My Sweet, Arabic Iraqi-Jewish Passover

Like many children of mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi families, I grew up celebrating Passover according to my father’s custom with the stained Ashkenazi version of the Maxwell House Haggadah. Born two days before Passover on the 13th of Nissan, I have always had a special relationship with the holiday. Legend has it, my mother took me down the stairs as the door was opened to greet Elijah the Prophet. Hence my name, Eliyahu.  

After my Iraqi-Jewish grandfather passed away in 2015, I began reconnecting to my Babylonian heritage. I started attending services at the Iraqi congregation Bene Naharayim in Queens, NY, including the Passover Seder. There, I learned that some of the customs at my family Seder actually were Iraqi in origin and learned new Iraqi-Jewish Passover traditions. It is my blessing that these ancient practices can be shared and enjoyed by non-Iraqi Jews as well, as they contain timeless wisdom that explore the Seder’s core themes of freedom and oppression.

Before the Seder: Prepare silan

The sweet dip for making the korech sandwich on my family’s Seder table was not made of apples and walnuts, but dates! It always came as a gift from my mother’s Aunties Eva and Ida. They lived in New York but made sure my mother in Toronto had the sweet flavor that is as much a staple food of Iraqi-Jewish Passover as matzah. 

In Middle Eastern culture, and for Iraqi-Jews in particular, the date palm is a symbol of identity. It also represents abundance and fertility due to its ability to produce a large quantity of nutritious dates, which have been a staple food in the region for centuries. At the Bene Naharayim synagogue, the round Torah holders and stained-glass windows are decorated with the date palms that epitomize Babylonia. Fortunately, the Iraqi date palm migrated with Iraqi Jews to Israel, and Iraqi dates are commonly found even in North America.

An easy recipe for silan can be found here: the basic idea is to soak and boil the dates, strain them in cheesecloth, and mix in half a cup of walnuts. The silan is used in place of charoset

During the Seder: Reading the sharh

Iraqi-Jewish Seders are a communal activity. All participants take turns reading and singing together the text, not only the original Aramaic but also a translation in the community’s vernacular of Judeo-Arabic. As I dove deeper into my Iraqi ancestry, there was no option but to spend years (five and counting) studying both classical and modern dialects of Arabic. Nowadays, Oxford offers a free online class in the Baghdadi Jewish dialect!

The Judeo-Arabic translation of the Haggadah is known as the sharh, meaning “explanation.” Readers sing the Aramaic and Arabic text according to a familiar Babylonian melody. Not only is it fun and educational to read the Haggadah in Arabic, but it brings to my seder table the presence of my Iraqi-Jewish ancestors who are far away in time and space. 

If you are not an Arabic speaker, consider “explaining” sections of the Passover Haggadah in English in a way that is rhythmic and can be easily sung. Some possible rhythmic songs for inspiration: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “If You're Happy and You Know It,” “Hava Nagila,” or “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.”

During the Seder: Acting out the wandering Israelite

After reaching the paragraph of “ha lahma anya” (this poor bread), I remember my parents instructing me to go outside and pretend to be a wandering Israelite on my way to the Holy Land. It turns out that this little drama is an Iraqi-Jewish custom!

It works like this: someone at the Seder (usually a child) puts on a cap, holds a stick, and places a satchel full of matzah on their back. The child then goes outside and knocks on the door with the cane. When they enter, a dialogue takes place between the child and their parents:

Parents: “Where did you come from?”

Child: “From Egypt.”

Parents: “And where are you going?”

Child: “To Jerusalem.”

Parents: “And what is the way to Jerusalem?”

Immediately, the child starts singing Ma Nishtana (The Four Questions).

Above is the traditional dialogue, but this ritual is a good opportunity for children to reflect on the actual experience of being freed. Even now that I am grown up, I will always be the child in my family as the youngest of my five siblings, and this custom is a good improv activity to dramatize the experience of captivity and the feeling of being released!

After the Seder: Melekh Goel U-Moshia

My grandfather loved singing the traditional Iraqi religious songs, or piyyutim, which he knew by heart. Iraqi-Jewish Seders traditionally conclude with the singing of several special piyyutim, the most famous of which is called “Melekh Goel u-Moshia” (“The King of Redemption and Salvation”), written in the 18th century by Rabbi Moshe Chutzin. 

The Piyut North America project has published a translation and transcription, and a dozen recordings can be found on the National Library of Israel website and on Youtube

Through taste, drama, and music, may we reconnect to our ancestry as we create a sweet, new Jewish future that brings freedom from oppression for the entire world!

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


Additional Resources:

Orit Bashkin’s New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq is a wonderful book about the history of Iraqi Jewry and their “Exodus” from Iraq in the 1950s. 

The novel The Dove Flyer, which became the first modern Israeli movie filmed in Judeo-Arabic is also an excellent fictional account of the tragic, final chapter of Iraqi-Jewish history. 

My Sweet, Arabic Iraqi-Jewish Passover
Eliyahu Freedman
Eliyahu Freedman

Eliyahu (he/they) currently lives in Jaffa where he is passionate about journalism, meditation, and Arabic.

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