Sunday, April 10, 2011

For Tunisian Jews it's Back to Basics on Seder Night

I'm back to Tunisia, this week for a Seder custom that is truly back to basics. Say the word Seder and most of us immediately associate it with a beautifully turned out table, including masterful pieces of Judaica – the seder plate, Elijah's cup, the Seder leader's Kiddush cup, a finely embroidered afikomen cover, not to mention beautiful china and cutlery.

Say the word Seder to a Jew of Tunisian descent and you get a description of pure home-made fun. To begin with, there is no table. Everyone sits on the floor. As my good friend's granddaughter explained: “we sit on thin mattresses laid out on the floor in the shape of a square.” I must have grimaced at the thought of getting up after sitting on the floor for so long, because she quickly added: “we make sure to have sofas nearby for older family members.” A seder plate? Think again. Tunisians use a large reed basket in which they place eggs (according to the number of children in the family), a leg of lamb for the shank bone, charoset, romaine lettuce for bitter herbs and shmura matzot wrapped in a large cloth napkin. Once the contents are neatly packed inside, the basket is covered with a large, beautiful cloth.

I am certain that a classroom model seder like this would be lots of fun. There's no doubt in my mind that the reed basket symbolizes baby Moses floating down the Nile – so make sure you point that out as well. Combine this with the Passover play custom that so many Sephardic Jews have adopted. It's about as playful as you can get. You may remember that I brought it up when I first started this blog over two years ago. A member of the family discreetly leaves the table before the seder begins, dresses up to look like one of the Children of Israel (make sure to include a walking stick) and sneaks out of the house. Just as the reading of the Haggadah is about to begin s/he knocks on the front door and the play begins. The head of the house gets up, saying: “Who could that be?” Opening the door, he sees a stranger. “Who are you?” he asks. “I am one of the Children of Israel.” “Where are you coming from?” continues the Seder leader. “From Egypt,” answers the stranger. “But how can that be? Aren't you a slave?” asks the Seder leader. “I was,” answers the stranger, continuing with a proud smile. “Now I am a free man.” “Where are you going?” continues the Seder leader. “To Jerusalem,” answers the stranger. “Then you must join us,” insists the Seder leader, “and tell us what it was like being a slave in Egypt.”

Sitting on the floor to eat a meal seems like a logical part of a slave's life in ancient Egypt. Let everyone take a turn and describe the slavery experience. You'll find that your students have some pretty keen insights.

Chag Sameach...Tami

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