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Passover recipes travel great distances

Seder traditions from Tunisia to West Roxbury

Brigitte Scheinmann poses for a portrait with a pot of her Tunisian sytle Yabrak dish in her kitchen in West Roxbury, MA.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Brigitte Scheinmann poses for a portrait with a pot of her Tunisian sytle Yabrak dish in her kitchen in West Roxbury, MA.

By now, Brigitte Scheinmann’s house in West Roxbury is thoroughly clean, her everyday dishes, pots, and pans put away, and the Passover kitchen unboxed. The Tunisia native follows the tradition of her mother and grandmother — one that most observant Jews around the world follow — of preparing her home for the eight-day Passover holiday that begins Friday night. Changing your routine and the foods you eat, she says, “gives more meaning to the holiday.”

Scheinmann moved to Paris with her parents and older brother when she was 2. Her father’s parents followed a few years later and soon many aunts, uncles, and cousins joined them. Passover Seders, the ritual on the first two nights of the holiday, when the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt is told, were usually held at her grandparents’ home, but all the women in the family participated. As they chopped and cooked, she remembers, “We were talking all day long. There was a lot of reminiscing and pearls of wisdom.”

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The family’s Seder meal always began with Sephardic-style haroset (symbolizing the mortar used to build the ancient pyramids), a chunky spread made with dates and figs, and a soup redolent of cumin and paprika. The most eagerly anticipated Passover dish was msoki, a Tunisian spring stew of beef, vegetables, and herbs, including spinach, carrots, turnips, fennel, leeks, and mint. When the meat is tender, chunks of matzo are stirred in to absorb some of the braising liquid. Dessert was usually fresh fruit and a flat loaf similar to mandlebrot called boulou, with almonds, sesame, and raisins, sliced at the table.

In 1982, Brigitte moved to Boston with her new husband, Michel Scheinmann, who was born in France but grew up in New Bedford and South Dartmouth. A childhood friend of Michel’s, Martin Pildis, and Pildis’s wife, Ellen, took the couple under their wing. “They welcomed me with so much warmth,” says Brigitte, whose family was not here at the time.

For most of the last 20 years the Scheinmanns and their three children, now young adults, have celebrated the first night of Passover at the Pildis’s. Ellen Pildis, rabbi at the Rashi School in Dedham, makes a traditional Ashkenazic meal that includes homemade gefilte fish or chopped liver, chicken soup with matzo balls, and for the main course, two dishes, which might be brisket with potato kugel, chicken with vegetables, stuffed chicken breasts, or veal roast. Pildis likes to give people a choice, she says, “because it’s a holiday meal.” Husband Martin pipes in: “She wants everybody to be happy. She is very much like her grandmother.”

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Recalling other Passover Seders, Martin Pildis, a psychiatrist, says, “I’ve gotten to watch four generations of women prepare this meal.” He has eaten at the tables of his and Ellen’s grandmothers, their mothers, and watched his two daughters help in the kitchen. For years, the couple’s oldest daughter, Sara, was the designated sponge cake maker.

Even though Brigitte Scheinmann isn’t preparing the Seder, she cooks her family’s holiday favorites throughout the week. There will be a large pot of msoki, of course, and another of yabrak, which is romaine leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice, mint, spinach, and spices. (Sephardic Jews eat rice and legumes during Passover; Ashkenazim do not.)

Ellen Pildis cooks mostly tried-and-true Passover dishes, but every few years she and Martin select a new Haggadah (the volume recounting the story of the Jews’ exodus). “We try to make it relevant and be true to tradition,” she says.

Passover is a family holiday that tells the next generation our story, says the rabbi. “It’s a home ritual.” And just as Scheinmann does, Pildis spends a few days preparing her home and cooking for the holiday. The cleaning, she says, “is symbolic of getting your things out of your way so when you sit down to the Seder it’s a culmination of a huge effort.”

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.
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