After a week of Passover-mandated noshing on the “bread of affliction,” matzah-eating Jews around the world are happy to return to their bread-consuming ways.
In Taiwan, where I live, we broke our week-long ban on leavened goods by gorging on sugary, carb-ladened treats at a Mimouna party hosted by Rabbi Shlomi Tabib and his wife Racheli, Chabad’s shluchim (emissaries) who have been tirelessly preparing thousands of holiday and Shabbat meals over the past decade for Taiwan’s small but vibrant Jewish community.
Mimouna is the end-of-Passover celebration observed by Moroccan Jews, and is gradually gaining hold in some pockets of the global Diaspora. This was the first time I had celebrated Mimouna—the first time, in fact, I had even heard of it.
I jumped online to do some research and found a variety of explanations for this joyous end-of-Passover celebration. According to one source, Mimouna coincides with the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Maimon ben Joseph, the father of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, also known as the Rambam (an acronym for his name, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon). The Rambam’s father lived in the northern Moroccan city of Fez, and wrote on Jewish-Islamic relations. He died around 1170.
Another explanation points to the Arabic origin of the word “Mimouna,” which means wealth and good fortune. During Mimouna celebrations songs are sung to “Lady Mimouna,” or “Lady Luck.”
Regardless of its origin, Mimouna is traditionally celebrated in Moroccan homes after sundown on the last day of Passover with sweet delicacies, including stuffed dates, candies, brightly colored jams made of carrots, beets, or citrus fruits (known as mazune), and zabane (almond nougat).
Much like how famished Jews tear into break-the-fast meals at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, on Mimouna, munching on freshly-baked desserts marks the liberation from a week-long diet of matzah.
“What’s this called?” I ask Racheli again, trying to catch the precise pronunciation of “mufletas,” a thin crêpe made from flour, water, and oil, and drizzled with honey.
My wife and I look enviously at the other end of the table where a plate stacked with mufletas is being consumed by a collection of hungry community members.
“Just be Israeli and grab one,” urges a friend who split his childhood between Israel and South Florida, my hometown. Following his suggestion, I walk over and quickly snag two thin mufletas for me and my wife.
A few minutes later I head over to the kitchen where a team led by Racheli is busy kneading and shaping dollops of dough and dropping them into pans of scalding oil.
“Are those sufganiyot—doughnuts?” I ask, to which the teen boy making them clarifies, “No. Same dough though.”
I learn later they’re called “sfenj”—crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside Moroccan-style fritters dusted with sugar or, if you prefer, drizzled with honey. “Sfenj” is Arabic for “sponge”, a reflection of the deep-fried pastry’s spongy shape and texture.
A chat the next day with a friend in Israel reveals a fascinating etymological link between the Arabic “sfenj” and Hebrew “sufganiyah.” “Sufgniyah” is derived from the Hebrew word “sfog,” which like the Arabic word “sfenj,” also means sponge. The linguistic links don’t stop there: the similarity between the pronunciation of the Arabic “sfenj” to the English “sponge” is undeniable.
Homemade chocolate cookies and pies, baked earlier in the day, round out the spread of plates stacked with freshly-fried mufletas and sfenj that are being delivered to the table by the Rabbi’s children as soon as they are plucked from the oil.
A Canadian-born Oleh who moved to Israel 30 years ago pours me a shot of cinnamon-flavored whiskey. Not normally a fan of whiskey, I do enjoy the taste of cinnamon, which makes this drink much more acceptable to my palate.
I chat with an Israeli friend of Moroccan descent who proudly tells me about the Mediterranean-style restaurant he opened recently with his business partner in downtown Taipei. He shows me the Google listing and I promise to take my wife there soon.
In-between cinnamon-whisky-fueled l’chaims, we chat about the geographic meanderings of the Jews. After telling me about the likely path my Ashkenazi ancestors took from Israel on their way toward Eastern Europe, our conversation turns to the story of the Moroccan Jews.
Jews had been living continuously in Morocco for 2,000 years, with many tracing their ancestry directly to ancient Israel. After World War II, the 250,000-plus Jews of Morocco represented the largest population of Jews in the Arab world, and one of the largest population of Jews globally, behind only the United States.
With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews suffered increasing persecution and started to leave Morocco in large waves, moving to Israel, Europe, and the United States. By 1967, more than 250,000 Jews had left Morocco. Fewer than 3,000 Jews live in Morocco today.
With last year’s normalization of ties between Israel and Morocco, and the initiation of direct flights between the two countries, my friend and his family will soon be able to celebrate Mimouna in their ancestral homeland.
And enjoy more of those delicious mufletas and sfenj.