After eight days of observing Passover, most Jews happily put down their matzo and reach for the leavened breads, pasta, cookies, and other foods that had been forbidden during the holiday, which begins at sundown on April 14. A smaller group, primarily those of Moroccan-Israeli descent, will begin the celebration of Mimouna. They, too, will begin to eat hametz (leavened foods), but they make a party of it, with food, music, dancing, and sometimes even costumes.
Not well known in this country, Mimouna celebrates the end of Passover and the beginning of spring. Traditionally, Jewish families in Morocco gave or sold their leavened foods to their Muslim neighbors for the duration of the holiday. When Passover ended, they invited their neighbors into their homes for a feast. Moroccan Jews who immigrated to Israel in the state’s early days brought the celebration with them, and it has grown. Today Mimouna is a national holiday in Israel with big family or public outdoor parties that begin at sundown and often last into the next day. Frequently, politicians attend the celebrations, and it is a badge of honor to have a member of the Knesset, or local elected official, at your celebration.
In 2010, Boston’s New Center for Arts and Culture, a Jewish organization, working with the American Islamic Congress, brought Mimouna to this city. Eva Heinstein, a Jamaica Plain resident who worked at the New Center at the time, was instrumental in launching the interfaith celebration. The daughter of a Moroccan-Israeli mother and an Ashkenazi Jewish father, Heinstein grew up in California and celebrated the holiday with family and friends. “We thought it would be a great idea to bring women from Jewish and non-Jewish communities together, exploring the shared cultures of women who live in Arab lands,” says Heinstein.
“During Pesach, people don’t eat at each other’s homes,” explains Liora Kushner of Chestnut Hill, who runs Liora’s Catering. “Right after, [they] start to welcome others in. It’s an open house. Neighbors just walk in.” When she was growing up in Israel, cooking was her Moroccan-born mother’s domain. A former attorney who stopped practicing law when the youngest of her three children was born (her daughter is now 6), Kushner began cooking here because she missed the foods from home.
Many traditional Mimouna tables are set with symbols of luck and fertility: live fish in a bowl signify life and vitality; five coins dipped in flour for prosperity; stalks of wheat for a full harvest; a hamsa, or hand-shaped amulet, to ward off evil; and honey and dates for sweetness. A typical spread features colored marzipan sweets, candied citrus rind, date rolls, assorted homemade jams and jellies made from fruits and vegetables such as kumquats, carrots, even eggplant, almond crisp cookies, and marzipan cookies. Most of these are prepared before Passover and will keep for the week.
A signature dish, mufleta, must be made at the celebration. These crepe-like pancakes are drizzled with honey and butter, then rolled up. Kushner says most years she hosts a Mimouna feast for her family — husband Ohad and their children — and about 50 friends.
A stylist at Icon salon in Newton, Amnon Benabu lives a stone’s throw from the Kushners. Though he also grew up in Israel with two Moroccan parents, he and the Kushners did not know each other until a reporter began seeking out people who celebrate the holiday. On a recent Wednesday morning in the Kushners’ kitchen, their mutual excitement when discussing the shared holiday is palpable. “Every year [Mimouna] is a big to-do,” he says. To the cookies and sweets on Kushner’s menu, he adds chebakia. These Moroccan sesame cookies are reserved for special occasions, most likely because they are time-consuming to make. The dough is formed into a flower or spiral shape, fried, then dipped in sugar syrup.
Benabu often sets up a heated tent in his backyard for his Mimouna open house. Two years ago, he and his partner, who is not Jewish, hosted 400 guests — Israelis, Christians, and Muslims. “It’s an open house,” he says. “Now with the Facebook, it’s easy” to get the word out.
He typically prepares the food a week before Passover, but this year he started in March because he will spend the holiday at his sister’s house in Toronto. He will bring some food with him and is shipping some ahead.
“It’s a party,” says Kushner. And it’s hard not to get caught up in the fun.