Saturday, April 29, 2006

I can't believe this. I struggle to understand what would motivate such hatred and bigotry, to attack a car full of children returning home from school. There is so much important, healing work to be done in the world, especially in the West Bank, how do people even arrive at the point of throwing eggs and stones at children? Is it the idolatry of land, of property, which precipitates such degeneration? I don't know, but I am glad that in the end the children had the protection they needed to arrive home safely.

The Save Darfur Rally is tomorrow, and oh I wish I could be there. I wish I could go and cry there and pray there. While some might argue that our outcry could have little effect, I counter that our silence itself is a violence that must be ended with our outcry. We, Yisrael, did not begin to leave Egypt until we cried out (Shmot 2:23-2:24). Thus, the first step toward our liberation was--is--in our voices. May our voices be strong tomorrow, wherever we are, and may the words of our mouths inspire the work of our hands and feet.

Friday, April 21, 2006

It came, after much anticipation--everyone had been talking about it for weeks, seeking refuge in any shade that could be found from the scorching sun, that came at us with a force that helped us understand the phrase “sun beating down on you.” The earth became so dry and dusty that a small gust of wind could lift a layer of it and carry it through the door of your home. And at night, mattresses and their sleepers fled their chambers for the outdoors, where a bit of breeze made the heat sleepable. And then, finally, it came, the Rain of Mangoes.

I woke around six, as I usually do, but this time to an unfamiliar touch, a drop on my forehead, then on my hand, then another on my chest. Unsure whether the skies would yield, I undid my mosquito net and stuck a hand out toward the heaven. I heard the pace of the drops quicken slightly against the corrugated tin roof, and decided it was time to get my mattress back into my room in a hurry. Within a minute, it was pouring, the first rain, the Rain of Mangoes that knocks the ripe mangoes off of their high perches at the height of their season, that foretells the rainy season to come.

I stood at the door of my room and watched it come down, smelling that host misty thunderstorm scent I had not experienced for months. When it calmed a bit, I crossed to Nana’s room, where she was in the doorway cooking breakfast, a huge smile on her face: la pluit viens! Ca va casser la chaleur. The rain has come, this will break the heat! Aminata, my three year old little sister, was the first to venture out, totally naked, into the rain. Fatimata, her slightly older sister, ran out after her, Na Sokono! Come inside!

Inside my room,, I discovered all the cracks that had been hiding in the roof of my room, and rearranged my bags to keep important things from getting too wet. The rainy season, which will come within a month or so, brings so much here. It brings relief from the intense heat of the dry season, it brings water, always scarce in Yirimadjo, it brings the season of farming, where many families work to see what life they can coax out of the land, it brings collapsing roofs and families fleeing into the city in search of dryer refuge. It brings soaring rates of malaria: another one of my little sisters had her fever spike up to 40C today. She is one of many of my friends, family, and neighbors here I have seen fight malaria, and the rainy season has not yet even begun.

Though many things here seem far from the roots I know, somehow, they help me know those roots better by that very merit. In Israel, this is the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the dry season—in Mali, the opposite, so just as we stop praying for rain in Israel, the rain comes in Mali. Yet living in the midst of this dry-season-wet-season rhythm, however inversed, has helped me understand how embedded life is with the rhythm of the rain. In the height of the dry season, women and girls at all hours of the night wait at the water pump to gather water for their families…pumps break, sometimes people spend hours searching, sometimes fights break out as people get frantic in their search for water for their families. Praying for rain has these resonances for me now. Washing hands has also taken on new resonances: with the ease of soap dispensers and running water at every juncture in the US, I have taken this holy act too often for granted; here, where water is scarce and hardfought, where diarrheal and parasitic diseases are pervasive, I see this mitzvah with new eyes and feel it with new hands.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

At 5:30pm on Wednesday, April 12, I collapsed on a rock in front of my home and hung my head in my hands. The day before, I had spent several hours putting together and translating some amazing seder materials from Frances and others, sold my chametz, searched by candlight and burned the next morning, and explained to Nana and Kaja some of the elements of Passover kashrut. But now, Wednesday, 5:30pm on the eve of the first seder, an hour before sundown, and I hadn’t even begun cooking. Nana and Kaja and Maryam, the three matriarchs of my household, spotted me collapsed on the rock in despair and came over. “Ali, mun b’i la?” (Ari, what’s wrong?). “J’ai seulement voulu un peu de temps pour preparer pour mon fete aujourd’hui, seulement un peu de temps. “ (I just wanted a little bit of time to prepare for my holiday today, just a little time).

I had planned to set aside the entire afternoon for cooking and preparing, but then I had to help coordinate a training workshop in our literacy and health program, and then the district sanitation expert arrived to discuss the construction of a septic tank with me, and then it was 5:30pm.

I had one hour until sundown, how was I possibly going to prepare everything in time? Kaja and Maryam and Nana and Ma came to the rescue.
Kaja started the eggs boiling, and Ma started chopping up apples for the charoset. Maryam cut up the tomatoes and Nana cut up the eggplant for the shakshuka, and Kaja started cleaning the greens. I set about pitting the dates for the charoset, and then I took to the mortar and pestle to grind the apples and dates together with cashews and raisins and citron juice and honey and dried mangoes, my mother’s charoset recipe adapted to the produce offerings of Mali. Nana sliced up several goyos, the most bitter vegetable she could find at the market.

We laid out woven mats in a circle, and I brought out the grape juice and the matzah. The matzah itself is a miracle—my friend Dave searched in 4 European cities before finding any, and he has told me that he is going to write a short story based on his matzah expedition. He arrived a few days before Pesach with two large boxes of Parisian Matzah in tow. With the shakshuka done and simmering, the charoset and bitter herbs and salt water set in little bowls and the seder plate laid out, I sat down and began to chant the order of the seder to welcome all the guests to come sit down. I never got a full count of how many people attended the seder--with no electricity in Yirimadjo, we conducted the whole seder by moonlight—but I think there were about 30 or so people, mainly my adopted extended family here (I live with about 20something people) and some of the women who participate in our education program here in Yirimadjo. This might have been the only Passover seder in all of Mali (aside from the seder I made the second night).

After Kiddush, greens, saltwater, and eggs, I explained that the Jews began as slaves, and tonight was the night to tell the story of the liberation from slavery. I explained that it is taught that each generation much experience its own Exodus from Egypt each year, that the journey to freedom is not an ancient historical event but an ongoing struggle that we engage in together by recounting and reliving Yetziyat Mitrayim. I told everyone that since questions are a precious priviledge of freedom, we are all encouraged to ask and discuss many questions during the Seder. The first question was from my friend Ma, “Why don’t Jews eat meat?” I explained that while I am a vegetarian, many Jews do eat meat, though many only eat meat prepared under spiritual supervision. Second question: “Do Jews think non-Jews must also celebrate Pesach every year?” I explained that while Jews do not dictate on the practices of non-Jews or prostelytize, it is particularly important for Jews to invite non-Jews to the Pesach seder, that we announce at every Seder that “This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in Egypt” who ever who is hungry must come in eat, whoever is facing or struggling against oppression must come and celebrate Passover together with us. In this way, I explained, though it is hard for me to be away form my family and Jewish community for this holiday, it is a special gift to be able to celebrate with you, because the work we are doing together is the work of Pesach, it is the story we are telling.

I told/acted out the story of the Exodus—given that many had never met a Jew before, I started with Abraham, and told the story through to the Red Sea, emphasizing particularly the boldness of Shifra and Puah in defying the royal decree to kill Israelite newborns, also how Moses needed to be convinced that he, a sheep-herd with public speaking difficulties, might be able to demand the freedom of his people and lead an entire nation to freedom. The second night we talked mainly about Nachshon, the conviction to move boldly in a direction that many see as impossible because it is just, the readiness to get in over our heads with the faith that solutions will come if we are bold enough to seek them. I had wanted to set it up more as a play, but without any light it was impossible for others to read Frances’s script as I had translated it, so I basically told and acted out the story myself.

The shakshuka was a hit, as was the charoset. Afterward, we traded many blessings. I benched birkat hamazon and hallel, and all the guests offered a showering of blessings in Bambara, for strength and inspiration in work and life and struggle for freedom, for health and success in the year to come, for the realization and manifestation of all that we had discussed and prayed together.

To a year of breaking shackles and crossing borders, chag sameach!