If you’ve seen “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” then the visual you have in your mind of a family celebration isn’t far off from what my family’s Passover seder looks like. My maternal uncle once described the holiday as “barely organized chaos,” and I think that about sums it up. Growing up, however, I learned fairly early on that the way my Persian Jewish family observed Passover was very different from the festivities of most kids I went to Hebrew school with. Living in a predominantly Ashkenazi community, I often encountered dozens of questions from classmates — or even teachers — about Mizrahi seders.
I would answer their questions as follows. Picture this: after spending two and a half hours stuck in Long Island traffic, you arrive in Great Neck. You enter through the grand doorway into a Persian explosion — the living room bursting with laughter, a mish-mosh of English and Farsi, and smells strong enough to make you salivate almost instantly. People stand around munching on cucumbers and gondi (chicken and vegetable meatballs), talking animatedly. Hugs and never-ending cheek-to-cheek kisses envelop you. When it’s time, my grandmother urges people to enter the formal living room, where a large T-shaped table is set up with places for at least 50 people. My late grandfather, whom we lovingly called Babajoon, would take his iconic seat at the head of the table with my cousins and me sitting by his side, and the service would commence.
So, if you, too, want to celebrate Passover the Persian way, here’s a step-by-step guide to how my family’s seder typically goes.
1. Make sure one of your cousins is the designated family rabbi
During the seder, your goal is to stuff your face as fast as you can without getting caught, because dinner will likely be served at 10pm and you don’t want to get hangry. And because you can’t run the seder and sneak food at the same time, you need to nominate one of your many cousins to be the designated family rabbi. Although my Babajoon was always the leader of our seder, he often wanted an assistant. In our family, my cousin Arya fulfills this role, and we love him for it.
2. Sling back shots of Manischewitz like there’s no tomorrow
Because my family is so big, we do shot glasses of Manischewitz for the kiddush, rather than full glasses. When you raise your glass to drink, picture yourself at the club getting ready to dance to your favorite Britney Spears song. You also have to steal as many shots from your relatives as you can and chug them in succession. My family record was nine shots in a row, so try to see if your family can beat us.
3. Yell at whoever’s currently reading from the Haggadah to speak louder
Despite the fact that the seder is being conducted, my family isn’t quiet, and the room is still a cacophony of noise filled with endless chatter, laughter and singing. So, of course, when each of the cousins takes a turn reading a portion of the Haggadah aloud, no one can hear them over all of the talking. Naturally, people scream at the readers to speak “louder.” Over time, this became a game. So with your family, even if the person reading is speaking at an audible volume, yell “louder” and heckle them in good fun.
4. Whack each other with scallions when you sing “Dayenu”
In all the years I’ve gone to my grandparents’ house for Passover, I’ve never actually known if whacking each other with scallions during “Dayenu” is a Persian Jewish custom or something specific to our family. (Turns out it is a Sephardic and Mizrahi tradition!) But regardless, it’s the Hunger Games and your goal is to survive. Tips and tricks include: hiding behind furniture, striking whomever you have to in self-defense and shielding your eyes. Additionally, make sure to wear clothing without much visible skin so that your family members can’t whack you to see how red you get, and be careful running away on marble floors in socks or tights. Either way, good luck, and may the best soldier win.
5. Take Snapchat videos of the whole service
Every family has a PR manager, the person who somehow tells everyone within a 20-mile radius everything about you and keeps the community up-to-date on the family drama. The classic yenta, she/he/they manages to know all of the family secrets. In my family, this is my Great Aunt Affy. A Jewish Kris Jenner, my Aunt Affy never fails to take endless Snapchat videos of the entire seder, filling in the rest of the Great Neck Persian community. I swear, she has a higher Snap score than I did in middle school.
6. Be brave enough to eat the cow tongue
Don’t get me wrong — my grandmother’s cooking is out of this world. In all of my life, there’s never been a single dish she’s made that I haven’t liked. However, the one thing I have never been able to bring myself to try is the cow tongue. Everyone in my family who eats it swears it’s incredible, but I just can’t move past the visual. It’s serrated like a tongue, because, you know, it is a tongue, and there’s no way to forget it. If you’re brave enough, try the cow tongue and I’ll salute you.
7. Snag some tahdig from the dinner table
At my family’s Passover, the seder often bleeds into dinner, and, as you can imagine, food goes quickly because my grandmother’s cooking is divine and everyone is starving. Although the khoresh (meat and vegetable stews), rice, pickles and kebabs are amazing, the best part of the meal is the tahdig. Essentially Persian crispy rice, the tahdig is made from the bottom of the rice pot; this oily goodness is a family favorite, and it usually goes in about five minutes. So I suggest fighting your way to the front, snagging as much of the tahdig from the buffet as you can and scarfing it down as fast as you can so that no one can steal it from you.
8. Steal as much of mom’s matzah cake as possible
When it’s time for dessert, you’ll have a wide array of sweet treats to choose from. There are platters of fruit, Persian cookies, multiple cakes and more. However, the best dessert is my mom’s legendary matzah cake. The dreamy frozen chocolate and wine concoction is simply to die for. Like the tahdig, the cake goes fast, so snag a few pieces while you can — because Persian Passover is really just an all-out food war disguised as a Jewish holiday.