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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Rosh Ha Shenanigans

Shmuli with Jaden and Rowan
Don’t ask me why, but I’ve come to treasure the regular visits the Jewish “community” in Dar has been getting from the ultra-religious missionary Chabad these past few years. I suppose the kitsch value of a pair of Hassidic rabbis walking around the streets of the city is not lost on me. These guys show up – from what feels like the planet Mars – but with an earnestness and sincerity that I find attractive, even if their brand of Judaism has absolutely nothing to do with mine.

Last week I was at an Obama fundraiser and debate-watching party on the roof of the Irish Pub when I got the call from our resident Israeli Jew-organizers that the Chabad was back (earlier than expected – I was told they were coming for Yom Kippur) and that they were trying to organize an event for kids the next day.

So dutifully I schlepped my kids to over to Nargila – the Israeli restaurant which is the center of all things Jewish-Dar – only to discover that my favorite Chabadnick, Shmuli, was back! This was a big surprise, since only a week or so earlier Shumli sent me a mazel tov on my new job – but failed to mention that he was about to get on a plane.

I came close to wrapping Shumli in a big forbidden (the friendship that has no name) hug when I was headed off at the pass by Yaccov, Shumli’s traveling companion – and I’m guessing boss here in TZ.

Keeping a safe distance from me – a possibly menstruating woman – Yaccov offered me a warm virtual handshake (his words, not mine) and welcomed the kids and I to the pre-Rosh Hashana art activity.

I expected that the kids would be weirded out by the Hassidic outfits and long untrimed beards, but actually they seemed completely oblivious… and before long they were sitting with about 8 Israeli kids doing a complicated sand and glue project. And they particularly enjoyed their opportunity to blow (spit) into the shofars Shmuli and Yaccov brought out with them.

With this positive experience behind us, I returned to Nargila the next day for a Rosh Hashanah services.

Just like last year – it was touch and go for more than an hour on whether or not we would have a minyon. We had plenty of women (my friend, Laura and myself included)… but the men were only trickling in.

With the sun quickly setting – and still missing two men, the 9 year-old son of one of the families at the service was temporarily “deputized” as a “man” (the rabbis said it was an obscure Sephardic or Kabalistic rule that you could do that – but it seemed like a scam to me) while my friend Laura frantically called her husband, Carl, to get him over to Nargila in time to read the Torah.

Once the rabbis had gone as far as they could without a minyon, they got desperate and started telling us jokes. Shmuli told a joke only funny to a Hassidic rabbi:

A guy immigrating to Palestine (pre-Israel days) showed up with 7 refrigerators. The customs agent accused him of bringing the refrigerators in to sell but the man vehemently denied it. He explained that one fridge was for dairy, one for meat, and one for parve. When confronted about the remaining four fridges the man explained that Pesach was coming and he would need Kosher for Passover meat, dairy and parve fridges. And finally, when confronted about the remaining fridge the man explained that the seventh fridge is for the traif.

Ba-da bum…

Thank god, Carl, the 10th man, arrived just as Shumli was winding up for another joke. With Carl safely entrenched on the men’s side and handed a yarmulke, we were ready to being the Torah portion of our service.

Meanwhile, Penina, the outgoing and opinionated Israeli owner of Narglia set out on a mission to loudly complain to the rabbis about the fact that women don’t count.

Actually… I believe it would be safe to say that she heckled them for about an hour – including during the blowing of the shofar, the service, and even the Torah reading, with loud and wonderful zingers like (please use a strong Israeli accent to say these things in your head):

“Lucky I’m allowed to cook, thanks God. They spent the whole day standing over me like the police.”

“All my life I count – except when these nudnicks come to Tanzania”

Eventually she left the comfortable couches on the “woman’s side” and planted herself right in the middle of the divider during the reading of the Torah – staring over the Torah and watching the men on the other side. Despite pleas from the rabbis to please stop – and me pulling her aside to ask her why she hosts them every year if she hates what they are doing so much (to which she responded that she loves having them and learns so much from them every time they come), she continued to jar and tease and heckle.

It would be totally offensive if it wasn’t actually so hilarious. It was everything Laura and I could do to stop from doubling over with laughter as each comment was more outrageous than the last. And as if to highlight the points she was making, the rabbis put no prayer books on the women’s side until we complained after the service started, and eventually they threw the women’s side a bone, asking me to read a rabbinical commentary about how important women are on Rosh Hashanah, as evidenced by the fact that both Sarah and Hannah are said to have birthed babies on that day.

Lame, huh?

Let me just say that although I totally agreed with Penina’s sentiments about the exclusion and marginalization of women, I found the forum she chose to express them in rather inappropriate. This was a shit or get off the pot moment. Either participate and shut up, or boycott and stay out.

Nevertheless, the evening ended well with a small meal of delicious salads that Penina had prepared (overseen by the Kosher eagle-eye of Yaccov). All the participants were grateful for the hospitality, and even the rabbis seemed to relax a bit now that the show was over.

When I left I wondered how Yaccov and Shmuli would fare for the next 10 day until Yom Kippur living with Penina and her family.

Stay tuned here for the answer…. Yom Kippur is around the corner.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this! And I love being an honorary Jew (or is it token Gentile?) during the high holidays in Tanzania. With Yom Kippur soon upon us, I am certain we are in for more Shmuli stories!

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so happy that there is a Chabad even though they are so womanphobic. It's great that my family can celebrate anywhere in the world.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

Gotta say, I think I love Penina. Amazing that a nine year old boy can be an adult in a pinch, but not a full-grown woman.


7:13 PM  
Anonymous Becky said...

I love it- the big family of jews, chasids and secular israelis and all, coming together for rosh hashanah. looks like the kids had a great time.

5:11 AM  
Blogger weinstein said...

Sounds like a classic Chabad moment in time. When Alfred left the US we thought for sure he'd never encounter another Jew for 2 years! We were dead wrong. Enjoy!

Ken (Alfred Wise's brother-in-law)

2:28 AM  
Blogger suburban dyke said...

Glad you can celebrate in TZ. My town comes to a grinding halt for 3 weeks every fall...

Thankfully, the Sukkout huts are finally coming down and things can get into a regular schedule.

8:28 PM  
Blogger missrabi said...

Hey Hally!
I know its been too long, but you've been in my thoughts. I still vote in NC, and will do some volunteering for Barack this weekend. I think he can win the state--yes we can! The kids are growing so--hugs to all of you,

7:24 PM  

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