Moroccan end-of-Pesach festival draws 375 to JCC

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An alcove was festooned with Moroccan carpets, richly colored pillows and tooled brass accessories.

The tables were decorated with symbolic foods: milk, flour and white candles for purity; dates and preserves for a sweet year; bean pods for fertility.

Women in colorful caftans filled the hall and the dance floor, and the buffet table was laden with couscous, cumin-scented carrots, green olives, salads, hummus and pita bread.

An estimated 375 people packed a social hall at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto for a celebration of Mimouna, the traditional Moroccan festival that ends Passover.

And while there was a good show of native Moroccans who came from throughout the Bay Area, the majority of the guests were Israeli and the language of choice was Hebrew, rather than the French or Arabic of Moroccan Jews.

Danna Bruckner of Novato, whose mother was born in Casablanca, said, "I've never seen this many Israelis in one room except in Israel."

Perhaps that's because the event, a fund-raiser for WIZO, the Women's International Zionist Organization, was organized by a number of Israelis, in cooperation with Israeli House and the Israeli Consulate General. The beneficiaries were a battered women's shelter in Jerusalem and a school in the Galilee for children with disabilities.

Several consulate representatives were in attendance, including Consul General Yossi Amrani, cultural attaché Donny Inbar and Nirit Benishai, who oversees Israeli House, which offers cultural and social programs to the Israeli community.

In addition, most of the Moroccan Jews in attendance had come to the United States via Israel, and many had lived in the Jewish state far longer than in North Africa.

Ronit Melamud, who chaired the event, is a second-generation sabra now living in Hillsborough. She is not Moroccan.

Mimouna, she said, "is a big thing in Israel, a big picnic," with families gathering at parks and beaches throughout the country.

Last year, WIZO hosted a smaller-scale celebration in a private home, which was so successful that organizers decided to host a bigger one this year. The turnout — and the rapid disappearance of such goodies as baklava and chocolate-coated apricots — exceeded Melamud's wildest expectations.

Claude Afota, a Casablanca native and a singer-songwriter, had traveled to Palo Alto from Los Angeles to perform. With him were a couple of Moroccan musicians and an Iraqi.

The word "Mimouna," he believes, comes from the Hebrew emunah, or faith. "It became Mimouna in Morocco because the accent is so bad."

However, there are other interpretations, including the view that it comes from the word mammon, which means riches or prosperity. In keeping with that theme, the tables were strewn with gold-wrapped chocolate coins.

Others say the festival comes from the name "Maimon." Maimonides' father, who had lived in Fez, where some say Mimouna was born, is said to have died on the day of the festival.

These days, there are only a few thousand Jews left in Morocco — and several hundred thousand Moroccan Jews scattered throughout the world, most in Israel.

Afota, who performs in French, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and English, says the music of Jewish Morocco employs the same rhythms as the country's Arabic songs. "The only thing is the accent is different. You can tell by the way they speak and the way they sing."

The food, too, is similar, but the celebration of Mimouna, according to many of the Moroccan guests, is traditionally in homes, not in social halls.

"This kind of Mimouna with everybody in the same room, no," said Rosa Kadoch, who wore an authentic green caftan trimmed with golden embroidery, a wedding gift from her mother-in-law. "But the next day, that's a different story. We go picnicking. It's called Mimouna II."

Kadoch, who was at the event with her sister Miriam Kadoch, was born in Casablanca and came to the event from San Francisco. Like most of the guests, she has also lived in Israel.

While growing up in Morocco, she said, "we would share all our holidays, Christmas with the French, Ramadan with the Arabs."

Jacqueline Peretz, Bruckner's mother, also grew up in Casablanca and lived in Israel, but she has lived most of her life in the United States and now resides in Novato.

She was enjoying her first Mimouna celebration "since I left Israel in 1972." Peretz recalled the festival in Casablanca as a family affair, with people going from house to house to enjoy the sweets from which they refrained during Passover as well as mahya, a honey-based drink. Other treats in Morocco are muffaleta, pancakes eaten with butter and honey, which are traditionally the first flour-based products eaten at the conclusion of Passover.

In Morocco, she said, Jews eat sweets at Mimouna to symbolize a sweet year, adding that while some believe the Jewish year begins at Rosh Hashanah, others believe Passover is a new beginning.

The celebration at the JCC was "not like home, but it's the next best thing. Living here, I ask myself, 'What am I? Moroccan? Israeli? American? That's the problem with us wandering Jews."

But here, she said, pointing to the dance floor, where women and men were dancing and a belly dancer was performing, "we belong to something."

Sharing that joy were Margie Pomarantz of Los Gatos, who came with Eleanor Dickman of Cupertino and their husbands. Pomarantz had attended a Mimouna picnic in Jerusalem in the valley below the Israel Museum. Dickman had never been to a Moroccan event before.

"I was just saying to Margie, we're both reasonably active in the Jewish community, but this is a community we don't know," said Dickman. "It's neat to be exposed to different cultures."

Musician Bouchaib Abdelhadi, a Moroccan Arab from Oakland who has performed with a number of Jewish groups, was enjoying himself. He plays the violin as well as such traditional Moroccan instruments as the oud, and sings in Arabic, French and English.

"This is good," he said, surveying the room during a break. "This event is successful because there are people from all over the world."

Was the food authentically Moroccan?

"To tell you the truth, I didn't taste it," he said. "By the time I took a break, everything was gone."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].