By Aryeh Tepper
Friday, May 13, 2011

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.

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:

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/mimouna

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