I have long found Passover to be my favorite holiday because it lends itself to so many different lenses and tangible connections. I have been lucky to spend Passover in a variety of places over the years, and as such I have created many profound memories from these experiences.
I still remember the joy I felt while studying in Israel on Young Judaea Year Course in 1999. I found myself in Jerusalem during Passover, and beamingly thinking to myself at the seder I had finally made it — This year in Jerusalem!
I was so amazed at the way Passover changed the dynamic of life in Israel. I loved the foods that can only be found in Israel, such as the kosher-for-Pesach Big Macs at McDonalds on potato flour buns, the spongy kosher-for-Pesach laffa-wrapped shawarmas in Kikar Dizengoff and the matzah-wrapped deep-fried hot dogs at the kiosks.
Meanwhile, I found it so amusing at the supermarkets that had cordoned off the chametz aisles behind plastic wrap, as if there was some kind of pornography sitting on the shelves.
During part of my junior year abroad in Morocco in 2002, I celebrated the Passover seder in the Moroccan capital Rabat. I was living with a Moroccan Muslim host family, and we had such a fun cultural experience as they tried matzah for the first time. I remember being shocked at how much they liked it. I went on to backpack through the Middle Atlas Mountains that week with a few boxes of matzah stuffed into my day pack, and gave it as a gift to the many villagers I met in my travels.
Years later in 2006, I found myself on a Rotary Fellowship in South Africa during Passover. I was visiting small Afrikaans towns, but managed to find a group Passover seder with the Jews of the area. The power with which Passover lends itself to different lenses became apparent to me, as we discussed the Passover seder through the lens of the struggle against Apartheid, with Nelson Mandela recast as Moses leading his people to freedom.
And again the tactility of Passover played out, as I trekked in the Kruger National Park with boxes of matzah and spent that holiday eating matzah with delicious kudu and impala biltong (dried spiced meat).
One of my favorite matzah memories is from 2007. I was trekking through the Sinai during Passover, on my way to my last stop on a six-month trip from Beijing to Cairo. Since it was Pesach, I gave all the Egyptians I met some matzah, and explained to them that it was their fault I was eating this dry cracker — something that elicited lots of chuckles.
One of the things I loved most about being a wandering Jew is how I have been able to adapt the holidays to local realities.
One such example occurred in 2016 when I was studying French in the city of Tours in the Loire Valley. It was a truly happy Passover, because matzah goes wonderfully well with the rich French cheeses and wines. Topping matzah with chèvre and pesto, or with bleu cheese and honey, was definitely a Passover highlight.
The following year offered quite a different Passover experience. I was again in Rabat, Morocco, this time for some cultural diplomacy work in North Africa. Since Passover was approaching, I was looking for a synagogue to make arrangements for the holiday. I made my way through the Medina (old city) and on towards the Mellah (old Jewish quarter).
Eventually I found Avenue Moulay Ismail where the synagogue was located but wasn’t sure about the synagogue’s location. I stopped a man on the street and asked him in Arabic. After exchanging the requisite Moroccan pleasantries and greetings, I got down to business: Where is the mosque for the Jews? He smiled, and pointed to the nondescript building across the street. Bonne fête (Happy Holiday), he said with a smile.
After enjoying the Passover seder services, the next day I procured some matzah for the holiday. I celebrated my Moroccan Passover lunches, with chèvre, a rainbow melange of olives, tuna, golden raisins, juicy dates and fig jam.
It is Passover’s distinctly tangible connections to the change in behavior and diet that makes it such a sensory experience. As such, there are few holidays that offer such a wonderful mechanism of sharing culture and traditions, and adapting the holiday though different flavors and focus.
So as I celebrate this Passover locally here in Phoenix, my Pesach palate still reflects the global tastes I picked up along the way. JN
Paul Rockower is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix.