San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Passover Memories Link Past and Future

One of the Jewish calendar’s best-known holidays begins at nightfall March 29. People in Costa Rica and around the world will sit down with family and friends to observe the age-old ritual of the Passover seder. The seder initiates an eight-day observance marking the deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt as described in the book of Exodus in the Bible.

“It’s about being able to share with the entire family,” Ombudswoman Ofelia Taitelbaum told The Tico Times.

Passover begins on the 15th day of the month of Nissan in the lunar Jewish calendar. That translates to a March or April holiday in the secular Gregorian calendar, but always the night of the first full moon following the spring equinox.

The holiday is called Pesach in Hebrew – give the ch a guttural sound like the last two letters in the name of composer Johann Sebastian Bach – and Pésaj (same pronunciation) in Spanish.

Although technically not the earliest Jewish immigrants, many among Costa Rica’s first-established Jewish population immigrated here from Poland in the early 20th century. (Ticos with Polish or German surnames can likely trace their roots to Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe.) Subsequent waves from elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East and North and Latin America followed, bringing their own customs with them to this country.

No matter what the national origin of its participants, at the heart of the seder are the famous Four Questions, all variations on the query, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

The Tico Times asked a few prominent figures on the Costa Rican political scene  to share their favorite Passover memories and to describe what makes Monday night different. Excerpts follow:

“Pesach is a celebration that takes place with the entire family over two evening dinners, this year on March 29 and 30, according to the calendar. These family reunions usually mean up to 40 people in my particular case. We read the Haggadah, the history of the Jewish people leaving Egypt, and traditionally eat bread without leavening, which is known at matzah.

“My favorite memories were of seeing my parents sing, and of being able to findthe afikomen, the piece of matzah that the person who led the ceremony would hide in any part of the house. The boy or girl who found it could ask that it be exchanged for something. When I found it, I always asked for a new toy.”


–Ofelia Taitelbaum

Ombudswoman, former legislator


“When I was young, we would have huge family gatherings at my grandfather’s home in Tel Aviv. More than 50 people would come from all over the country for Passover. The week before, I would go with my grandmother to buy fresh carp. She would keep them live in a tub until she was ready to use them. Then I got to go fishing for carp out of the tub. Of course, I had to help clean the house from top to bottom to get rid of the chametz (leaven and grains). Then, at the seder, it is custom to hide a piece of matzah and let the children find it. I often think the real reason was to keep all of us busy during the long seder. There were a lot of us running around.

“Outside Israel, it is custom to have two Passover seders, the first and second night. Back in Israel, we have just one, on the first-night. Kosher food and kosher-for- Passover food are available everywhere in Israel. It’s never a problem to find it. Not so much in Costa Rica. Here, you have to look at food labels very carefully if you want to do it properly.”


–Ehud Eitam

Israeli ambassador to Costa Rica


“I remember that I would help my mother with the general cleaning of the house and the change of the kitchenware. I especially remember the heavy spoons my mother brought on her journey from Poland to Costa Rica and the odor of Lustrol, with which we had to wipe down the counters. Most amazing of all was to see how our dining table, over which we had worked all year, was transformed with a clean, white cloth into something sacred. Mother lit the candles, Father made the blessings over the matzo and the wine, and our little family transcended that moment to be one more link between the past and the future.”

–Clara Zomer

Housing minister, former legislator

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