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!