Passover In Zimbabwe, Here’s How We Celebrate

March 31, 2022

7 min read


Passover for the Jews of Rhodes Island represents a symbolic metaphor for liberation, healing, and transcendence.

My father Sam Hanan was one of the adventurers from Rhodes Island who due to the economic stagnation, chose to settle in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1936.

He was lured like others by the stories of the gold rush and mushrooming trading companies being established there. The immigrant Jews of Rhodes Island, the Rhodeslis endured a lonely existence as they experienced harsh conditions living in these far-flung settlements infested with malaria, sleeping sickness and bilharzia.

In time, as they saved enough, they would sponsor a sibling to join them but for many including my father sadly that was not to be, as his entire family perished in Auschwitz.

On a business trip to the Belgian Congo he met my mother Marie who had migrated from Turkey. They soon married and settled in Salisbury.

The enterprising Jewish community played a meaningful cultural and professional role towards the development of Zimbabwe and at its peak numbered 7000.

Today sadly from a community of 2000 Sephardim and 5000 Ashkenazim a mere 50 souls comprising those communities still remain.

Besides celebrating the freedom of the Jews from centuries of bondage in Egypt, Passover for the Jews of Rhodes Island represents a symbolic metaphor for liberation, healing, and transcendence.

Since the biblical Exodus, there have been periods of persecution and resettlement. For us, the Jews of Spain, we sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire, fleeing the expulsion from Spain in 1492. From Rhodes Island the few that survived the holocaust joined those that had previously migrated to Rhodesia, seeking a better life in far-flung places in Africa.

In Zimbabwe as a descendant of the Jews of Spain and the Ottoman Empire, Passover evokes such magical recollections, through our rich culinary legacy and the Rhodesli Pesach Seder.

In Rhodes, the popular expression that we said as soon as the festival of Purim ended was, Purim lanu, Pesah en la manu, meaning ‘Purim has come, and before you turn around Passover is here’. I recall that soon after Purim a good spring clean took place to rid our home of traces of hametz (leaven) including thoroughly cleaning utensils and dishes used during the year. The Judeo-Spanish blessing we then recited was, Benditcha la limpieza de noche de Pesah, meaning, ‘Blessed is the cleanliness of Passover night’. As our ancestors did for centuries my mother scrupulously cleaned our home a room at a time leaving the kitchen until last before Passover. In Rhodes it was customary to whitewash not only the courtyards and porches but often the entire home. La losa pascual (special cookware and porcelain) were brought out, especially for the week of Passover.

While growing up in Zimbabwe, Pesah was also a time of great delight when, as was customary, my mother bought my sister and me brand new clothes which added to the anticipation of new beginnings.

Our close-knit community celebrated the Seder much like their ancestors did in the Jewish quarters in Rhodes Island when no one spent Passover alone. Before the Seder meal begins the host still utters the words in Ladino todos lo ke tenga hambre ke venga i koma, which loosely translated means, ‘all those who are in need or hungry to join us’.

Our Rhodesli foremothers preserved and maintained our unique Passover culinary specialties with its traditions to celebrate our freedom.

At our Seder ceremony in Zimbabwe, generations of extended family and friends usually numbering about 40 guests joined us around the table. Beside the ceremonial Seder plate and the traditional dishes, an extra chair and cup of wine were also placed at the table with the door left open, mystically awaiting the prophet Elijah.

The Seder was conducted by the elders in English and Hebrew and the Haggadah was also recited and sung in our ancient Judeo-Spanish with such nostalgia and fervor. We handed print-outs in Ladino to our children as we all joined in enthusiastically singing the age-old songs Un kavretiko - ‘Only one kid’ or Ken save uno? - ‘Who knows one?’, enjoying the beautiful melodies of our forefathers in this vanishing language.

During the seven days of Passover all yeast-raised food, grains and legumes were prohibited and excluded from our holiday cuisine.

A Pesach Seder dinner menu can included andy/all of the following:

Rhodes Island-Style Date and Nut Paste, harosi (charoset)

Fried Fish with Egg-lemon Sauce, peshkado frito kon agristada

Leek, Potato and Meat Fritters, keftes de prasa

Young leeks just picked from my garden add an earthy taste mixed with potatoes, fragrant fresh herbs and ground meat, to make the most scrumptious fritters, perfect for the Passover spread.

Artichoke and fava bean dishes and an endless variety of salads.

For the main course you can find:

Tomatoes and Onions Stuffed with Meat and Herbs, tomat i sevoyas reynados

These small onions and ripe plum tomatoes are hollowed out and stuffed with ground meat, scallions and herbs. They are lightly coated in egg and matzo meal and briefly sautéed before gently simmering them on a bed of chopped vegetables and tomato broth.

Chicken Matzah Bake, quajado de matzah i gayina

Quajados (kuajados) is such a popular Passover dish made with a combination of vegetables, ground beef or chicken and eggs baked into a kind of gratin or frittata.

Braised Hard Boiled Eggs, huevos haminados

Huevos haminados, braised hard-boiled eggs, are one of the most ancient and characteristic foods in the medieval Judeo-Spanish repertoire. In a typical Sephardic kitchen, discarded red and brown onion skins are always saved and stored ready to make these beautiful eggs. They are featured throughout Passover.

Slow-cooked Lamb with Potatoes, kuzi de Pesah

Veal, Egg and Herb Filled Potato Croquettes, rollos de karne i patata

These are excellent meat-filled crisp potato croquettes, scrumptious to eat but not so easy to prepare for beginners. If you have the patience they are worth the effort.

For dessert there was an abundance of decadent Rhodesli sweets dulses offered including the Lemon Fondant, sharope served in the traditional sweet spoon holder - the kucharera.

Handcrafted Confectionery Marzipan, masapan; Candied Pears, dulse de pera; Quince Paste, bimbriyo and, with platters of seasonal fruit, Almond Semolina Cake, shamali and of course strong Turkish coffee.

Chewy Meringues with Fragrant Mastic, ashuplados kon almastica

The Jews of Spain share a love for meringue-cloud like magical confections we call ‘ashuplados’ in Ladino.

When they migrated to Rhodes Island they added pine-scented chewy mastic from Chios which made them divinely addictive!

My children, who with their families now live in New York, still cherish their fond remembrances of Passover in Zimbabwe. Looking back at those Seders set in tropical Africa they felt they could have been transported centuries back to medieval Moorish Spain.

One of these memories was the traditional breakfast they relished with generous servings of crispy fried matza drizzled with floral honey syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon called resha frita or revanadas de parida pasquales, so delicious with homemade raisin syrup.

I remember my parents relating that on the evening of the last day of Passover it was customary in Rhodes on the way back home from Synagogue to gather fresh herbs and spring flowers brought home to augur renewal and a year without drought, Anyio verde ke no de seke. It was also customary to have a picnic in the countryside and the first meal after Passover with fresh leavened bread.

These are some of the touchstones, the treasured memories, the food, the songs, the ancestral language of our forefathers that remain imprinted that we cling to wherever we rebuild our lives in an attempt to re-create our cherished legacy in our new home.

Pesah alegre! May this Passover be a sweet one.

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