Our writers explore the many traditions of Passover

The Mirskiy familys Passover includes memories of the holiday in the Soviet Union.
Photo by David Stuck

Preserving Moroccan traditions

Each Passover, Abraham Azagury’s family reads the haggadah in Ladino, a language influenced by Spanish, Hebrew, Greek and Turkish. This Passover, Azagury, a Pittsburgh resident, will continue that family tradition — along with some adaptations his father instituted decades ago.

“My father’s parents, who were from Morocco, would read the entire haggadah in Ladino,” said Azagury. When Azagury was a child, though, his father, who lives in France, only read certain portions in Ladino.

“You have to keep the kids interested,” said Azagury.

The essence of the seder is recalling history in meaningful ways for younger generations. So, in addition to reciting “Mah Nishtana” and “Ha Lachma Anya” in Ladino, and telling the story of the Exodus, Azagury has other plans to honor his Moroccan heritage and pass it on to his children.


At the evening’s start, Azagury will lift the seder plate above each person’s head and say, “Bibhilu yatzanu mi–mizrayim” (“in haste we went out from Egypt”). Later, when recalling the 10 plagues brought against the Egyptians, Azagury, like his ancestors, will mention each plague in Ladino, then pour wine into a bucket while his wife and their children pour water into the same container. After 10 spills of wine and 10 spills of water, the Azagurys will dump the liquid into the toilet, thereby discarding the negative association of the wine/water combination.

Azagury is looking forward to Passover, and spending it with his family, but also understands that customs should reflect not just history, but also the present. One of his father’s traditions, which is followed by some Moroccans, is avoiding fish and chicken throughout the holiday because those animals consume grain (chametz) and there is a possibility of remnants in their intestines.

Azagury’s practice of avoiding fish and chicken ended the day he got married: “My wife said, ‘We’re not only eating potatoes on Pesach.’”

— Adam Reinherz


Yemenite soup for the seder

When Ronen Koresh was growing up in Israel, gathering for the Passover seder with his large extended Yemenite family was an exciting occasion.

“We would get together at my grandparents’ and family would join in from everywhere, and it was huge,” said the Philadelphia resident and choreographer.

Koresh said his grandparents followed traditions closely, from reclining on pillows throughout the meal to making sure the haggadah was read in its entirety.

It was a long time for a small boy to wait for the festive meal, but it was worth it when his relatives brought out the food. In addition to symbolic Passover dishes like matzah, Yemenite soup was a seder table staple.

“A soup, in the Yemenite tradition, is pretty much a full meal,” Koresh said. “It’s either beef or chicken, and primarily what makes it so special is the spices.”

His mother and grandmother cooked the dish with hawaij, a blend of ground spices including black pepper, cumin, turmeric and saffron.

“So back then, actually, for my mom and my grandmother, and the family members who cooked, everything was made by hand,” he said. “So they were crushing spice, they had a special rock and they blended it themselves.”

— Sophie Panzer


What makes a Persian Passover?

Meticulous cleaning is one of the hallmarks of a Persian Passover, says Ellie Dayan, who left Iran in 1996. Judaism’s spring holiday almost always coincides with the Iranian secular new year, Nowruz. So Jews, in their quest to remove the leaven from their homes, kicked up the cleaning a notch to match the intensity of their Muslim neighbors doing their spring cleaning.

Baking cookies. “In Iran, we didn’t have kosher bakeries,” Dayan says. So Jews baked traditional holiday cookies that they took with them on visits to relatives and friends during Passover. Those cookies were “the smell of Passover,” Dayan says.

Charoset. “Each city had its own flavor,” Dayan explains. Her mother’s Tehran charoset combines pomegranate juice, walnuts, pistachios, grape juice and wine. Her father’s side of the family uses Kurdish sesame seed paste. And her husband’s family, originally from southern Iran, incorporates date nectar, paste or juice, which Dayan says she’s also seen used in Iraqi charoset. Charoset makers use a hand grinder to give the food the consistency of paste.

Scallions. When a Persian seder reaches “Dayenu,” that’s when the scallions come out. “Everybody starts to hit each other with spring onions. I haven’t seen a Persian house that doesn’t do it,” Dayan says, adding that it’s OK to use lettuce instead. “It’s very joyful.” And small children look forward to it. “On Rosh Hashanah, kids come up and ask if it’s time to do it.”

Some things have changed in America, she says.

The custom of visiting has largely disappeared in America. “That was one of the most beautiful parts of the holiday.” And the cleaning is less fastidious. She’ll live with that, though.

“You’d rather spend your energy on celebrating,” Dayan says.

— David Holzel


The bread of oppression

Polina Mirskiy’s early Passover memories are of smuggling matzah. With religion outlawed in the Soviet Union, her family, who lived in Moldova, would quietly celebrate a version of the holiday. They didn’t have elaborate seders complete with rituals, but they did have a dinner with her grandparents. And they would have matzah.

“Everything was hidden,” said Mirskiy, who lives in Pikesville. “It was everything quietly. But that matzah, we all remember crunching it and having it there.”

Mirskiy’s father would bring flour to a synagogue in Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, where they would bake matzah. They would pile boxes of it into their car and drive six hours to Ukraine, where Mirskiy’s paternal grandparents lived.

Her grandmother would do a lot of cooking with the matzah. One of her recipes was matzah babka, an Eastern European dish similar to matzah brei.

It’s a dish that Mirskiy still makes for Passover. Her children lead the seder and teach her and her husband, Denis, the Passover traditions,

“It brings the generations together,” Mirskiy said.

— Selah Maya Zighelboim

Brazilian-style baking for Passover

Describing herself as Afro-Latina, Brazilian and Jewish, LT Ladino Bryson of Tempe, Ariz., values her heritage and wants to ensure that her sons do, too.

“Continuity is so important,” she said. “You learn from your past and create your own traditions to pass down. But I want them to understand their legacy, and it’s a fight to do that.”

Her sons, 6 feet 4 inches tall and Black, “are going to be different no matter where they go,” she said. Anything she can do to help them “stay close to their roots and feel special about it” is worthwhile.

And Passover represents the perfect time to reflect on the past and connect with family traditions. Just smelling the pão de queijo, cheese puff balls, and Brazilian Passover cake invokes memories of family seders.

She laughs remembering the first time her family shared a seder with an Ashkenazi family where chicken was served. Growing up Sephardic, her sons had never experienced a seder meal without roast lamb. They were not fans, she said, and feels pretty confident that once they’re married with families of their own, lamb will remain a staple. But it’s the specifically Brazilian favorites she hopes they’ll keep baking, always remembering, “Mama did it best.”

Brazilians have it a little easier during the holiday when it comes to baking, she said. Yuca flour is common in Brazil given that it comes from the storage roots of the cassava plant, a native species. Pão de queijo is light and fluffy — “This round golden goodness,” she said. “It is so light and crisps so well.” Brazilians love to incorporate fruit into desserts, and she advises choosing a few favorites to add to the cake recipe.

— Shannon Levitt

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