September 20, 2019

The Magic of Mimouna

Go back a few centuries and picture yourself on a small street in a Jewish neighborhood in Casablanca, Morocco, as the sun is starting to set.

You’ve just finished the late afternoon prayers on the last day of Passover, and as you head home, you see Arab grocers setting up shop and laying out butter, milk, honey and, most importantly, flour and yeast. They are doing what their ancestors did for generations: helping the Jews of Morocco prepare for the ancient tradition of Mimouna, a night when the Jews celebrated the end of Passover by opening the doors of their homes to their neighborhood.

After sundown, Jewish men would rush to gather all the supplies — either by purchasing them or receiving them as gestures of good will from local Arabs — and bring them home, where the women would prepare elaborate sweet tables.

These tables were laden with delicacies, but the star of the show was a thin, mouthwatering Moroccan crepe called the moufleta, which you would roll up with soft butter and honey. Please trust me when I tell you that to this day, few things in life are as perfect as a couple of hot, sweet, tender moufletas — right after you’ve come off a strict eight-day diet of dry matzos.

Moufletas were not the only sweet things floating in the Arabian moonlight on the night of Mimouna. According to folklore, Mimouna was known as the ideal night to meet your sweetheart. It was a night when doors and hearts were open, and young men and women, dressed in their finest, would move and mingle like butterflies from one party and sweet table to another. (I know, it sounds a lot more romantic than speed dating.)

The free-flowing and joyful atmosphere that made you feel the promise of finding love was not a coincidence. The night of Mimouna was all about bringing good fortune into your life. After eight days of prohibitions, Mimouna was the night you broke free, the night anything was possible.

For the Jews of Morocco, Mimouna was the Jewish holiday that celebrated optimism.

All night long, people would give the same greeting over and over again: “Terbach,” an Arab word that roughly means, “May you win and be fortunate.”

The word “mimouna” itself combines the Hebrew/Aramaic root “mammon,” which means riches, with the Hebrew word “emunah,” which means faith. Have faith in your good fortune: If Mimouna ever becomes a big deal in California, I bet the California Lottery would salivate to sponsor Mimouna parties.

After eight days of prohibitions, Mimouna was the night you broke free, the night anything was possible.

As many of you know, the mainstreaming of Mimouna has already happened in Israel. The tradition has morphed from magical nights among neighbors to loud daytime barbecues in public parks, where politicians of all stripes come to sell their wares. I’m guessing the politicians want in on the good Mimouna vibes, which might explain why they’ve made it a national holiday.

From what I hear, the rabbis in Israel also got involved. They were afraid that people would rush out to buy their moufleta ingredients before the holiday was officially over, so they nudged Mimouna into the bright sun of the next day.

These rabbis obviously have no feel for romance — Mimouna is for the moon, not the sun. My memories of Mimouna nights in Casablanca can never mesh with the notion of an afternoon barbecue in a public park. Even though I was only a child, I recall feeling this mysterious, nighttime magic in the air. Even the nervous rush after sundown to gather the goods and prepare the sweet tables were part of the excitement.

But the magic of Mimouna was not just the sweet tables and the Arabian nights. There was something else.

When I talk to Sephardic Jews today who spent a big part of their lives in Morocco, they go on and on about Mimouna. It’s like they’re talking about an ex-girlfriend they were madly in love with and wish they had married. There’s a sense of nostalgia, yes, but also of loss — a loss of what that one night represented.

It’s true that they have tried to take Mimouna with them. In Montreal, where I grew up and where there is a large Moroccan Jewish community, people drive to fancy Mimouna parties all over town until the early morning hours. Even here in Los Angeles, there are Mimouna parties sprinkled all over the area, especially in Moroccan Jewish homes.

But everyone knows there’s something missing. You could serve the world’s greatest moufletas (my mother’s), wear a gold-laced caftan and have a live Middle Eastern band, and there would still be something missing.

It’s the neighborhood.

Mimouna represented the love and intimacy of a neighborhood. There’s nothing like popping in to see 10, 20, 30 different neighbors on the same night, most of whom you see all the time — especially when you know your great-great-great-grandparents probably did the same thing in the same place.

According to tradition, Mimouna itself came out of a neighborhood need. Because many Jewish families in Morocco each had their own Passover customs, Passover week was the one time of the year when families would usually not eat in each other’s homes.

Mimouna was a way for the neighborhood to dramatically make up for this week of limited hospitality — a night when things got back to normal, and everyone invited everyone.

If Passover was the holiday that drew you in — toward yourself, your home, your family — Mimouna was the holiday that blew you away, back to the neighbors, your friends, your freedom, your dreams, maybe even your future love.

Many years later, I find myself living again in a Jewish neighborhood, and I can’t help wondering if my moving here had something to do with my memories of another neighborhood.

Especially on that one magical night of the year, when the moufletas were hot, the doors were open and everything was possible.

This story originally appeared in the April 6, 2007, edition of the Jewish Journal.