Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...


What did two million Israelis do when Passover ended this year? As in previous years, they celebrated Mimouna, a Moroccan Jewish holiday that is popularly observed by picnicking, barbecueing, and consuming moufletas (sweet North African pancakes). Politicians from the prime minister to the leader of the opposition made the rounds, enjoying the delicacies and, in some cases, decking themselves out in traditional Moroccan garb.

Relevant Links
The Rise of the Sephardim  Daniel J. Elazar, Commentary. What does it mean that Jews from non-European backgrounds are now the political majority in Israel? (1983)
Modernity and Charisma  Yoram Bilu, Eyal Ben-Ari, Israel Affairs. Within five years of his death in 1984, Rabbi Israel Abu Hatzeira (the “Baba Sali”) was a legendary saint; so was his son Baruch, jailed for corruption.
Love the Convert  Jonah Mandel, Jerusalem Post. In a protest against extreme Orthodoxy, the Mimouna organizers intended to stress that accepting converts with open arms is embedded in the heritage of North African Jewry.

And what is Mimouna all about? No one really knows. First documented in the 18th century, it was, according to one theory, originally intended to persuade a supposedly Jewish demon named Maimun to let the crops flourish.  Another theory links Mimouna to the Hebrew word emunah, meaning faith or, to be precise, faith in the ultimate redemption; after all, tradition teaches that Israel will be redeemed in the Hebrew month of Nissan, the month when Passover marks the original redemption from Egypt. Others have offered anthropological and historical explanations. But to its celebrants, the genesis of the day is immaterial; brought to the country by the 250,000 Jews who fled Morocco between 1948 and 1967, Mimouna is now an officially recognized holiday.

From one perspective, the day's popularity reflects the degree to which the Moroccan Jewish experience has been "nationalized." From another, it reflects the degree to which a Jewish cultural practice rooted in a land of exile has survived under conditions of national sovereignty. And more than survived—flourished.

This is no small achievement. All such exilic practices faced an uphill battle during the first decades after the founding of the state, and none more so than those deriving from Arab or Muslim lands.

For bureaucratic purposes, Israeli Jews in those years were grouped into two categories: Ashkenazi and "Oriental." Local Jewish identities were ignored, or in some cases erased. Although simplistic, the categories were also understandable. With so many groups from different lands being absorbed by the re-born Jewish state, there was a danger of cognitive overload.  Moreover, the nation-building project required de-emphasizing the role of ethnicity in favor of a shared sense of national unity, not to say national uniformity.

Of course, the uniform identity was not neutral; instead, it reflected Western intellectual and social norms. But deeply rooted cultural practices could be suppressed for only so long, and a multiplicity of Jewish cultures survived the early years of the state and into the present day. They are seen in the food people eat, the music they listen to, the religious rituals they maintain, and the holidays they observe.

Sometimes these elements have come through in bundles. Consider, in addition to Mimouna, the singing of bakkashot, a wintertime liturgical rite common throughout North Africa and parts of the Levant; in it, Jews meet in the synagogue from 3:00 to 6:00 on winter Sabbath mornings to sing sacred Hebrew poems in the style of Arab-Muslim "art music." You can find Moroccan Jews who zealously maintain this tradition in every major Israeli city, with the added twist that now many non-Moroccans participate as well.

Or consider the flourishing of Moroccan and Andalusian piyyut, another form of liturgical music. Existing until recently along the margins of Israeli society, it has now moved beyond the synagogue and become a major art form in its own right, sometimes even rearranged and improvised upon in the style of jazz and blues.

Such cultural tenacity is not without its ironies and paradoxes. For example, one of the aims of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in forming the Shas political party was to reclaim and reassert the enduring value of a Sephardi religious identity. Yet the very idea of a uniform Sephardi religious identity is to a certain extent an Israeli creation. 

Historically speaking, "Sephardi" was never a homogeneous term; when Jewish communities moved southward and eastward after the expulsion from Spain at the end of the 15th century, tremendous tension prevailed between the newly arriving "Spanish" and the already established "Oriental" communities around the Mediterranean littoral. It is true that Josef Karo's 16th-century code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh, contributed to fashioning a specifically "Sephardi" form of practice. But today, some of the most strident opponents of Rabbi Ovadia's program are rabbis representing North African communities whose traditions are threatened by a more global Sephardi identity.

Another irony: the theme of this year's Mimouna was the biblical injunction to "love the convert." In choosing it, the event's organizers were explicitly promoting a tolerant, North African form of Judaism as against the perceived intolerance of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi establishment. But promoting it to whom? By appealing to Israeli society at large, the organizers were also acknowledging the primacy of a shared Israeli Judaism.

A final irony is suggested by a recent article in a leading American Jewish weekly claiming that "most young Israelis . . . often don't know and rarely care where anyone's parents or grandparents came from." This is too glib. Who, after all, is buying all the CD's by third-generation Israeli artists returning to the musical traditions of their grandparents? Kobi Oz (half-Tunisian), Dudu Tassa (half-Iraqi, half-Yemenite), Omer Avital (half-Moroccan, half-Yemenite), and others have all reclaimed particular Jewish cultures rooted in the Arab-Muslim milieu, in part for the purpose of exploring their own identity.

Yet if Israelis are indeed becoming interested in where their grandparents came from, this doesn't mean that the Jewish "melting pot" has failed. To the contrary: outside of ultra-Orthodox society, "intermarriage" between Jews from different ethnic communities is so normal that it's become too trivial to mention. Most significantly, the wide popularity of Mimouna itself—two million celebrants make up a formidable cohort—demonstrates the degree to which today's Israelis are open to absorbing Jewish traditions that in the strict sense, but only in the strict sense, are not their own. 

"Tzur Sheheheyani," a piyyut composed by the 20th-century Moroccan rabbi David Buzaglo, is performed by the New Jerusalem Orchestra, led by Omer Avital and Haim Louk, a leading contemporary Moroccan-Israeli paytan:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Rabbi Arthur Waskow on May 13, 2011 at 9:05 am (Reply)
Sadly, Mr. Tepper reports nothing about the real origins of Maimouna, in the warm relationships between Jews & Muslims in Morocco. Although the over-all ideology of "Jewish Ideas" would lean to smothering this information, perhaps our report from the actual scene will be useful to some readers. For further information see

Maimouna: When Jews & Muslims Share their Sustenance
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The custom of a post-Passover chametz party (when Jews may again eat leavened bread and other foods traditionally forbidden on Pesach) has been brought to its highest level by the Jews of North Africa, who hold a great celebration called Maimouna on the evening and day after Pesach.

Some have suggested that the day is named for Maimon ben Joseph, the father of Rambam or Maimonides, and that the day was the yohrzeit (death-anniversary) of Maimon himself. Not only was his son one of the greatest of the rabbinic commentators and codifiers; Maimon was himself a leading scholar of his generation, lived in the Moroccan city of Fez, and died about 1170.

Much of his work focused on Islamic-Jewish relations; it both took Islam seriously as a monotheistic religion, and offered Jews who had been forcibly converted to Islam ways of continuing their adherence to Torah. His work was therefore of great significance to Jews living in Muslim countries — which might help explain the fact and the name of the celebration on his yohrtzeit.

But there is another explanation of Maimouna and its name that seems much more likely in the light of actual relationships between Jews and Muslims in Morocco. (My teacher in this matter is David Waskow, who spent several months in Morocco that spanned Pesach and Ramadan.)

The custom grew up centuries ago, and still survives, that on the evening after Pesach ends, when Jews can again eat chametz but have not yet had time to bake bread in their own homes, the Muslim community brings them loaves of bread.

And at the end of the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day, Jews bring the Muslim community some food to begin the great Feast of Breaking-the-Fast, Eid–el-Fitr. These gifts between the two communities are given with loving joy.

Maimouna starts with an evening meal of dairy foods symbolic of birth and fertility — milk, figs, ears of wheat, and pancakes with butter and honey. Often a live fish, swimming in a bowl, is on the table, probably reminding the diners that fish are considered the most fertile of creatures.

Alongside the fish bowl is likely to be a bowl of flour in which golden rings are hidden. The chacham (sage) of each local Jewish community dips a sprig of mint in a bowl of milk and sprinkles the milk on the heads of the community’s members. There is a great bustle of visiting and sharing foods from one household to another. On the following day there are large picnics at beaches, fields, and cemeteries.

In the light of all this, it may well be that “Maimouna” comes from “maimon,” the Hebrew word for “prosperity.”

In Israel, Jews of Moroccan background carry on the Maimouna tradition with each other, including a large get-together in Jerusalem. In America, some Jewish and Muslim communities have made Maimouna and the end of Ramadan a time for peaceful visiting to redress the fear and anger that have sometimes beset the two cultures in recent generations.
Aryeh Tepper on May 13, 2011 at 11:25 am (Reply)
Rabbi Waskow: Among the origins for Mimouna cited by scholars, Jewish-Muslim relations occupy a distinctly minor place.

In addition, at the conclusion of our article, The Sephardi Turn, there is a link to Rabbi Haim Louk performing with the king's orchestra in Morocco.
Alissa on May 13, 2011 at 11:56 am (Reply)
Great post! I wrote and posted some pictures of my mother in law making mufeltas on my blog:

It is a day with wonderful memories-- and great food! I think anyone is up for a day with family, friends and great eats no matter what the occasion!!
Thanks for the post,
Yakov on May 15, 2011 at 10:57 am (Reply)
My memories of the Mimouna from childhood time in Morocco resembled Halloween practice in the States. Us kids went from home to home chanting the Arabic, giving a Blessing before asking for the gift of “Goodies” usually, Candy and other consumables, as a Gift Giving Jester and means to connect the young to the Jewish Culture of the Community.

In Israel, before it became a national Picnic day, In the eve we went from home had drinks and eat cakes and fruits with the host and friends.

I am so happy to see the practice adapted by others, in whatever form, preserving and expanding on the traditions of others.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow on May 16, 2011 at 5:21 pm (Reply)
There is a big difference between citing "scholars" who have never connected with the folks on the ground and whose airy speculations give Muslim-Jewish relations a :"distinctly secondary place" , and citing real live people -- like David Waskow and (above) Yakov -- who actually witnessed Maimouna in Morocco and knew the Muslim-Jewish connection was central to it. The wishful desire to expunge that connection for ideological reasons also, of course, encourages depending on "scholars" who have no idea about the facts. Maybe future essays by Mr. Tepper on this subject will correct the omission. -- See htpp://
Aryeh Tepper on May 16, 2011 at 5:55 pm (Reply)
Rabbi Waskow, I assure you that scholars of Moroccan Jewry such as Moshe Shokeid, Michel Abitbol, Harvey Goldberg, and others, spent much time with "folks on the ground." That's what anthropologists do.

As for your claim that I am denying facts for ideological reasons, what can I say? The Jewish tradition teaches us that when people go on the attack, they're often attacking their own weaknesses(see Kiddushin, 70a). I commended you for illustrating the insight of the sages.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow on May 16, 2011 at 8:48 pm (Reply)
The facts, the facts, the good ol' stubborn facts. All I wish for is that when Mr. Tepper next writes about Maimouna, he mentions that some observers connect the celebration with communal friendship between Moroccan Jews who help Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan, and Moroccan Muslims who help Jews celebrate the end of Pesach. I don;t even ask him to overstep the bounds of his own skepticism. Just to say that SOME see it that way. Meanwhile, I encourage all who want to look more deeply into little-known aspects of the festival cycle to check out


Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham