Here in the West, the cold march of winter seems never-ending. The calendar predicts the arrival of Passover but whether it comes on the arms of a mild spring wind or accompanied by the last gust of a tempest is up to Hashem. In the Iran of my youth, Passover came trumpeted by flocks of birds and perfumed by the jewels of the orchard and garden. It was easy to believe in the divine; the fruits of the Bible were all around.
I will not cry at Passover; I do not cry at Rosh Hashanah or at any of our Jewish milestones, but each celebration reminds me of the home I left behind when I escaped from Iran at age 17. I sometimes see the same melancholy touch the eyes of my aged father-in-law, who remembers his childhood in Czechoslovakia, as well as the happy home he knew when his wife still lived and his children were small.
Today in Montreal, I celebrate Passover in the modern way, cleaning my home with the latest in technology, buying the essentials flown in from around the world. As the days get longer, I will anxiously check the trees in my garden, and examine the earth for signs of tulip bulbs and other early blooming flowers. But nothing the earth or sky can offer me can replace the magic I remember from my loving home in Shiraz – city of roses and mosaics, poetry and blooms.
In Iran, preparations for the Passover week began just after Purim, when my whole family would get involved. Floors were scrubbed, wool carpets decorated with flowers and intricate patterns were beaten on the verandah and hung out to air. The great Passover cooking pots were dragged down from the attic and the enormous preparation of the Passover dishes begun.
My father – Baba – would rent an enormous gas stove and install it in the huge garden surrounding our home, and once the huge pots were boiled and sterilized to his satisfaction, each individual Passover piece of cutlery, each plate and pot was boiled three different times in turn, even though everything had been sterilized before being packed the previous year.
When I was a child, Baba would go with his father, my Grandfather – Baba Bozorg – to the community stove in the ghetto district, where the more religious Jews prepared their own round matzos by hand. An old bakery was transformed into the community oven after the observant Jews had scrubbed and cleansed it. We were proud that Baba was involved in this matter, and that he was responsible for making the unleavened bread for his extended family. It confirmed to all that he was an expert, responsible and pious, a man who knew the laws of kashrut.
Passover in Iran was a family celebration as it is in the West, but it combined the happy explosion of gifts that we see in a North American celebration of Chanukah. In America and Canada, Chanukah has become, for many, a time to exchange gifts, the result of the holiday’s proximity to Christmas – today a major opportunity for stores to celebrate the “spirit of giving.” In Iran, Passover chased or preceded the Iranian New Year Norooz, when life was reborn and the fields began to grow. Even the Shah and then the Ayatollah submitted to the primal need to celebrate birth, growth and rebirth.
While Chanukah was a quiet affair of family lights and prayers to commemorate the “miracle that happened there,” Passover was a riot of drinking and story telling, family and laughter. We remembered the Exodus that our ancestors undertook from a country rather close by and we looked forward to the day that we would also know that joy. It never occurred to me that one day in the near future, I would celebrate far away from my family, eating with strangers, and remembering my lost home.
As in all Jewish homes around the world, we used a feather and candle to seek out any crumbs that had escaped the washing and scrubbing and boiling and scraping. Baba Bozorg would review each inch of our home, peering into corners and whispering to himself. I used to wonder if the candle and feather would spontaneously combust if he expressed dissatisfaction over the work we had done.
In my mind’s eye, I would imagine his surprised expression as the flames flew around our home, over the flat part of the roof and into the pitched part that formed the attic, but every year we proved that we had properly honored the tradition.
In the tradition of the Middle East, we ate rice during the holiday but for Iranian Jews in Shiraz, lentils and chickpeas were forbidden. The nuts we ate as part of our staple diet had been roasted at home, over that great gas stove in the garden, rather than purchased at the market. Roasting the nuts was a huge affair. First they were washed thoroughly, three times, and only then roasted. Nobody would let me near the preparation of the nuts. Everyone knew that if I participated, for each roasted nut, I would eat another four. My parents had lovingly prepared the wine we drank at the Seder, and if they quarreled as they stamped the grapes and bottled the wine, the sweetness of the wine suggested that their differences were not deep.
The Seder was celebrated at my grandmother’s home, where over fifty people would gather for the ritual. We shared the meal in the Iranian style. Over the brilliant, patterned carpet, we placed the Passover sofreh or tablecloth, upon which were laid the different plates. The tablecloth was made of the best cotton, printed with gorgeous flowers and fruit. All the children received new clothes, and our grandparents would give us gifts of crisp new bills. The amount of money was minimal – it had to be in such a large clan – but the excitement of receiving any money was thrilling.
The Passover dishes were so beautiful to me. I often wondered why we did not use them all year round and substitute simpler patterns for the week of the holiday. Some of the dishes were illustrated with styles of mosaics so popular in synagogues and mosques, while others sported fantastical flowers and fruit. To the eyes of a child, each told a different story; to the eyes of a teenager, they were markers of a more innocent time when each pattern told of a sweeter childhood. In my memory, each plate is a treasure made precious by familiarity and ritual. Each Passover, I feel nostalgic for these dishes.
The sofreh cushions were placed around to be used by the older family members. The cushions were made of soft carpet cloth and woven out of wool. Two feet by one, they were soft and comfortable. The rest of the family sat on the carpet, balancing plates and glasses. For me, the best part of the meal was the charoset, which we made in the Persian style. Sweet wine was mixed with a variety of raw nuts and fruit, with cinnamon and cardamom and other spices that we ground at home; to this day, nothing can match the velvety texture of the dish.
On the last day of Passover, my father would rent an orchard and we would go and eat a picnic and barbeque the meat. This was a custom followed by many Jews and non-Jews alike. We would mark the end of the holiday, while Moslems, Christians and Baha’i would commemorate Norooz – the New Year and the arrival of spring celebrated on the spring equinox.
The orchards were full of new fruit, but the selection depended on the actual time of the year. Passover shifted dates according to the calendar. Sometimes we plucked from the trees sour plums that made our mouths pucker and tickled our tongues, sometimes cherries and green almonds. However, no matter when the holidays fell, we celebrated the last day of Passover in an orchard heavy with apple blossom and orange blossom. No perfume, no artificial display can ever match the sweetness, the fullness of those scents.
In the Iran of my youth, it was so easy to believe in the divine. Scent, the most potent and evocative of all senses, was fresh and heavy in the air. Orange and cherry blossoms hung in the air. Rose buds were beginning to show forth, with their promise of heavy sweetness tickling my nose. Bright yellow Chinese daffodils would be in bloom and everywhere was the sound of life and laughter. This was the Iran of my youth.
Scholars tell us that the word “Pesach” literally means “to pass over.” Some say it has other meanings, such as “to have compassion.” They argue over whether Hashem actually needed to “pass over” the houses of the Israelites in Egypt or whether it is dignified to assume that Hashem needed a reminder of which houses to avoid. I am afraid that in the Iran of my childhood, these arguments were irrelevant. Despite the terror that could mark my community, I was sheltered by love and tradition. Although my unfiltered exuberance eventually made me a target for extremists and resulted in my flight across the desert, while I was in Iran with my family, I was made free through the rituals we celebrated. My parents and extended family choose to live as observant Jews; they choose to honor their heritage.
When I came to Canada after a perilous and tortuous journey, I spent my first Seder with other Iranians like myself – people who had fled their country for a freer, better life. The Jewish community offered us food to support us through our first Passover. The square, boxed matzo, the purple-tinted horseradish maror and gefilte fish startled me. I longed for the brilliant dishes in my grandmother’s home.
In my home today, I prepare the Seders for my Iranian-European-Canadian family. I will tell my husband and two sons about the orchards of my childhood, the scent of the flowers, the glorious sunsets that crimsoned the sky and lightened to my heart. Indeed, I even wrote a book, Fleeing the Hijab, a Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran to prepare a legacy for my children, to commemorate the life we once knew in Shiraz. But Passover is a time for rebirth, for delight in the spring, for joy in the small buds cautiously peeking from the earth, from the vines and the trees. It is a time for compassion, for being full of mercy, for helping those poor of pocket and empty of spirit.
My father-in-law looks at me and his eyes are soft. We smile over the gefilte fish and over the Iranian-style charoset. Some of our traditions are different but in our hearts we share the same joys and grief. I look to my two teenaged boys, nearly men now and so tall and strong. I pray that they will always value their freedom, that terror will “pass over” them and that all their memories will be sweet.
Dr. Sima Goel is the author of Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran.
This Op-Ed/Analysis is the author’s personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of JerusalemOnline.com.