April 4, 2012
My family’s Karaite-style Passover
Never mind the gefilte fish and brisket, the mass-produced, cardboard-like matzah and the kosher-for-Passover wine. Instead, Passover seder at my parents’ Karaite Jewish home includes a mouth-watering menu of barbecued lamb chops, crisp homemade matzah, sweet raisin juice and chewy almond cookies that stick to the roof of my mouth.
The yellowing, paper haggadah we use relies on biblical Hebrew verses that recount the Israelite Exodus from Egypt chanted in exotic, Oriental melodies. Ironically, the thin booklet was brought from my parents’ native Cairo during the community’s own exodus from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist regime, more than four decades ago. Because my sister and I were raised in a Reform temple in the far-flung desert town of Barstow, we eagerly chanted the Four Questions and searched tirelessly for the afikomen. It was only much later that we came to know that those rabbinic, or mainstream, Jewish traditions had been conspicuously absent from my parents’ Passover seder in Cairo.
Karaite Jews rely on the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, as the sole source of religious law, not accepting the Talmud and later rabbinic works as legally binding or divine. Karaites strive to interpret the Bible according to its “plain meaning” and place this duty on each person. Karaites traditionally remove their shoes before entering a prayer sanctuary and often fully prostrate themselves during prayer. Their siddur, or prayer book, consists mostly of biblical passages, including the Shema, but excludes those not biblically based, such as the Amidah.
Observant Karaites are permitted to mix poultry and dairy products. Many also believe it is OK to mix meat and dairy, contending the biblical prohibition refers only to boiling a young goat or sheep in its mother’s milk — not eating meat and milk together.
Today, my parents enjoy being active members of a mainstream Conservative congregation in South Orange County, where my father participates in Torah readings and sometimes acts as a gabbai on the bimah, or dais. Both say they feel comfortable with the Conservative congregation and consider some aspects of Karaism to be strict, such as the prohibition against menstruating women entering a synagogue and, among the very religious, cooking.
Despite my family’s integration, my parents have also managed to maintain some of their ancient Karaite customs. In addition to commemorating Passover the Karaite way, they gather occasionally at the home of a relative or friend for Sabbath prayers or a yahrzeit conducted while kneeling on clean, white sheets that serve as makeshift prayer rugs.
In America, there are an estimated 730 Karaite families, including a large community in San Francisco’s Bay Area and more than five dozen families in Southern California, according to the Karaite Jews of America. Israel has replaced Egypt as the modern center of Karaite Judaism and is home today to tens of thousands of Karaite Jews, many of whom have also adopted at least some rabbinical or mainstream Jewish customs.
Karaites trace their practices to the time of Moses, considering their Judaism to be the Judaism God commanded in the Torah.
But Karaism as a formal movement is widely believed to have crystallized in the late ninth century in the areas of Iraq and the land of Israel, with the merging of elements from various Jewish groups that mostly rejected the Talmud, according to Fred Astren, professor and chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University and a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge. “The majority of rabbinic commentators affirm that Karaites are Jews, and that they do not disagree on the fundamentals of Judaism or that the Torah was received by Moses on Mount Sinai, but they do differ in the way they observe the commandments. Where the differences in the commandments could be most pronounced [is] in the calendar and marriage,” Astren said.
Karaite holidays are fixed according to the new moon after the barley in Israel reaches a stage of ripeness, as was done in biblical times; as a result, they can fall on different days from the more commonly used Jewish calendar.
“If you are eating when other Jews are fasting, and fasting when other Jews are eating, that’s pretty strong stuff,” Astren said. Today, however, most Karaites in America (and an increasing number in Israel) follow the pre-calculated calendar used by mainstream Jews.
Sephardic rabbis have long accepted intermarriage with Karaites. Central Eastern European rabbis traditionally have not, since Karaites did not use a get, or divorce document, in the Middle Ages, though they tended not to get divorced, Astren said. Later, when they did use divorce documents, he added, they were not according to rabbinic halachah.
While living in Israel from 2005 to 2009, I learned that intermarriage between Karaites and rabbinic Jews is common there, as it is here in America. (However, I was told by an Israeli scholar that a Karaite who marries a rabbinic Jew under a mainstream Orthodox rabbi in Israel is required to accept the Oral Law, just as a mixed couple who marries under a Karaite rabbi is required to study and accept the Karaite way.)
Although my older sister and I don’t really practice Karaism, we certainly feel part of this warm and wonderful community that has maintained some of their ancient traditions, teachings and values. My sister married a man of Egyptian Karaite descent, and today their loquacious 2-year-old son chants the Shema in both Karaite and Ashkenazic tunes.
Karaite Judaism was once considered a serious rival to rabbinic Judaism, inspiring intellectual attacks from great rabbinic minds, such as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides. I find it remarkable that Karaism, particularly in Israel and in the San Francisco Bay Area, has endured in some form and is alive today. Yet, it’s strange and a bit sad to think that despite efforts to revitalize the movement both in Israel and America, many of the Karaite ways are being lost with my generation.
Before my mother left Egypt in 1967, Passover cleaning in their modest Cairo apartment started up to a month in advance and involved rigorously scrubbing their walls, floors and doors with soap and water. If someone mistakenly entered an already koshered room with forbidden food, they would — to my mother’s dismay — have to scrub down the entire room again.
Her predominantly Jewish school, known as the Sybil, which was badly damaged after it was set on fire in the 1950s, would close its doors during the entire week of Passover, she said.
A lamb was always slaughtered, barbecued and a portion eaten for the Passover seder, with the rest donated to the poor who could not afford to buy meat for the occasion.
“The lamb was fresh there; they [would] slaughter it and cook it [in] the same few days,” my mother said. “It’s got a smell that’s unbelievable — out of this world — like kebab. We ate lamb once or twice a year.”
Acting Rabbi Joe Pessah of Karaite Jews of America recalled that in Cairo’s Karaite quarter, some would dip their hands in the slaughtered lamb’s blood and mark it on the doorposts of their homes.
The quarter also had its own Passover bakery, which would open once a year to make and sell homemade matzah that was, according to my parents, round, tasty and about “the size of a large pizza.”
Since my mother’s father was an amateur cantor, he used to go from house to house reciting the haggadah for other Karaite families. By the time he had returned home, around 11 p.m., it was so late that he had to wake up his seven children to perform his own seder.
“I loved the singing of Passover, the haggadah itself; I get goose bumps when I sing it and hear it,” my mother said. “It’s always nice to remember the old days. You always have fond memories, your family [being] together, all singing together, cleaning the house together.” The Karaite seder makes special mention of the protagonist Moses, who is referred to in the Bible as a redeemer and deliverer of the Israelites, in the recounting of the Exodus, Pessah said.
In addition to avoiding grains that can ferment with water and become chametz, Karaites also avoid certain other things that involve fermentation, such as wine, cheese, vinegar, chocolate and yogurt.
Dried beans are also prohibited, but some Karaites do eat rice. Instead of wine for the seder, my mother soaks seedless, purple raisins in water and squeezes the juice from them using cheesecloth or a food processor. It seems the cold, sweet concoction, which has to be drunk the same day, shoots straight into my veins, giving me an instant sugar rush.
My mother also makes her own flavorful, square matzah at home using unbleached flour (with no additives), water, salt, vegetable oil and often coriander that packs a punch — being careful that preparation time does not exceed 18 minutes, to prevent it from rising. (My father’s cousin, Remy Pessah of Mountain View, uses kosher-for-Passover matzah or cake meal instead of flour to ensure the wheat was harvested before the rainy season so that no fermentation has taken place.)
For maror, my mother whips up a tangy bitter-herbs salad that includes endive, anise, butter lettuce, lemon and salt. Compote made of dried figs, apricots, raisins and dates, which thrived in Egypt’s Mediterranean climate, is also a common Passover staple. The holiday’s pastries range from a fluffy sponge cake topped with homemade quince, apricot or coconut marmalade to light almond cookies dubbed “lozetto” that I find a tempting rival to the weighty store-bought macaroons.
The Karaite Passover is commemorated for seven rather than eight days, unless it starts on a Friday evening, as it will this year, in which case it is commemorated for eight.
While I was growing up in Barstow, we often celebrated Passover with members of our congregation “the American way,” with a rabbinic haggadah that included the Four Questions and the usual Passover songs, such as “Dayenu.”
However, in recent years, my parents have used the more concise all-Hebrew Karaite haggadah they used in Egypt and that their ancestors likely used generations ago. My parents’ mother tongue is Arabic, but because they rarely spoke Arabic to my sister and me growing up, we normally speak English when we’re all together for holidays, with some Arabic phrases mixed in. (My father, Albert, jokes that the Arabic comes out more “when we’re upset.”)
My father grew up in a secular, well-integrated Karaite household in Cairo, but the irony of having a Passover seder in Egypt was not lost on him, even at a young age. That was well before his father, a jeweler with a passion for poker, was imprisoned by Egyptian authorities in 1956 for being Jewish, and again in the mid-1960s.
“We were saying [during the Seder], ‘When are we going to go out?’ ” my father recalled. “It was in a joking way. It was very ironic. … One time, Papoo [his father] wasn’t very happy because I said that. He felt that Egypt was his country at this time.”
But that feeling, once shared by many Jews in Egypt, was also destined to change.
Dad was 26 years old when he left Cairo for the United States, via France, in 1961. Egyptian authorities told him then that he could never again return as an Egyptian citizen. Coming to America made the most sense in his mind, as his older sister, Claire, had been living here with her husband for several years, and he had no relatives in Israel.
My mother, at 21, and her oldest brother, Roger, were the first of the seven siblings in their family to leave the country, in February 1967. My mother had dreamed of leaving since she was a girl, she said, when she and her siblings were teased for being Jewish. Although my mother had several cousins who had gone to Israel, she and her family heard life was difficult there, so they joined relatives in New York instead. Four months after leaving Cairo, the Six-Day War between several Arab countries and Israel broke out. My mother’s youngest brother, Victor, and her two sisters’ husbands were among the Jews rounded up by Egyptian authorities and imprisoned for up to three nerve-racking years.
Today, my mother is proud of her Karaite Jewish heritage and would probably attend a Karaite synagogue if she could (the only one in California is near San Francisco, in Daly City). Yet, at the same time, she says she doesn’t feel one way of practicing Judaism is better than another.
“I just want to be a Jew, believing in God and praying to God,” she said. “I feel Jews are one.”
Karaite-style Passover recipes from Amy Gazzar and Remy Pessah.
NOTE: To make sure that dough does not rise, matzah should be put in the oven within 10 minutes of adding water.
Preheat oven to 400 F.
KARAITE MATZAH USING MATZAH CAKE MEAL
NOTE: To make sure that dough does not rise, matzah should be put in the oven within 10 minutes of adding water.
Mix all the ingredients together and knead dough until soft but not sticky. Spread on 2 cookie sheets, 12 by 17 inches. Cut dough into 2-by-2-inch squares. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden.
PASSOVER ALMOND COOKIES (LOZETTO)
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
Beat the egg whites until foamy, add sugar gradually, gently fold in almond powder, and mix with spatula.
Drop by heaping teaspoonsful onto prepared cookie sheet. Top each cookie with a whole almond.
Bake on middle rack for 15 to 20 minutes until lightly browned. Cool 10 minutes and carefully remove from sheets with spatula.
Combine the above ingredients and serve on homemade matzah during the Passover Seder.
Mix egg whites with sugar; add almonds. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. Place parchment paper on a cookie sheet and spray with cooking spray.
Scoop out 1 teaspoon at a time, and place the scoops on the prepared cookie sheet, spacing scoops about 1 inch apart.
Bake for 15 minutes.
Cut the oranges and lemons in half crosswise, then into very thin half-moon slices. (If you have a mandoline, this will be quite fast.) Discard any seeds. Place the sliced fruit and their juices into a stainless steel pot. Add water and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring often. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Cover and allow to stand overnight at room temperature.
The next day, bring the mixture back to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, for about 2 hours. Turn the heat up to medium and boil gently, stirring often, for another 30 minutes. Skim off any foam that forms on the top. Cook the marmalade until it reaches 220 degrees F on a candy thermometer. If you want to be doubly sure it’s ready, place a small amount on a plate and refrigerate it until it’s cool but not cold. If it’s firm — neither runny nor too hard — it’s done. It will be a golden orange color. (If the marmalade is runny, continue cooking it; if it’s too hard, add more water.)
Pour the marmalade into clean, hot Mason jars; wipe the rims thoroughly with a clean damp paper towel, and seal with the lids according to the package directions. Store in the pantry for up to a year.