Pesach and Shavuot
by Farah Josephs
It’s great to have an excuse to take a trip down memory lane! I am going to share with you some of my recollections of Pesach and Shavuot in Iraq.
Seder night was very special. The family gathered around the table all dressed in white. I remember the beautiful tunes sung at the Seder table and the Hebrew intertwined with Judeo Arabic.
One of the highlights was the point when we re-enact the exodus from Egypt. The afikoman is tied in a large napkin like a little sack, given to one of the children at the Seder table, the child slings the napkin over his or her shoulders. The leader of the Seder then asks a series of three questions to the child: "From where have you come?", "Where are you going?" to which the child replies: I have come from Egypt and I am going to Jerusalem. Finally, the leader asks: "What are you taking with you?" The child then points to the sack of matzah.
We had a lovely custom where a piece of the afikomen was given to each of us to keep for the whole year to guard and protect us.
The Charoset was a delicious mix of date syrup and chopped nuts. The colour of the dates is symbolic of mortar.
We had delicious handmade Matza in the shape of large wafer-thin disks that were baked in the Shul in a special clay oven or at home (they looked like large poppadoms)!
The food eaten during Pesach was very simple and plain and included rice which was staple food. The rice had to be checked very carefully in large trays. It was checked 3 times prior to the Chag to make absolutely certain that it was free from any chametz.
To celebrate the end of Pesach and the march to freedom, people used to whip each other gently with green branches or green onions and wish each other a ‘green year’ full of blessings. Some say this was symbolic of the beatings which the Jewish people received from the Egyptians.
Shavuot was known in Iraq as "Eid al-Ziyara," Judeo-Arabic for "festival of the pilgrimage. Iraqi Jews traditionally performed a pilgrimage to the holy shrines of the prophets to receive blessings. One of the shrines is Ezekiel's tomb which lies in at Al-Kifl near Baghdad. Another was the tomb of the biblical prophet Nahum which lies inKurdistan in the North of Iraq at the foot of a mountain. People came on masse and performed elaborate rituals. Some stayed for a week or two.
Before Shavuot people were busy baking delicious pastries to take with them as provisions for the journey. The traditional food eaten during Shavuot was ‘kahi’, fried filo pastry dipped in syrup and topped with clotted cream (not for the faint-hearted)! Generally, dairy food was eaten such as cheese filled pastries.
So we celebrated Pesach and Shavuot through actions, be it the re-enactment of the exodus or visiting the holy shrines.
Shavuot was tinged with sadness as Iraqi Jews commemorate the anniversary of the “Farhud” – the riots that took place on Shavuot, June 1-2, 1941, one of the terrible racial attacks in modern history. Hundreds were killed or wounded and much Jewish property was looted, while the police and army stood by watching and not intervening. Similar attacks occurred against other Jewish communities in Arab countries,
Out of 60 synagogues in 1950, there remained only seven in 1960. In the latter years before I left only one synagogue remained open. I have fond memories of going there on Shabbat and during the festivals to listen to the service and to be with friends and family.
Now only 5 Jewish people remain in Baghdad and the Shul is permanently locked up. Their faith remained strong and they try to keep the traditions and celebrate festivals as much as they are able to.