Mimouna: In my mind I’ve gone to Marrakech

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Written by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila for The Jewish Journal.

Tirbah u’tissad — may you prosper and succeed. This Judeo-Arabic blessing is the manner in which North African Jews greet one another just moments after Passover formally ends, on the night we call “Mimouna.”

For many Jews, the night Passover ends is typically the night to turn over the kitchen from Passover dishes back to chametz. For North African Jews from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, it’s a night when we turn over our homes from Passover to Mimouna, a joyous family and community-oriented cultural celebration that’s all about blessings, smiles and sweets.

Mimouna is all about blessings. In Arabic, the word mimoun means “mazal”; it’s a night when we bless each other and pray for “mazal” in our lives. Because Passover is the anniversary of our deliverance from slavery to freedom, we conclude Passover with an expression of belief — which in Hebrew is emunah (sounds like Mimouna) — that God will continue to bless and protect us beyond Passover. We kick off the night with a long, festive, beautifully chanted havdalah that not only “distinguishes between Passover and weekday,” but also features blessings for health, prosperity, happiness and safety. We recite this havdalah around a colorful table adorned with symbols of blessing. A bowl of flour filled with gold coins represents livelihood and sustenance. Branches of greenery symbolize a successful agricultural spring season, and a fish represents fertility and plentitude. We chant piyuttim (religious poems) in Moroccan-Andalusian tunes, with lyrics such as ‘arbah ya hai ul’jina’ — bless my brother with wealth.

Mimouna is all about smiles. There are no formal invitations to Mimouna. It’s an open-door evening, and everyone  — neighbors, family, friends and friends of friends — stops by to kiss each other on both cheeks and greet each other with festive blessings. The mood induces happiness and smiles. The table is colorful, and so are the clothes we wear. The women wear long, elaborately embroidered dresses called kaftan, and the men wear embroidered shirts or long robes called jalabiya. The sounds of Andalusian music fill the room, and as things warm up, so does the hand clapping and dancing. Shot glasses of mahya (the Moroccan name for arak) are passed around. My father told me that mahya means mayim hayyim — the water of life. This water certainly livens things up.

Mimouna is all about sweets. There are two “mandatory Mimouna foods” that everyone must eat. The first is a date filled with butter and honey. The host of the Mimouna welcomes you with this delicacy, accompanied by the greeting “Tirbah u’tissad.” Eating this indulgent combination of sweets symbolizes the sweetness of prosperity and success. Then there is moufletta, the piece de resistance of any authentic Mimouna. Moufletta is a thin, tortilla-style crepe fried in oil and served hot with butter, honey or jam. It’s our first post-Passover chametz, and — appropriately for Mimouna — it’s sweet! Some additional features of a Mimouna table include fresh and dried fruits, marzipan pastries, sesame cookies rolled in honey, a variety of jams and jellies, buttermilk and Moroccan tea with nana (fresh mint). Other than mouflettawhich is either purchased before Passover and sold with the other chametz, or purchased after havdalah that very night, the remainder of the pastries are not chametz, and are often prepared during Hol Hamoed of Passover.

I was born into a French-speaking North African Sephardic home. My father was from Marrakech, my mother from Algeria. I was raised in a small apartment in West Hollywood and have never been to these countries. Other than my family, our building was all Ashkenazi Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors. From them, I learned about the Shoah, and from my family, they learned about Mimouna. With my mother beautifully dressed in her kaftan and my father greeting everyone with “Tirbah u’tissad,” our little apartment in West Hollywood somehow expanded to welcome more than 100 guests, who came in and out throughout the night. All of our neighbors, our friends from school, our extended family — everyone wanted to come to our Mimouna. Everyone wanted that date and blessing from my father, and the two kisses on both cheeks and moufletta from my mother. The table, the blessings, the foods and the music — it was as if we were in Marrakech, not West Hollywood.

I now live in a slightly larger condominium in Westwood, but on Mimouna night, we may as well still be in Marrakech. My parents are no longer alive, so it’s upon me to distribute dates and blessings of Tirbah u’tissad, and my Ashkenazi wife, Peni – beautifully dressed in her kaftan — prepares moufletta that rivals that of my mother. My kids invite their friends, the table is decorated, and Andalusian music (along with Enrico Macias) fills the room.

James Taylor sings, “In my mind I’ve gone to Carolina.” On Mimouna night, we sing, “In my mind I’ve gone to Marrakech.”

Tirbah u’tissad.

Header photo by Edsel Little.