April 8, 2004
My mom yells at me: "Hurry up, it is almost Pesach and we haven't done anything yet."
The memory goes back several years, when I was a teenager living with my parents and brother in our three-story building in western Tehran.
I walk toward the stove, where a big pot of water boils. My mother puts dishes and utensils in my hand, and one by one I dunk them into the boiling water for a few seconds.
Rinsing and kashering utensils, hag'ala, is a tradition my mom likes to do every year before Passover, although we are not a particularly religious family. As a matter of fact, there are many Persian Jewish families in Tehran who, though not especially religious, keep Orthodox traditions.
"It is much easier than when I was a child," my mother says, scolding me for my obvious lack of enthusiasm. "Then, we had to put a big cauldron in the yard and make a fire by hand. We would heat up small rocks and throw them into the water to make it boil."
Hag'ala and the process of scrubbing and cleaning the home of all chametz is only part hard work we do before a Persian Passover. We also make cookies and roast nuts at home, since we either have guests or we are supposed to visit our Jewish friends and relatives at their homes every single day of the eight-day holiday. Usually we set a specific date so others can come visit us on that day of Passover. This is not a tradition from Jewish history; it comes to us from Iranian culture. Iranians pay visits to each other during the Persian New Year as a sign of respect, a pious deed, and Jews adopted it for Passover.
"You are so slow," my mom shouts. "I do not know how you will be able to do all these at your own home when you get married!"
When I lived in Iran I couldn't imagine a day not living there or marrying in another country.
My long trip to the United States brought me into contact with other Jewish cultures. Learning different Jewish practices was both interesting and sometimes alien.
My first encounter with non-Persian Jews came during my six-month stop in Vienna on my way out of Iran. Orthodox Austrian rabbis with beards, payes and black clothes reminded me of the images I had seen in books and films about Ashkenazi Jews.
In America, surprisingly enough, I learned that there are different branches of Judaism, something I never knew existed before. I always used to proudly tell my Muslim friends in Iran: "Judaism is all the same among us. Jews' beliefs are all the same; we are not like Muslims and Christians, who have many different branches with different controversial ideas."
I was stunned to learn that rice is considered chametz by Ashkenazi Jews; Persians cannot live without rice.
Time has flown by, and already three years have passed since I left my homeland.
So much has happened to me in these years. I am married and live in my own home.
The interim days of Passover are here, and my mother's angry words ring in my mind.
Suddenly, I miss my mother so much. I pick up the phone and dial the long string of numbers from a prepaid phone card. After a few minutes I hear my mother's voice on the other side.
I ask her what she is doing and she says: "I am preparing for mo'ed. You know it is so hard, cleaning, scrubbing, doing hag'ala, going to the busy butcher shop, kashering and salting meat and chicken, making cookies, roasting nuts."
"Mom," I tell her. "Here you don't feel the hard work of Passover at all. Every thing is ready-made. Even cakes and pastries, which taste exactly the same as ordinary ones are in markets for Pesach. You can even buy kosher-for-Passover milk here. Isn't it funny?"
"Here I don't have to worry about being slow about getting prepared for Pesach," I tell her. "There is nothing much to do here for Pesach."
At that moment I hesitate, and the words choke in my throat: "But you know what, Mom? I miss it. This is not the Pesach I am familiar with. Without all that hard work and with so much abundance, this doesn't feel like Pesach at all."
My final words to her are my saddest.
"And by the way," I say. "Here there are no daily guests, nobody visits us here at home." Â
Mojdeh Sionit is a contributing writer for The Journal.