The iconic powder-blue building of the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in Fort, Mumbai, is currently wrapped in plastic. Renovations are underway and much of the synagogue is inaccessible, but that has not put a dampener on the annual seder feast.

On March 30 – the first night of Passover – fairy lights decorated a tiny room packed with three long tables, which seat about 20 people each. At the head of one of the tables sat Solomon Sopher, chairman of Sir Jacob Sassoon Synagogues and Allied Trusts, and leader of the Iraqi Jewish community in India. Sopher has been organising seder feasts such as these at the synagogue for several years, as have members of synagogues across Thane, Pune, Alibaug, Revdanda and so on. It is a tradition that has helped many Iraqi Jews and Bene Israelis living in and around Mumbai feel part of a community which is dwindling in numbers.

Passover is observed every year by Jews worldwide on the 15th day of Nisan, the first month in the Jewish calendar. The eight-day observance commemorates the exodus of the Israelites, led by their prophet Moses, from Egypt, where they had been enslaved by the Pharaoh. Since they are believed to have left for the Promised Land in a hurry, it is said the Israelites could not afford to wait for the bread to rise. This is why unleavened bread, or matza, is of the utmost significance during the seder, or feast, held on the first day of Passover.

Serving as a reminder

At the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, most of the congregation had a kippah pinned to their hair, although there were some who had opted to use a dupatta instead. Some women in saris sported the typical Maharashtrian gold and green bangles – something the Bene Israelis Jews have adopted as their own too. Apart from the clothes, though, there are few changes made to the traditional seder served at the synagogue or the Bene Israeli and Iraqi Jewish homes in Mumbai.

The tables were bedecked with trays of bitter herbs such as celery and lettuce leaves, boiled eggs, sweet wine imported from Israel, charoset (a handmade date spread made with a combination of boiled dates and walnut powder), a lamb shank, and matza.

“These dishes absolutely have to be part of the feast,” said Ezra Moses, a prominent member of the Thane Jewish community. “It’s what the Jews took with them during their exodus from Egypt after they were relieved from the bondage of slavery.” According to Sopher, the bitter herbs serve as a reminder of the struggle of their forefathers and how they were tortured during their lifetime of bondage. The boiled eggs signify life after death and the lamb shank symbolises the sacrificial goat.

A file picture of men preparing matzo. Photo credit: Pal Pillai/AFP

A sequence was followed during the celebrations – the food was eaten only once it had been blessed and specific prayers said. Everyone had a copy of the Haggadah, the text that offers the basis of the Passover seder. They took turns to read aloud, both the original in Hebrew as well as the translations in English. In between reading the texts – using a magnifying glass – Sopher explained in his booming voice the significance of Passover (or Pesach) to the congregation.

The idea was to make sure the next generation continues to remember and honour the past. One of the rituals included the youngest member of the congregation enacting a scene right out of the fateful night of the Exodus. A piece of matza was tied to his person with a white cloth. Sent out of the room, Sopher answered his knock on the door by asking him a series of questions. The rest of the night was dedicated to breaking bread together and honouring the suffering of their ancestors.

Although some of the matza served at the synagogue had been imported from Israel, the unleavened bread was also made in large numbers in a makeshift tent behind the Magen David synagogue in Byculla. This was something the Iraqi Jewish community had been organising for the past 100 years.

“Some people make their own matza bread at home, but ours are the only traditionally-accepted matza,” said Sopher. “They’re made by hand in under 18 minutes with no salt, no baking powder or any other leavening agent. We don’t use machines like some of them do in Israel.”

Ancient rules

During Passover leavened food is forbidden. No outside food, no milk, no bread, no pulses are allowed into Sopher’s home. “Anything that puffs up when you place it in water is not supposed to be eaten, so Ashkanazi Jews avoid rice too,” said Sopher.

Sion resident Hannah Pezarkar has been catering Bene Israeli events for the past 25 years. Known fondly as Mun-Mun within the community, she spent days before the festival cleaning the house thoroughly. On the first night of Passover, Pezarkar was at home, sharing the seder quietly with her husband. During the remaining days, the Pezarkars will avoid going out and won’t invite people home either.

Her kitchen will witness changes too. Red chillies, pulses, lentils, grains like jawar, bajri, nachni, wheat, bread, paneer are left out of her recipes during Passover. No dry masalas are used, and garam masala is replaced with a combination of condiments that are freshly ground. A green masala – varying combinations of fresh ingredients such as white onion, ginger, garlic, green chillies, fresh tamarind, coconut, cumin, fennel seeds, salt and lime ground together – becomes the Passover staple and adds flavour to everything from meat dishes to fish, eggs, or even potatoes.

If turmeric is to be used in a recipe, the dried powder is replaced with fresh turmeric. Since nothing fermented is allowed, Pezarkar makes dosas with rice flour for breakfast and because milk is to be avoided, their cup of chai is replaced with a concoction of ginger and lemongrass seeped in boiled water.

“On the first day, we are supposed to slaughter a lamb, gather the blood and smear it on the posts of Jewish homes [traditionally meant to mark the homes of the Israelites from those of the Egyptians],” said Moses. “Of course, some orthodox people continue to follow this, but nowadays many of us put a bit of the lamb’s blood on our palm and leave an imprint on an A4-sized sheet of paper. We put up this piece of paper outside our homes rather than smear the doorpost with blood.”

The seventh and eighth days hold great significance too. On April 7, the eighth day of Passover, a special feast will be held again. This time it will be to relish all that has been forbidden through the week.