel. 
When we landed in Israel, only three days before Purim, we were asked which costume we would wear. My brother and I had no idea. It took us some time to learn about this tradition, but we have stuck to it since. 
First we did, and then our children who were born here followed in the tradition.