Moroccan seders blend cuisines of East and West

NEW YORK — "When most Americans think of Morocco, they envision Casablanca," says Dani Moyal, discussing the mix of Muslim and French cultures among Jews in her homeland.

Although she was born in Fez, her husband hails from Casablanca, the city immortalized in the classic film of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

Jews inhabited Morocco for at least seven centuries before Arab settlers arrived. Many of them came from the Iberian Peninsula following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.

For the most part, Muslims have coexisted peacefully with Jews for more than 1,000 years in this North African nation on the Mediterranean Sea, which grants Jews full rights as citizens.

"Influenced by Muslim culture, our traditions are strong," says Moyal, describing the Asian jewelry and caftans that Jewish and Muslim women wear. At weddings, brides run henna through their hair and don ornate handcrafted gowns embroidered with gold thread.

At sundown after the eighth day of Passover, it is Muslims who bring the holiday to a close, starting a unique festivity called the Mimouna (pronounced Me-moo-na). Muslim friends return flour to Jewish homes by arriving with enough cakes, cookies, pastries, breads and crepes to cover a dining-room table. Carrying wheat from the field, they drape branches around picture frames and mirrors, and on chandeliers and tables.

"The Mimouna is more fun than you can imagine," says Moyal, explaining that Jews leave their front doors open all night. They go from place to place, stopping to enjoy sweets and tea, before moving on to the next family or returning home to receive guests. Moyal said that some people spontaneously stay and party at the last home they visit.

Although Mimouna celebrations haven't caught on in New York, where Moyal now lives, in France, Canada and Israel, they are big events, equally popular among Ashkenazi Jews who are invited to join in by Moroccan friends. A celebration is scheduled at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 15 at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. For information, call (650) 344-8878.

Because most Mimouna confections call for flour, they are unsuitable for Passover consumption. But one of the most cherished recipes, zabane (pronounced za-ban), is made with whipped egg whites and sugar, beaten until the mixture is the gooey consistency of caramel. Served in a bowl, zabane is a pareve confection, eaten with a spoon.

Perusing recipes in the cookbook "La Cuisine Juive Morocaine," written by Vivane et Nina Moryoussef, Moyal waxes poetic about the fresh vegetables and cilantro that flavor the dry fava bean soup that is served on the first and second nights of Passover. Sephardi custom permits people to partake in beans and rice during the holiday.

Reminiscing about Passover food evokes poignant memories of seders from long ago. Although Moyal has lived in America for two decades, in recent years she has started to really miss her homeland, where her parents still reside. Like them, much of Morocco's Jewish population consists of couples whose grown children have immigrated to other countries.

In 1948, there were approximately 250,000 Jews in Morocco; today the population has dwindled to between 2,000 and 5,000.

"Morocco is something that's a part of me; it's very rich," says Moyal, who is traveling home with her husband and three children for Passover.

At the seder, as she recites "Next year, in Jerusalem," she will be overjoyed to be with her family in Fez.