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My family’s Karaite-style Passover

Never mind the gefilte fish and brisket, the mass-produced, cardboard-like matzah and the kosher-for-Passover wine. Instead, Passover seder at my parents’ Karaite Jewish home includes a mouth-watering menu of barbecued lamb chops, crisp homemade matzah, sweet raisin juice and chewy almond cookies that stick to the roof of my mouth.

The yellowing, paper haggadah we use relies on biblical Hebrew verses that recount the Israelite Exodus from Egypt chanted in exotic, Oriental melodies. Ironically, the thin booklet was brought from my parents’ native Cairo during the community’s own exodus from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist regime, more than four decades ago. Because my sister and I were raised in a Reform temple in the far-flung desert town of Barstow, we eagerly chanted the Four Questions and searched tirelessly for the afikomen. It was only much later that we came to know that those rabbinic, or mainstream, Jewish traditions had been conspicuously absent from my parents’ Passover seder in Cairo.

Karaite Jews rely on the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, as the sole source of religious law, not accepting the Talmud and later rabbinic works as legally binding or divine. Karaites strive to interpret the Bible according to its “plain meaning” and place this duty on each person. Karaites traditionally remove their shoes before entering a prayer sanctuary and often fully prostrate themselves during prayer. Their siddur, or prayer book, consists mostly of biblical passages, including the Shema, but excludes those not biblically based, such as the Amidah.

Observant Karaites are permitted to mix poultry and dairy products. Many also believe it is OK to mix meat and dairy, contending the biblical prohibition refers only to boiling a young goat or sheep in its mother’s milk — not eating meat and milk together.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Today, my parents enjoy being active members of a mainstream Conservative congregation in South Orange County, where my father participates in Torah readings and sometimes acts as a gabbai on the bimah, or dais. Both say they feel comfortable with the Conservative congregation and consider some aspects of Karaism to be strict, such as the prohibition against menstruating women entering a synagogue and, among the very religious, cooking.

Despite my family’s integration, my parents have also managed to maintain some of their ancient Karaite customs. In addition to commemorating Passover the Karaite way, they gather occasionally at the home of a relative or friend for Sabbath prayers or a yahrzeit conducted while kneeling on clean, white sheets that serve as makeshift prayer rugs.

In America, there are an estimated 730 Karaite families, including a large community in San Francisco’s Bay Area and more than five dozen families in Southern California, according to the Karaite Jews of America. Israel has replaced Egypt as the modern center of Karaite Judaism and is home today to tens of thousands of Karaite Jews, many of whom have also adopted at least some rabbinical or mainstream Jewish customs.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Karaites trace their practices to the time of Moses, considering their Judaism to be the Judaism God commanded in the Torah.

But Karaism as a formal movement is widely believed to have crystallized in the late ninth century in the areas of Iraq and the land of Israel, with the merging of elements from various Jewish groups that mostly rejected the Talmud, according to Fred Astren, professor and chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University and a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge. “The majority of rabbinic commentators affirm that Karaites are Jews, and that they do not disagree on the fundamentals of Judaism or that the Torah was received by Moses on Mount Sinai, but they do differ in the way they observe the commandments. Where the differences in the commandments could be most pronounced [is] in the calendar and marriage,” Astren said.

Karaite holidays are fixed according to the new moon after the barley in Israel reaches a stage of ripeness, as was done in biblical times; as a result, they can fall on different days from the more commonly used Jewish calendar.

“If you are eating when other Jews are fasting, and fasting when other Jews are eating, that’s pretty strong stuff,” Astren said. Today, however, most Karaites in America (and an increasing number in Israel) follow the pre-calculated calendar used by mainstream Jews.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Sephardic rabbis have long accepted intermarriage with Karaites. Central Eastern European rabbis traditionally have not, since Karaites did not use a get, or divorce document, in the Middle Ages, though they tended not to get divorced, Astren said. Later, when they did use divorce documents, he added, they were not according to rabbinic halachah.

While living in Israel from 2005 to 2009, I learned that intermarriage between Karaites and rabbinic Jews is common there, as it is here in America. (However, I was told by an Israeli scholar that a Karaite who marries a rabbinic Jew under a mainstream Orthodox rabbi in Israel is required to accept the Oral Law, just as a mixed couple who marries under a Karaite rabbi is required to study and accept the Karaite way.)

Although my older sister and I don’t really practice Karaism, we certainly feel part of this warm and wonderful community that has maintained some of their ancient traditions, teachings and values. My sister married a man of Egyptian Karaite descent, and today their loquacious 2-year-old son chants the Shema in both Karaite and Ashkenazic tunes.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Karaite Judaism was once considered a serious rival to rabbinic Judaism, inspiring intellectual attacks from great rabbinic minds, such as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides. I find it remarkable that Karaism, particularly in Israel and in the San Francisco Bay Area, has endured in some form and is alive today. Yet, it’s strange and a bit sad to think that despite efforts to revitalize the movement both in Israel and America, many of the Karaite ways are being lost with my generation.

Before my mother left Egypt in 1967, Passover cleaning in their modest Cairo apartment started up to a month in advance and involved rigorously scrubbing their walls, floors and doors with soap and water. If someone mistakenly entered an already koshered room with forbidden food, they would — to my mother’s dismay — have to scrub down the entire room again.

Her predominantly Jewish school, known as the Sybil, which was badly damaged after it was set on fire in the 1950s, would close its doors during the entire week of Passover, she said.

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