Sephardic Jews mark bittersweet end to Passover

The Mimouna celebration included dancing and food. Photo by Daniel Schere
Sunday’s Mimouna celebration included dancing to Sephardic music. Photo by Daniel Schere

For Sephardic Jews from North Africa, the end of Passover marks the celebration of Mimouna, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt and the neighborly relationship between Arabs and Jews in North Africa.

About 120 people gathered at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington on Sunday to celebrate the holiday with pastries, fruits, and mofleta — a Moroccan delicacy that consists of a thin crepe filled with jam. The event was hosted by the group which holds events throughout the year aimed at educating the public about Sephardic Jewish culture.

Franz Afraim Katzir, founder of Sephardic Heritage in DC, which sponsored the celebration, said that Mimouna stems from the practice of Arabs in North Africa helping observant Jews by bringing them ingredients to make bread after Passover.

“The day after Passover when Jews didn’t have the leavened products and they had this kind of celebration, were it not for their Muslim neighbors they would not have such a thing,” he said.

Sunday’s event was stimulating to the senses, with the variety of foods and multicolored tablecloths. Many attendees were also decked out in North African garb, and danced passionately as a DJ played Sephardic music.

But this year’s Mimouna celebration was bittersweet, falling on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. To mark the occasion, the museum put up small pieces of paper on one wall with information about Jews who died during the Holocaust in North African countries including Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

More than 415,000 North African Jews were persecuted during the Holocaust, due to French rule of the region, according to Yad Vashem.

“It just so happens that Mimouna comes the same week as Holocaust remembrance, and so for that in addition to the festivities we wanted to share some of the Sephardic experiences of the Holocaust,” Katzir said. “It shows us that we can’t take for granted this beautiful thing that we have.”

Among the attendees was Silver Spring resident Miriam Zuares, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Derna, Libya, during World War II.

“All I remember is hunger, a terrible way of living, crying for food, [being] scared that somebody would take my food away and sleeping on floors,” she said.

She said her family fled to Israel in 1949. She immigrated to the United States in 1968 and remained silent about her experiences until about 10 years ago when she began telling her children.

“I felt like it’s not something to remember or to look into, but as the years went by and I saw things happening again similar, with anti-Semitism and everybody’s after the Jews again in Europe, I started to open up and talk about it,” she said.

Zuares, a member of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, said it is important to tell the stories of the more than 500 Jews who perished in Libya during the Holocaust, which she has impressed upon the congregation’s rabbi, Haim Ovadia.

“I told him that the one thing that upsets me at many events is that they always talk about what happened in Europe,” she said. I went to Magen David and other [Holocaust] events. They never brought up anything about Libya. I would like someone to get on that and make it happen, because the Middle East people are left out, especially Libya.”

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