Magen David Sephardic Congregation Celebrates a Sweet End to Passover

Members of the extended Suissa-Ymar family. Photos by Lisa Traiger

Forget last-minute pizza delivery or bagels to end the eight days of matzah that makes Passover both the most-observed and most-bemoaned Jewish festival. Moroccan Jews finish Passover with homemade sweet treats, including mufletta, a cross between a crepe and a pancake, drizzled with honey, butter and perhaps some jam or Israeli chocolate spread.

Magen David Sephardic Congregation completed the Passover cycle on April 13 with a Moroccan-style Mimouna celebration attracting more than 120 members of the North Bethesda congregation and community, from around the corner and around the Beltway.

“Mimouna,” explained the synagogue’s vice president, Bernard Suissa, “is a beautiful North African, specifically Moroccan, custom where one hour after Passover in Morocco Jews opened up their homes and, like on Sukkot, would go from home to home in the community and every home would have beautiful sweets and pastries. Sometimes there would be a plate of flour with gold sprinkled on top to represent the golden chariots.”

Other customs, added Suissa’s father, Samy Ymar, a founding member of the congregation, could include a fish, to represent fertility as well as being on guard. Ymar explained, “The fish has its eyes always open, like Jews who have to always be on guard.”
Charmaine Berman dusts powdered sugar over treats. Photos by Lisa Traiger

The word Mimouna has a few origins. Some trace it to the Hebrew word for “faith” — emunah. Others say its from the Arabic word for “protected by God” – ma-amoun. Finally, it is connected to the medieval scholar Maimonides, the Rambam, who lived in Fez. The night that Passover ends is the yarhzeit, or anniversary of the death, of Maimon ben Joseph, the Rambam’s father.

Weeks before Passover began, a team of congregants led by Charmaine Berman, who grew up in the Magen David community, began cooking the Mimouna sweets in the synagogue kitchen, freezing them until sundown on the last day of the holiday. Elias Misri, a member for more than three decades, was part of the team helping with the ma’amoul roll — dates and nuts — the orange-almond macaroons, and a sweet treat called machine cookies, which are pressed or rolled and go well with traditional Moroccan sweet mint tea.

The synagogue’s Sriqui Social Hall was arranged with sweet stations decorated like colorful gauzy tents. Congregant Iris Lazarus, an interior designer, helped with the design and layout of the tents, which lent a Middle Eastern market feeling to the room — only with no haggling. Clad in a vibrant red caftan — traditional Moroccan women’s attire — Lazarus chose a red tent where she distributed marzipan and Moroccan anise-flavored cookies.

Many men chose to wear the white, ankle-length jalabiyas, and some topped them off with a cylindrical red tarboush or fez. And more than a few, including synagogue president Elliott Totah, carried a bottle of the clear, licorice-flavored liquor arak, offering up shots to both old and new friends.

Pzoelos, thin fried dough, sprinkled with powdered sugar or honey. Photos by Lisa Traiger

As the evening evolved, a few groups found spaces to dance to the Middle Eastern tunes coming from the sound system. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law Aviva and Yael Landa created filigrees with their undulating arms and swirling fingers, joined by friend Marcelle Garih of Potomac. Each danced the night away in their caftans.

Denisha Brace of Silver Spring and a member of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue, said she could hardly wait to taste baklava after Passover ended. “I heard about this Mimouna from a friend … it’s a really beautiful event,” she said.

Charmaine Berman continued to check and refill the sweet stations throughout the night, rearranging trays and dusting Moroccan couscous and other delicacies with powdered sugar. She has been baking for more than 30 years and is grateful to be able to share these delicacies and happy memories of a grandmother or a great aunt’s kitchen warm from baking, while introducing young generations to practices and flavors from their roots.

“I do this because if I don’t, the tradition could disappear. Some of these are old family recipes” — she indicated a tray of pistachio and honey rolled cookies — “that just aren’t made anymore.”

Mimouna, Berman said, “is such a beautiful tradition. I have so many memories of it. We have to keep this tradition going.” ■

Lisa Traiger is WJW’s arts correspondent.

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