If it happened in America, Jews would be calling it the March Dilemma. In Iran, Passover generally falls at the time of the Persian New Year, called Norooz, which is celebrated on the first day of spring.
Like Jews in America adapting Chanukah to the omnipresent rhythms of Christmas, Iranian Jews absorbed the spirit of Norooz — a secular holiday more than 2,000 years old — into Passover. When they migrated to America, they brought their customs with them.
As befits a spring holiday, Norooz is a time for house cleaning, and Iranians make it into an extravagant ritual, beginning weeks before the holiday. Iranian Jews fell in line with their meticulous removal of chametz, the leavening forbidden on Passover, says Ellie Ashoori, a Potomac resident who left Iran in 1996. She looks at the custom now as somewhat obsessive in contrast to the Jews’ ordinary observance.
“Two or three weeks prior to Passover, they clean up the house, they clean up the kitchen,” she says. “They’re very observant on Passover.”
Rockville resident Ramesh Zadeh recalls her cleaning duties when she was a teenager. “I remember being 16, 17 years old, taking the rugs upstairs to the roof to clean,” she says.
Norooz was visiting time, when families paid a call on each other, bringing baked goods with them. Jews made their visits on each of the eight days of Pesach. In preparation, they started baking cookies “a week in advance,” says Ashoori.
Jews in different regions of Iran had their own kosher-for-Passover cookies. “Sesame seed cookies were part of the Kurdish tradition,” she says. “There were almond cookies, walnut cookies — anything that doesn’t have chametz,” she says.
Washington’s Iranian Jewish community is small, perhaps 60 families, Ashoori says. Most arrived after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. (The largest concentrations of Iranian Jews are in New York and southern California.) At the same time, the number of Jews in Iran — a community that dates back some 2,600 years — has dwindled from 80,000 to 20,000 today.
Iranian Jews belong to the Sephardi, or Eastern, Jewish tradition, and their list of kosher-for-Passover foods differs somewhat from that of the Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) tradition of most American Jews. Rice, a staple in Iran, is a major menu item, for example. Ashkenazi tradition doesn’t include rice among permitted foods.
Still, Ashoori and Zadeh say the range of Passover foods in Iran was extremely narrow. There were no kosher dairy foods, no milk and no yogurt.
“It was so limited. By the second day of Passover, we couldn’t wait until it was over,” says Zadeh, who left Iran in 1989.
In America they found a land of Passover plenty. “My first Passover here I felt like a kid in a toy store,” Ashoori says.
“It’s so easy here,” Zadeh adds. “Honestly, I don’t see the difference between Passover and not Passover here.”
Zadeh’s family in Iran celebrated their seder sitting on the floor; their one table couldn’t accommodate all the guests, she says. Now as then, Iranian Jews cover the seder area — glasses, dishes, cutlery — with a white cloth. Like many customs, this one’s origins are unclear. One explanation is that the cloth protects the seder from bad luck released by reciting the Ten Plagues.
Another point of pride for the cook is the charoset, the mixture that recalls the mortar the Jews used in their bondage. For Iranian Jews charoset takes the form of a paste. “It has to look like dirt,” Zadeh says. The ingredients guarantee that it will taste like anything but.
“Different provinces have their own charoset,” Ashoori 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 Ashoori says she’s also seen used in Iraqi charoset.
The seder’s high point comes after the plagues are suffered, when the Jews are finally free and the celebrants sing Dayenu, praising the things God has done for the Jewish people.
“That’s the funniest part of the night,” Ashoori says. “Everybody starts to hit each other with spring onions. I haven’t seen a Persian house that doesn’t do Dayenu.”
The spring onion pummeling might symbolize the whippings Jews received as slaves in Egypt. Or it could be a reminder to humble oneself before God, Ashoori says.
Whatever its meaning, celebrants perform the ritual with energy. When wielded by an expert, a scallion can leave a wicked sting, Zadeh says.
Jews in Iran mark the end of Passover with a meal composed of dairy products. And they adopted another Norooz custom by spending the day after Passover outside, picnicking with the community. The celebration, called Roozeh Sal in Persian, is known in Israel as Maimouna, the name Moroccan Jews call it.
“They go out and eat food and have fun,” Zadeh says.
It seems like a pretty good solution to the March Dilemma.