Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 5.47.51 PMBy Marcia and Jan Chaiken

Around the time that most of Mexico is observing Semana Santa, the holy week leading up to Easter, the Jewish population of Mexico (over 60,000 people in 2010) is celebrating Passover, a joyous eight days on the Jewish calendar. Passover is the celebration of release of the Israelite nation from enslaved captivity in Egypt over 3000 years ago.

While the event is ancient, the experience of slavery shaped core values in Judaism, such as a mandate to free captives, held firmly until the present day. Jews are commanded to tell the Passover story to their children and discuss the implications every year. Throughout the world, throughout Mexico, including in Huatulco, Jewish families and friends gather around the dinner table to retell and describe the experience of slavery and the details of the exodus from Egypt to even the littlest child who is too young to speak.

Just as the Israelites needed to prepare hastily to leave Egypt when emancipation was announced, preparations for Passover are equally frenetic. Just as the fleeing Israelites quickly baked unleavened breads called matzoh, massive amounts of rapidly baked matzoh are prepared by individual families or commercial specialized bakeries, in Mexico, most of the bakeries authorized to sell Passover matzoh are in Mexico City.

All products containing leavening are cleaned out of Jewish homes. Jews also observe a prohibition against using seven grains that were not available after the Israelites left Egypt, so homes are scrupulously washed and swept to insure that not a single grain of the banned varieties (chumetz) remains. And, as if re-enacting leaving home in haste without essential household items, dishes and cookware used all year are packed away and replaced with items used only for Passover.

Once all is pristine, hours of cooking take place to serve during the nights of retelling the story of the exodus, with plenty of leftovers for the remaining days of Passover. Traditional dishes are a variety of salads, hard-boiled eggs, a fish course, chicken soup with matzoh balls, beef brisket baked with onions, potatoes, carrots and dried fruit, chickens stuffed with matzoh farfel (small pieces of matzoh mixed with eggs and spices), and flourless, unleavened cakes made light and fluffy with beaten egg whites.

Special symbolic foods are also prepared and placed on a special plate for enhancing the telling of the story of the exodus. Grated horseradish provides a taste of the bitterness of slavery; salt water, a reminder of the tears that were shed in Egypt when newborn babies were taken forcibly from their parents and boy babies killed. A mix of chopped nuts and fruits (charoset) resembles the clay that the Israelite slaves were forced to use to construct buildings in Egypt. A roasted egg represents the sacrifices that the Israelites offered in worship. And parsley or another green vegetable is the symbol of spring and hope.

A special cup of wine is placed in the middle of the table for the prophet Elijah. And three sheets of matzoh are placed on the dinner table in a special cover.

Given the intensity of the preparations required, some families prefer to spend Passover at hotels where all the necessary tasks have been carried out by staff under the supervision of rabbis. Mexican resorts are favorite destinations for Passover. Hotels that provide all the needed cleaning and cooking may be found in Acapulco, Cancun, Ixtapa, and coastal Quintana Roo.

Once the preparations are complete the family is ready to join together to tell the central story. For thousands of years the recounting has been carried out in a set order; in Hebrew the word “order” is seder. This year, Jews have one seder after sundown on Friday, April 6, and a second seder the next night. Many Christian authorities assert that the last supper of Jesus was a Passover seder – which helps explain why Easter and Passover occur around the same time on the calendar and why in modern times many Christians are interested in experiencing this meal.

Although the seder lasts until almost midnight or later, even the youngest children usually stay wide awake entranced with the story-telling, the many songs, and their special part – asking questions about why the traditional foods are being eaten and why people lean during the seder (in Egypt slaves had to stand and serve – those who were being served had the custom of reclining). Children are also quite taken with the tradition of reducing the wine, in their case grape juice, in their glass drop by drop as the story of the plagues suffered by the Egyptians is retold – as a reminder that suffering by anyone, even those who hold us captive, diminishes everyone’s joy. And a special part of the matzoh set aside to be used as the last bite of the meal (the afikomen) is mischievously misplaced by the children, who are encouraged to bring it back in return for a gift.

Passover has been celebrated in this fashion in Mexico since the first Jews arrived with other early Spanish settlers. Many of the rites had to be hidden during the inquisition, since Jewish practices resulted in a Church-imposed death penalty. Today, especially in Mexico City, thousands of seders are taking place. If you would like to participate in a seder, you should know you will be cordially welcomed, since every seder includes the announcement, “All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat.” Enjoy those matzoh balls!