We awoke at 6:45am on the last day of 5767 to find more than thirty men in the open area just outside my room, drinking coffee-milk and eating little pieces of bread to celebrate the baby naming of one of our participants. “Good morning!” one man greeted me, “May G!d bless your day with overflowing peace!” and then he added, “You slept in Ali! (the Malian pronunciation of my name here) The naming is already finished. Her name is Nana (named after the matriarch of my host family).” I quickly got ready and took a packed green minibus into the city, where I printed out the Rosh Hashanah Seder that my parents had emailed me. I smiled as the sheet emerged from the printer—thanks to the miracles of scanners, email, and printers, the piece of paper my grandfather Shalom brought out of Tunisia with him, folded up and tucked into his barber kit, had finally made its way back to Africa. This paper, in faded Hebrew print, carried with it the Rosh Hashanah Seder tradition passed down to me through my grandfather and mother (and my father, who of course has taken up the ritual as well).
On this last day of 5767, Jessica and I resolved not only to cook a complete Rosh Hashanah Seder and meal, but also to bake round raisin Challahs. This was particularly exciting and challenging for several reasons:
1. Neither of us had ever led a Rosh Hashanah Seder before.
2. We were planning to try to cook, in one day, in a place without running water, electricity, a refrigerator, counters, or cutting boards, a meal that my mother usually prepares with awe-inspiring rigor and precision over the course of weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
3. We were planning to bake challahs in a community where no families have ovens.
4. I had never bake challah before.
Needless to say we were excited and a little nervous, and we tried to get an early start. We bought fresh produce from the local market—at the market, we met several of the participants in Project Muso’s microfinance program, who helped us figure out how to say words like “yeast” and “squash” in the Bamanankan language.
On the way back from the market, Jessica stopped by the local bakery, the only place in the community that had an oven. This oven is used solely for the purpose of baking long baguette-shaped loaves that are sold throughout the community. After a few short minutes in the bakery, Jessica had secured the baker’s enthusiastic support for the challah project. However unlikely it might seem to convince a commercial baker to participate in our preparations, I was not surprised, because Jessica is one of the most convincing people I know. “Of course!” he told Jessica. “I would be honored to bake your challahs. My ancestors came from Israel! Do you have any casseroles or kugels that I can help you bake?” Though there is no Jewish community in Mali and we were preparing the only services and meals we knew of in the entire country, many residents of Mali actually know quite a bit about Jews from listening to the radio, have quite positive impressions of Jews, and are very interested in Jewish customs.
With the baker now on board, we returned home to begin cooking. Quickly noticing that we were in far over our heads, several of the mothers in our household and several neighbors of ours, graduates of Project Muso’s Women’s Education Program, came to our aid, helping us wash and chop vegetables—it is incredible how difficult these elements of cooking are for Jessica and I when we are here, even though both of us cook regularly in the states. Chopping a hard, uncooked sweet potato with a dull knife and no cutting board or counter feels like an awkward juggling act to me, but the women we live with here can do this with the ease, speed, and precision of an experienced surgeon. In the mean time, we needed to accompany all our cooking with fanning to keep flies away, especially from the honey-raisin challah dough. Because people sleep in very small dark rooms here, and no one has a kitchen, people cook in designated areas outside their rooms, and thus fending off flies becomes an essential part of sanitary cooking.
As we were kneading the challah, we received two calls. First, from one of Project Muso’s partners, which is based in Senegal—would we be available to come meet with UNICEF this afternoon at 4pm? Of course, we answered. Then, shortly thereafter, Jessica received a call from the US Embassy. The Assistant Deputy Secretary of the US State Department still would like to come visit, but is running a little late—could we meet her at 4:15 or 4:30pm? Of course, we answered.
We cooked continually with the women of the household and the neighborhood into the afternoon, sent the challahs to the baker, and began preparing the elements of the Seder. Around 3:15pm, I washed the egg, flour, breadcrumbs, and spinach off of my hands, and Jessica put down her spatula and took the frying pan off the fire. In five minutes, we had changed into suits, and I headed into the city for the meeting, and Jessica went to meet our visitors.
Baby naming celebrations here begin at dawn with a naming ceremony attended by men, which is quiet and still, and punctuated by an overflowing number of soft blessings whispered to the baby by religious leaders, and the announcement of the name. At sundown, the women gather to celebrate with the new mother, to dance, sing, give blessings and gifts to the baby. So when Jessica and I returned from our meetings two hours later, we returned to our house, to find close to 50 women, most of them Project Muso participants, in the outside area of our home, dancing, exchanging blessings, and singing to celebrate the birth and naming of our participant’s newborn baby Nana. We quickly changed out of our suits, blessed the newborn baby and the new mother, and resumed our frantic cooking. In the meantime, the baby naming celebration continued around us. As I was again washing spinach and egg off of my hands and preparing for the next step in our cooking, I was goaded by one of our participants into dancing for the new baby.
When all the food was ready, we lay out woven mats and invited our extended family and the neighbors who had helped cook—Nana, Sumba, Mamu, Naani, Tata, and their children—to join us for the meal. To welcome everyone and call everyone to come sit, I sang a melody from slichot. After making kiddush, we made motzi and our guests got their first taste of challah. The challah was particularly, but not overpoweringly sweet, because we had put in the dough many raisins and a generous amount of local Malian honey, which is richer and darker than any other honey I have tasted.
Then we began the Seder. The Seder revolves around a series of blessings for the new year, each connected with a particular food, by means of visual or phonetic pun. Because certain foods cannot be found in Mali, we had to make some replacements, but Jessica saved the day with some brilliant innovations. Our Rosh Hashanah Seders this year included:
1. Oranges—My family’s Seder at home usually begins with figs, but we could not find figs in Mali. The blessing here is for the year to be good and sweet as a fig. Jessica chose oranges as the best local fruit for goodness and sweetness.
2. Apples and honey—with fresh, dark Malian honey, for a sweet new year.
3. Sesame candy: which many people make locally here, with the blessing that G!d should multiply our meritorious deeds to be as numerous as sesames.
4. Maize: I had been particularly sad about our inability to find Pomegranates. Pomegranates for me are such a potent symbol of the promise of the new year and such a central part of our family’s Rosh Hashanah Seder. Thankfully, Jessica found a creative and delicious solution: maize is a local staple food that has just come into season here. Everywhere you walk in Yirimadjo, a peri-urban area where we live, you pass rows of six-foot tall stalks of maize. Every inch of arable land is farmed here in the rainy season—there are even abandoned houses with no roofs and dirt floors that are now filled with tall growing stalks of maize. Maize, like pomegranates, is sweet and many-seeded. Maize also comes into season here at this time just as pomegranates come into season in Israel. Thus it is an ideal choice for the blessing that G!d should grant us a year filled with meritorious deeds.
5. Zucchini Squash, battered with egg and flour, fried, and covered in honey sauce. My other’s recipe calls for breadcrumbs, which we tried making in the beginning, but this proved time consuming and we eventually replaced the breadcrumbs with flour. This food plays off the pun for the Arabic word for squash, Akara, and the Hebrew roots for “cut,” and “read out” asking G!d to cut out our harsh judgments, and to have our good deeds read out before G!d.
6. Spinach, battered with egg and flour, fried, and covered in honey sauce. Also playing off a phonetic pun, that G!d should send those who wish us harm far away from us.
7. Fava beans: these we were able to find, canned and imported from our northern neighbors. Fava beans are included through a pun with the Arabic word for fava bean, “aful” and the Hebrew root for falling away, that G!d again should send those who wish us harm far away from us
8. Garlic, battered with egg and flour, fried, and covered in honey sauce. Again, a blessing asking G!d to send those who wish us harm far away from us.
9. The head and tail of a fish: This is the first time I have had a chance to actually include this in the seder—our family happened to have dried whole fish heads and tails around, which they use for cooking sometimes. We did not eat the fish but we did use it for the blessing: that G!d should bring our efforts to the head and not to the tail.
For each blessing, I did my best to explain and translate the blessing in Bamanankan, with much participation from our guests helping find the best phrasings in Bamanankan. Since giving and receiving blessings is a continual part of daily experience here, and it is not uncommon to receive and to give more than 100 blessings a day to friends, family, and perfect strangers, the participants at our seder were quite engaged and exuberant in this element of the evening, particularly on how best to phrase these blessings for the new year. The first night, about 25 people participated in our Seder, many of them small children. The second night, 10 people participated. The main courses we prepared were also somewhat exotic for Malians: chili and rice the first night, and lentils the second night.
Over the course of the two days, Jessica and I were also able to organize two person services, to our knowledge the only services in Mali, thanks to the extraordinary and heroic efforts of Marga Hirsch, who created Hebrew PDFs of each of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services and emailed them to us complete with instructions. Thanks to these incredible efforts, we were able to pray with the traditional liturgy—because we did not have a minyan and could not do certain parts of the service, we took a creative approach at those points, reciting, reflecting upon, and discussing certain piyuttim, and including some yoga and meditation in the service. The second day we completed the service by hiking up a large hill on the edge of the community, to where a tiny stream springs out of a huge rock. We sat on the rock and reflected at length on the tshuva we would like to focus upon in the days to come, and then finished with Tashlich at the stream.
I will post pictures soon here. Jessica and I would like to send our abounding thanks to Marga Hirsch for creating the PDF mini-machzor so that we could pray on Rosh Hashanah, to my parents for sending us all the Seder materials, to Sumba, Nana, Tata, Naani, Mamu who helped us cook, and to Cheick, the baker, who baked our challahs in his oven.