How do Sephardi families' Seder plates differ from their Ashkenazi cousins? How do different Sephardi communities' observances differ from one another? And how has American Ashkenormativity erased those differences? And what even is Ashkenormativity?!
In this very special Passover episode of Contact Chai, Rabbi Deena explores how her Sephardic heritage shaped her family's Seder traditions, and shares how you can make your own Seder unique to your background — even if you are Jewish by choice.
Mishkan Chicago's Passover Resource Round-Up
From Me to We: Virtual Passover Seder (Thursday, April 6th)
This sermon is from our March 17th, 2023 Virtual Shabbat service. For upcoming Shabbat services and programs, check our event calendar, and see our Accessibility & Inclusion page for information about our venues. Follow us on Instagram and like us on Facebook for more updates.
Produced by Mishkan Chicago. Music composed, produced, and performed by Kalman Strauss.
Rabbi Deena, thank you for joining me. So correct me if I'm wrong here, but I understand that you have both Ashkenazi and Sephardic heritage.
Yeah, so my mom's side of the family is all Ashkenazi. As far as we know, they've been in the United States for at least a century, probably more. My dad's side of the family, his father's family were old country Hasidim, but his mom's family were Sephardic. And my dad's actually really into history research on his family. So he's traced them back to around the 1300s. In that area, around Spain, France, etc. They, like all Jews of the region were kicked out when the area became hostile, inhospitable to Jews, and they moved around, they were in France, they may have spent some time in Turkey. And then eventually they made their way to Shanghai, along with other places in Asia, but my particular family's line was in Shanghai, and they were merchants, they sell jewelry and silver. There was actually a pretty big Sephardi community in Shanghai in the mid to late 1800s. That they were a part of, you might know names like the Sassoon family Kaduri family, it was all one big, very wealthy, relatively liberal is not the right word but progressive Jewish community.
And they left in the early 1900s and settled in San Francisco, some Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities diverged 1000s of years ago, others diverged only hundreds of years ago. So my family was probably divergent from the European community in the hundreds of years ago. But there are communities that have been in Yemen and Ethiopia, in Iraq and Iran for 1000s of years. And so they have a lot more developed traditions of their own. Basically, the way that we use it in America and this is different in Israel is that Ashkenazi is anyone of Eastern or Central European origin, basically, everything about the Iberian Peninsula, and Sparty is everyone else. In Israel, they distinguish between Sephardi and Mizrahi, which are people from the Middle East. But it's basically that Ashkenazim hum have pretty similar practices and approach to Jewish life and law. And everyone else doesn't. You know, it's really interesting because especially in America, everything is sort of my friend likes to call it Aashka normative, which is a great portmanteau of a term and you're sort of Ashkenazi by default. In the United States, there are a few communities where that's not true. There's a few places in the United States where there's really strong, vibrant non Ashkenazi communities la in particular has a big Persian community. But for the most part, if your family has been in America long enough that your grandparents grew up speaking English, even if your family history derives from somewhere else, practically speaking, you are probably culturally Ashkenazi, which is I would say, largely true for me that, you know, my dad is technically half and half and so he observed both growing up, but if you want to keep kosher in America, the hashes are all really run by Ashkenazi rabbis. And if you want to go to a synagogue, they're almost all Ashkenazi and tradition. Like I said, there are pockets where that's not true. But, you know, I grew up in a fully Ashkenazi synagogue growing up, we observed Ashkenazi traditions in specific when it specifically comes to Passover, and we'll talk about this more later. And the way that Ashkenazi and non Ashkenazi Jews eat for Passover is different. But it's almost impossible to get pastured, kosher kosher for passover food that is not Ashkenazi. So like rice and beans and things like that. And so if you want to keep kosher for passover in America, if you care about having food that has that special symbol on it, you kind of can't eat things like rice and beans. It's now becoming slightly more common, but for my entire childhood, keeping kosher for passover meant keeping Ashkenazi kosher for passover, no matter what your heritage was.
That's really interesting. Thank you. So how aware of your Sephardic heritage were you as a kid growing up? Was this something that your dad talked about?
You know, it was my dad's really interested in his family history. His brother is a historian. So we've had good resources at his fingertips. And that side of the family has kept great records. So they have all sorts of amazing art and pictures and artifacts from their time, especially in China. And so I grew up hearing a lot about it from sort of a personal historical perspective, I knew a lot about the stories of that time of the family. I went to Shanghai about a decade ago, and was able to see the synagogue that my great great grandparents went to. So you know, it was certainly something that was on the table. And especially when I was a kid, nobody was really talking about 40 family traditions. We practice mostly like Ashkenazi Jews, a few things here and there. But for the most part, we were just Ashkenazi Jews in the suburbs. And as we got older, and people started to talk more about Jewish diversity, I started to realize that the stories I grew up hearing actually related to differences in practice. And in the last maybe eight ish years, we've started actually to lean a little bit more into some of that Sparty heritage, in particular, around Passover, where there's a lot of cool opportunities to do so. We celebrated pretty much everything with my mom's family who's Ashkenazi. And you know, there are little things that I now recognize actually come from Smarty background, so it's traditional for the Seder leader to wear a Kiddle white garment. A kid is actually an Ashkenazi garment but for the Seder leader to wear white and that's actually a sporty tradition. And you know, there's other little things Smarty Savior's are probably somewhat more amusing than Ashkenazi Seders. They're a little bit more playful, and they have more fun, playful traditions to them. And so some of the spirit of the way that we did the Seder certainly had some of that Ashkenazi influence, but my dad grew up going to his dad's family's Seders. So his own Seder experience was actually was pretty Ashkenazi, even if his family background was technically mixed and I think my siblings and I have been bringing in little things. My brother and I in particular like to make a variety of non Ashkenazi horo sets and have been doing so for a long time you know, nothing wrong with the Manischewitz walnuts apples cinnamon combination, I use it like granola all Passover but and this is not shots fired. I really think this is just facts. 40 hydroset is better. It's usually like a combination of stewed fruits, dates and prunes and things like that. And it makes this delicious, sweet paste that actually spreads on matzah. Also, smarty matzah traditionally was not the crumbly thing that we have now it was soft baked, like a non or a roti. It was just made really quickly. So it it fits the 18 Minute Rule, but it was like a wrap or a spread. And so, you know, originally, the Passover meal would have been roasted lamb with some spicy greens and a schmear of something sweet wrapped up in a wrap, which sounds delicious. And nothing like the experience of trying to eat a crumbly walnut Apple thing on a crumbly cracker. So I'm very proud of the ways that my brother and I have really experimented with different hydroset traditions. And I'm really trying to bring different flavors to the table. In one of our Staters, we did not hide the Afikoman for the kids to find the kids would try to steal it from the Seder leader way more fun, frankly, than like just wandering the house looking for a piece of crumbling something. And we would like make a whole game out of it. The tradition in Sardis theaters is to do things like lift the Seder plate up and put it on your head and pass it around. And like they'll somebody will get scallions and whip each other with the scallions during the singing of Dayenu. It's just it's more playful and fun. And that was always true at my saders. Or at least one of them that we would we would try to play and bring fun things my dad would bring in like Bob Marley tunes, you know, and talk about redemption song at the Seder. And I think that sort of cultural heritage of making it really engaging and fun is native to a lot of Sephardi communities in a way that we didn't necessarily know, growing up. But that now as I learn more, I recognize like, Oh, that's a piece of my own cultural heritage that I can reclaim. Are there other differences that might surprise someone from an Ashkenazi background about how Passover is celebrated in terms of keeping kosher for passover? So the types of grains that are not typically eaten by Ashkenazi Jews, but are technically speaking kosher for passover and Ashkenazi Jews who know the law? Well, we're not telling you that race is not kosher for passover. It's a tradition not to eat it because grains used to kind of ball the storm together and it was really easy for them to get mixed up one than the other. And it was really easy for it to look like if you used rice flour for example, it looks just like regular wheat flour. And so Ashkenazi Jews engage in what is common in Jewish law practice of making a fence around the fence and then a fence around the fence around the fence, the idea being like, if there's a lot and you want to be careful not to overstep the law, you build a little fence around it, and then that fence becomes so normative that you build a fence around that. So Ashkenazi Jews don't eat things like rice and corn and beans on Passover, not because they're not kosher for passover. And if those things touch a Passover dish, and Ashkenazi Jew could still eat from that dish, it doesn't render the dish not kosher for passover
Sephardi, Jews would do things like get 40 pounds of rice before the holiday and start picking through it a month, early to make sure that there was no accidental wheat grains in there.
Nowadays, we don't farm like that. And we don't store food like that. So there's actually really no indication that things like rice would have any wheat mixed up in them. And also nowadays, we benefit from the fact that people have gluten sensitivity. And so things can be labeled certified gluten free.
But the process of rendering something commercially kosher involves a lot of supervision. And it's a commercial process at the end of the day. And it's just, there's not enough juice in America with market demand to make it worth it for a lot of products to spend the money on kosher certification for things like rice, for Passover. And so like I said earlier, it's not that those things are not kosher for passover, it's that if you care about seeing the official certification, it's very hard to find that in the United States. It's not in Israel, right? It's pretty easy to find those things in Israel because there's a huge Sephardi and Mizrahi community that eats those things. There's a market for it. But in America, because most of us are culturally Ashkenazi, in our practice, even if our background doesn't have that in it. And it's really hard to get things that have that official kosher for passover stamp on rice and corn and beans and things like that. You mentioned the euroset is a bit different traditionally. Are there any other differences about what goes on the Seder plate between Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities? Yeah. So you know, a lot of the things that we put on the Seder plate are based on what was regionally available. And, you know, we have as Jews, this tradition of thinking that what our great grandparents did is like tradition with a capital T, maybe even in the tune of Fiddler of the on the roof.
But that's only because that's where our great grandparents happen to be at and if our great grandparents happened to be somewhere else, they might have dressed differently and eating different foods. So for example, horseradish that most people think is a given on the Seder plate doesn't grow in many of the areas that Sephardi and Mizrahi communities come from. And they tend to eat things like bitter greens like andI Eve and romaine for their maror or they eat spicy food right there. Latino communities that put jalapenos on their Seder plate. That's actually something that my family has embraced recently. Is eating jalapenos, or having tequila as our Marar. Highly recommend really good way to liven up the Seder spicy marks from our or is like for sure do.
And, you know, so also the things that you would eat for Karpaz for the greens, when you live in one area of the world, the spring greens look one way, sardines us are largely not evening parsley with saltwater for their Karpaz. Many sporty communities actually dip in vinegar, because they had a lot of vinegar as as part of their cuisine, especially Persian communities. That sort of tangy vinegar, fermented taste is very common. And so they would dip different greens and they would give them sometimes in vinegar, or in different kinds of salty, briny solutions. And what goes on your Seder plate is a reflection of what you have around you. And there's the whole whipping with scallion things. So you know, you have to have scallions available to whip each other with if you're going to do that. So there are a lot of different Sephardic communities across the globe. Are there any unique Passover traditions that are for instance, only heard of in Iraqi Jewish communities are only heard of in French Jewish communities? Yeah, and I can't pretend to be a total expert on this. The one that most people know about nowadays, or that's becoming more common to talk about and to practice is something called mimouna, which is a Moroccan tradition that as soon as Passover ends, it's basically like a festival of delicious bratty things. And there's special types of cakes and things like that that are made from a Munna, and it's sort of like a rejoicing, celebratory opportunity to do a reverse Seder. If the Seder is all about the pinnacle experience of eating matzah for the first time all year mimouna is a gathering of everyone you know, to have a big party of eating things that are decidedly not matzah. And you know, this is it's pretty common in Israel now because there's a huge Moroccan Jewish community or community of Moroccan origins. And as Israeli society starts to integrate between areas of origin
Much more than the United States has. In fact, more and more people have Moroccan siblings in law are parents in law are cousins or co workers? And so traditions like Munna which date from this very ancient and well known community in Morocco are becoming part of the cycle of what it means to observe Passover, that you do the Seder at the front end, and you do a Muna at the back end and haven't gotten to one. Let me tell you, it's delicious and very fun. And those of us who aren't doing it are missing out. What do you say that non Ashkenazi customers are typically, if you will, passed over and discussions of Passover traditions? You know, I think they are and I think it, it speaks to the way that Judaism works, which is that we write stuff down. But the vast majority of what we do and know and teach is not written down. It's just oral tradition. That the core of Jewish texts actually breaks down like this, the Torah is known as the written law. And the Talmud was known as the oral law, because for close to 1000 years, not quite, it was actually forbidden to write down the Talmud, that the bulk of the way that we practice Judaism is passed down orally. And so when you live in a society where most of the people are of Ashkenazi origin, where you live in a society where the dominant cultural historical narrative of Judaism is the Holocaust, and ties to Eastern Europe and ultra orthodox communities trying to mimic the practices of their Eastern European ancestors in dress and custom and practice, it becomes harder and harder to continue to tell the other stories, those are often lost to time to assimilation. The things that we think about as Jewish food in America are almost all Ashkenazi foods, and things like bagels and Kugel and cholent.
It's not that it's hearty, and amuse Rafi communities don't have equivalents to those, it's just that most of the first Jews to make it to America were of Eastern European origin. And so Jewishness in America took on a distinctly Ashkenazi flavour. And there are frankly fewer Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews in America than there are Ashkenazi Jews. And so there are more Ashkenazi synagogues. And there are more Ashkenazi foods and traditions and songs. And so if you came to America, and you wanted to be part of the main stream, which the American Dream told us, You shouldn't be until about a generation ago, you kind of just ended up being Ashkenazi, which takes us back to where we started, which is like, even though I grew up knowing intellectually, that I had heritage from different parts of the world. Functionally, I was an Ashkenazi Jew until I learned enough to know that I might have traditions that I had been missing my whole life that we could bring back to our Seder table.
It's important to say, you know, there's conversations about appropriation, and there's conversations about cultural integrity and things like that. And I want to also recognize that there are people in our community who are Jews by choice, who don't know where their family came from, who may have been adopted or have different stories about their own family. And I think one of the things that's so interesting about the Passover Seder is how much it unites us, and a common story of having gone from unfamiliarity to familiarity. And the way that things become familiar is that we do them. And then we do that when we do them when we do them such that now their traditions, even if someone at some point, just started doing it that way. And so I want to encourage everyone who's listening, to look at where your family comes from, and to look up the cultural and culinary traditions that you come from, to find out about the people who are going to be at your Seder, and find out about the people who matter to you, even if that's aunts and uncles, and teachers and mentors, and rabbis, find out about their traditions and bring those to your table. I think Judaism is richer, and all of us are richer, when we bring in all sorts of cultural identities and preserve them as traditions. It's a great thing in the Talmud to see rabbis quoting in the name of their teacher in the name of their teacher in the name of their teacher. So I'm not saying appropriate your friends and families customs, I'm saying bring them in, and sight in their name and the name of my teacher who came from this community and in the name of my aunt who came from this community. And in the name of this community that's had a big impact on my life. I want to bring all these traditions back into my own experience of the world. That's what Jews have been doing. All these communities were in contact with each other. They were traveling around and sharing stuff. And we should continue to do that to at our own Seder tables and in everything we do in Judaism.