I don’t want you to think I forgot you.
I’ve been busy entertaining my parents – who just left after two lovely weeks of frolicking in the sun and ocean of Zanzibar with the kids and hanging out at the edge of my local swimming hole – on a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Coming at this time of the year was a major sacrifice for my mother – since she has always been the family hostess of a lovely Passover Seder. In fact, in the lead up to two weeks ago, every time I said or did something that pissed her off she’d (in good Jewish mother fashion) try to make me feel guilty by saying, “I’m giving up Passover for you, the least you could do is…”
Just like Jesus – another Jew who happened to enjoy Passover.
But given that mom was making a sacrifice of a sort – traveling from Jew York to almost Jewless Dar – I needed to rise to the occasion and make an effort to throw something together. Plus, several of my local Jewish friends had already called about Passover plans. It seemed I was the planner-in-chief.
Last year I wrote you about the out-of-this-world Passover that the Jews of Dar experienced when a group of Hassidic Rabbis were dispatched from the Congo via Brooklyn by the Chabad (the pseudo-evangelical wing of Judaism) to minister to the lost Jewish souls of East Africa and provide us with Kosher for Passover matzo. I suggest you update yourselves on this story here, since really, it was one of my best blogs ever.
But this year rumor had it that the Jews of Nairobi were the lucky hosts of the Rebbes from Flatbush… so we in Dar were shit out of luck.
Knowing that my friends at Nargila – a Middle Eastern restaurant – owned by Israeli Jews with king-sized personalities and a two-pack-a-day habit usually hosted Passover for the Jews of Dar I decided to stop by one night last month to pick up some hummus for dinner and find out their Passover plans.
“The ungrateful shits!” said Penina, the matriarch of the Nargila family, referring to the Jews of Dar es Salaam.
“I host them for Pesach; I host them for Rosh Hashana. Do you think they ever call to say “thanks” or offered to pay for themselves? Never! What should I do for them? Nothing!”
“Oh,” I said, like a deer caught in the headlights. I certainly wasn’t respecting this sort of response. After all, aren’t I a Jew from Dar? Didn’t I thank her for our Yom Kippur evening? Don’t I come to Nargila and pay for her over-priced (but delicious) food? Don’t I try to keep in touch? Aren’t I coming to her now?
(For you non-Jews out there, “Dayanu” means “It would have been enough”. It is a word that we repeat over and over at a Passover Seder to remind us that God went above and beyond the call of duty when “He” lead us out of slavery in Egypt, parted the Red Sea for us, gave us manna from heaven, lead us to the Promised Land, etc..)
“I will never host a Jewish holiday again,” said Penina emphatically. “The Jews of Dar are no community. Not like in Nairobi where they actually look out for each other!”
I bristled at being compared to the better Jews of Nairobi. I’m not sure why. I don’t know them.
But knowing that my mother was expecting me to come through for her I took another approach…
“Well… will you cater my Passover Seder?” I asked.
“Yes," said Penina. "For 30,000 Tsh (about $25) per person. But I don’t have any matzo. You have to get that yourself.”
We eventually discussed the menu and agreed on a catering fee. But I was left with the $64,000 question. Where would I get matzo?
From mom via New York was the obvious answer. The only problem was that mom was refusing to fly with Hebrew lettering in her bags. She was already outside her comfort zone – traveling to Tanzania on the considerably cheaper Emirates – the official airline of the United Arab Emirates via Dubai. She was not about to put products that identified her religion onboard with her. (And believe me… I tried to convince her.)
Meanwhile, Jewish friends called me about their Jewish friends who had no place to go for Passover. Could I take them, too?
Sure… bring ‘em on.
Before I knew it I was hosting 16 people for Seder – and the list was growing all the time.
Two people even came to me via Penina herself – Jews who called her looking for a Seder – who she then referred to me.
Was I going to be the epicenter of Jewish Dar? Could I play such an important role?
Me? Agnostic, semi-practicing, humanistic, my kids no longer go to the Temple pre-school me?
Penina changed her mind the day before Passover. She called to say that there were too many people calling her and that she felt like she had no choice but to take her place as the convener of Jewish life in Dar.
But of course she still wanted me to pay for my 16 people. She’d cover the rest.
I agreed. It was worth it just to avoid the mess in my house.
And that same day my Mom showed up. And lo and behold, she brought forth matzo from the land of New York, and macaroons, too.
And that same day I found a huge supply of matzo in the supermarket. (Better than the supply at the lame Safeway up the block from my old apartment in Washington, DC near Dupont Circle.)
We had matzo. We had macaroons. And I even had a supply of matzo meal left behind by Jews who had already departed from Dar.
I told my 16 to come for pre-Seder drinks. We had a lovely time at my house, and then drove over to Nargila, where Penina, in her own personal style, managed to insult half the attendees by ordering them where to sit – banishing the “younger” attendees (meaning people in their 20s) to the far end of the table.
Nevertheless… it was pretty extraordinary. We were about 40 Jews (and one Catholic priest who wanted the experience), sitting at a table in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. We were about to embark on a sacred ceremony practiced by our ancestors for centuries before us, and hopefully centuries after us…
The Israelis at the table wanted to read the service in Hebrew. Penina handed my father an English copy of a seriously long Hagaddah (the service book) which he couldn’t really read without his glasses.
At some point the “younger” attendees at the far end of the table pulled out their own Hagaddah and in a coup d’etat took over the “service”. Then the Israelis fought back and started up in Hebrew again.
A couple of Israeli guys sitting next to me just make jokes in Hebrew throughout the whole service. I don’t think they heard a word.
It was total chaos.
But the food was excellent.
Three hours later my family left Narglia reconnected to our history – even if it was an imperfect evening.
I called the next day to thank Penina for the evening. She told me that she was feeling better about the Jewish community and maybe she’ll have a Rosh Hashana dinner this year after all.
Whatever she decides…