Messody Adler remembers a table laden with dishes and sprinkled with wheat that had been brought fresh from the fields.
Some families would dip their fingers in flour and put in on their head, though not hers, she says. But they did have “the maror —which was lettuce — dipped in honey, not salt water, so that we would have a sweet year.”
Bettina Caro recalls the crêpes her mother would make from flour, honey and oil. Everything served was sweet and they would go from neighbour to neighbour to eat.
Both women, who are originally from Morocco but now live in Britain, were talking of their experience of the Maimouna, the celebration that began the evening after Pesach which is unique to Jews from North Africa.
Its origins remain lost in time — some say it marked the anniversary of the death of Maimonides. Sadly, there won’t be any communal Maimonua festivities this year but families can at least savour the memories in a short video, An Unusual Passover, which has been produced by Sephardi Voices UK.
Since 2011, SVUK has been compiling an oral archive of Britain’s Sephardi community. While there had been a growth in oral history projects, said SVUK’s deputy director Daisy Abboudi, “none dealt with the experiences of the huge number of displaced Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and Iran, many of whom left their homes and settled in the UK.
“We work to preserve the memories of the elder generation of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, in order to add their voices to the history of British Jews and to the wider story of immigration to Britain.”
It mission, she said, is”to create a unique window into the lives of Jewish communities across the Middle East and North Africa, most of which no longer exist. Through filmed interviews with Jews who lived in countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Lebanon, Iran and Algeria, we can bring their stories to life.”
So far the project has completed 100 interviews, with the full set available in the British Library — close to its target of 120. But although it has had to suspend filming during the pandemic crisis, she said, “our plan is to continue interviewing people using internet video technology.”
It has also released a number of short videos on its website, including the latest for Pesach. Vivian Aghai, from Lebanon, recalls sifting the family sifting the rice three times to check for chametz before it was minced for Pesach kibbeh, croquettes. “Every single year, the whole house had to be painted,” she said.
In Tunisia, the night before Pesach, Elisabeth Barkany’s family enjoyed a meshwi, “a big barbecue”. Yvonne Gholam, from Egypt, recalls singing one of the Seder songs to a tune from Aida, because the opera was set in Egypt.
“During this year’s Pesach, our work has felt particularly poignant,” said Ms Abboudi. “This is a time when Jewish families traditionally gather together and tell the stories of our ancestors. For the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, Pesach was central to the life of their communities, especially with its emphasis on the importance of passing on our rich Jewish heritage to our children.
“Our interviewees tell stories of huge Seders, sometimes involving up to 50 people. But in these unprecedented times of lockdowns, social distancing and quarantines across the whole world, such large family gatherings were not possible, at least in the physical sense.”
SVUK’s director Bea Lewkowitz added, “Listening to the reminiscences, we can understand the extraordinary value of oral history and the texture of memories it preserves. “In these difficult times, where we cannot eat sweet things together, we are hoping for a better future, where we can celebrate together again.”
Daisy Abboudi reflects that “sadly a common theme of the stories told by our interviewees is family dispersal and displacement. It is something that feels particularly relevant to the circumstances we are all living through now.
“Many were forced to leave their homes and their countries because of intimidation and, in many cases, violence. Now the threat is not a political one, although it has helped us to understand the pain of these separations on a different level.
“However, ultimately, the clearest message from all their stories is one of hope. Hope that, no matter how bad things seem to be in the present, there is a brighter future ahead if you look forward.”
See An Unusual Passover at www.sephardivoices.org.uk