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Monday, April 21, 2008

The Boys (of Chabad) are Back in Town

I was totally bummed when an e-mail arrived from Chabad's Africa headquarters announcing that two more rabbis would be coming to Tanzania for Pesach if only because I would miss a prime blogging opportunity. So while the kids and I continue to enjoy a bit of vacation in the US, my friend Ruth has gratefully agreed to guest blog for me about the latest rabbinical mission to Tanzania for Passover. Thank you, Ruth!

Finding a vibrant – if small – Jewish community in Tanzania has been one of the many pleasant surprises that has marked my time here. As has been recounted on this blog, the focal person of this community is incomparable Penina, Israeli matriarch and owner of the atmospheric Middle Eastern restaurant Nargila on the peninsula.

Penina most recently gathered the tribe at Yom Kippur, but sadly I was out of town so did not get to take part in Shmuli's Big Yom Kippur Adventure. So, I was happy last week when Hally forwarded me an email from the "boys of Chabad" (as they called themselves) informing her that they were coming for Passover and asking her to tell all the Jews of Dar.

For the uninitiated, Chabad is a Hasidic movement of Orthodox Judaism. As far as I can tell, Chabad is the closest Jews get to missionaries. While they don't proselytize, they try to gather "lost" Jews and help get them on track to be more observant. The rabbis that Chabad dispatches to far-flung places such as Tanzania tend to be young and still in rabbinical training. As I joked to my housemate Michelle, Chabad is a bit like Peace Corps for Orthodox Jews. She informed me that Chabad actually does have a program called "Mitzvah Corps."

Two years ago, I attended my first Passover Seder at Nargila with the Jews of Dar. This Seder was officiated by two timid Chabad rabbis from Brooklyn who were no match for Penina. It did not help when one of them clearly began showing symptoms of malaria as he was supposed to be leading us in prayer. The official business was cut short after the rabbis finally gave into complaints from hungry Israelis that the food was burning and would they just get on with it.

Last year, there were no Chabadniks, and so the Israelis ran the show, almost all in Hebrew, which made things less fun for those of us who only vaguely know the Passover story in English.

But this year, Chabad gave us Meyer. Big, friendly, joke-cracking Meyer, with the beautiful singing voice. I was particularly fond of Meyer after it was revealed within the first five minutes of our meeting that we had both grown up in the same neighborhood (Squirrel Hill) of the same city (Pittsburgh). And indeed he looked just like the guys I used to see going to Kosher Mart on Murray Avenue in big beat-up station wagons with "MOSHIACH NOW!" bumper stickers.

(Meyer came with another smaller, quieter rabbi, but so overshadowed was he that none of us can even remember his name.)

This year's Seder was particularly impressive in that there were nearly 60 people in attendance. I asked Penina's eldest daughter how they found all these Jews and she just shook her head and said, "They found us!"

The small American contingent included three 19-year-olds traveling the world on a "gap year" before starting college in the Fall. They seemed rather exhausted from their travels, but maybe it was just from the 8-hour bus ride they had taken from Moshi that day to get to Dar in time for Seder.

There were also two very sweet British couples, a Scandinavian woman, and a whole lot of Israelis. It was very amusing to observe the contrast between the rabbis and the Israelis, most of whom are very secular – at least in outward appearance. Whereas Michelle and I had taken care to dress "appropriately" in long skirts and conservative tops, many of the Israeli women sported tight pants, low-cut, sequined tops, and dark lipstick.

One particularly amusing tableau was at the end of the Seder, when Meyer was trying valiantly to finish the prayers. As he swayed and chanted in Hebrew, an Israeli woman who had left the table looked on from the bar with a bemused expression, cigarette in hand.

In addition to Rabbi Meyer, one of the more memorable characters was the guy sitting across from me, who I'll call "Jacques Cousteau." Jacques is a 40-ish freelance Scuba diving instructor, currently based on Mafia Island. He exhibited the classic Israeli trait of frankness, explaining that, "when most people think of Tanzania, they think it is going to be so exotic, but let me tell you, Mafia is a really shitty place."

When he was done complaining, Jacques showed off his party trick, which was to tell people what their "Jewish birthday" is. For instance, after I told him I was born on June 30, 1982, he screwed up his face for about two minutes and then pronounced, "Wednesday, Tammuz 9!"

And thus, I learned something new at the Seder, which is fitting with the spirit of Passover, and of Judaism, which encourages us to always continue learning and questioning.