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Ethnic Israel
Sen. Joe Lieberman and Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger at Mimouna
by Judy Lash Balint
April 20, 2006

Call it a return to roots or a belated awakening of interest in our ethnic traditions---whatever. In recent years the Mimouna celebration has become one of Israel's most popular festivities.

While its origins are murky--some say it's to mark the passing of the father of the revered 12th century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) who died right after the conclusion of Passover--Moroccan Jews have used the occasion to throw open their homes for neighborhood parties to feast on freshly-made traditional pastries (muflettot) let loose and toast the end of Passover.

Here in Israel, where tens of thousands of Moroccan Jews settled during the turbulent 1950s and 60s, the parties have been elevated to national status and expanded to parks and synagogues. The Mimouna celebrations are a mandatory stop for politicians of all stripes.

Last night in Jerusalem, Mimouna kicked off in grand style at the Great Synagogue, where hundreds of celebrants crowded into the foyer to snap up food and wine and listen to a few speeches before settling in to a concert of Andalusian music.

The first politician to arrive was Shimon Peres, currently acting Speaker of the Knesset. Clad in a pale blue silk kippa and surrounded by body guards, Peres was given a polite welcome as he made his way through the crowd. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar made a grand entrance in his traditional black and gold robes and took his place next to Peres. Amar (whose wife and son were recently convicted of beating up a potential suitor of an Amar daughter) was soon followed by the distinguished looking Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger (who allegedly lied to investigators looking into charges of fraud and breach of trust). Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, widely considered to be one of the most ineffectual mayors in the city's history, took his place next to the bearded religious leaders.

Looking ever so slightly out of place was a grinning, clean-shaven US Senator Joe Lieberman, accompanied by two burly American security guards. Seems that Lieberman had got word that the press would be out in force for the event and decided to show up to be photographed rubbing shoulders with some exotic looking rabbis while wearing a white knitted kippa. [Go to http://flickr.com/photos/jerusalemdiaries/ for photos of the occasion]

Peres' message was, "We are all Moroccans." With his distinctive Polish accent, that's a little bit of a stretch. Rabbi Amar announced that God will protect our soldiers, and Rabbi Metzger and Mayor Lupolianski delivered short greetings.

Sen. Lieberman told the crowd that Mimouna holds a special place in his heart since his grandson was born in Afula last year on Mimouna. The senator from Connecticut went on to "declare in the name of the US Congress and the President of the United States, that we stand together with the people of Israel yesterday, today and tomorrow."

None of the dignitaries stuck around for the lively free concert given by the Andalusian Orchestra. I didn't see anyone famous in the line at Berman's bakery later that night, either. Just a few hundred hungry-for-chametz Jerusalemites grabbing every last roll that emerged warm from the ovens of the bakery in Givat Shaul. A few blocks away, the lines at Angels stretched out of the store, down the stairs and onto the street as the welcome smell of fresh-baked bread wafted into the night.

During the day, the Mimouna festivities continue with large gatherings in parks in every city in the country. The largest crowd is expected in the southern town of Netivot, home to the tomb of the Baba Sali, a revered Moroccan kabbalist rabbi.

It's a welcome break before the solemn days of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for the Fallen) descend upon us in the next few weeks.

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