A wandering Jew, looking for a home on Seder night

As a travel writer, I thrive on not knowing where I'll lay my head in a few month's time. Yet each year on Seder, I always feel at home.

April 26, 2011 15:49
4 minute read.
Pedestrian walking in Johannesburg

South Africa 311. (photo credit: Jonny Newton)

Moses may have thought that 40 years of drifting in a desert was cause enough for an entire people to be labeled as “wanderers.” If this was insufficient however, the Jews continued to experience a history of displacement, migration and reinvention in order for the epithet to stick.

Every year we commemorate our rootless roots. We remember our original trip from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to Israel. Each year we end our Seders with a toast to being in Jerusalem in another 365 days. From established and integrated communities throughout the world, we clink a fifth glass to being elsewhere in the future. Truly a people on a voyage.

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My journey has been a varied one. From scaling the Mayan ruins of Central America to gliding with manta rays in the Indian Ocean. I thrive on being on the move, of not knowing where I’ll lay my head in a few months’ time. As a travel writer this is how I exist. Yet each year on Seder night, wherever I may be, I feel at home.

As with many Jewish traditions, the Pessah story is remembered in a similar manner throughout the world, bringing a sense of attachment for those that follow it. Its message is so universal, that in any context local lessons can be learnt and parallels drawn.

Fiji is a tropical archipelago of remarkable picture-postcard beauty nestled deep in the South Pacific. Despite having no formalized Jewish community, one Pessah eve I traveled to its second-largest city, Suva, in search of a Seder. All I had to go on was an address where the Israeli consulate was registered. Getting off the bus at sunset in an unfamiliar city, like a modern-day Elijah I knocked on a door in search of the familiar ritual.

No reply. If anyone had been around, they were probably soaking matza in an egg and saltwater broth by now. Giving up, I found a nearby hotel and checked in.

On a whim, I asked the proprietor if she knew what Passover was. “It’s funny that you ask,” she replied, “another guest asked exactly the same question earlier this evening.”

I introduced myself to Liz, a New Yorker on a study placement at the University of the South Pacific. Together we turned the communal dinner into a Seder of sorts. Explaining our rituals to fellow guests, sharing our journey and remembering tidbits of the ceremony.

Four glasses of wine were replaced by four shells of kava, the muddy, foul-tasting, mildly hallucinogenic South Pacific tipple of choice. The paper-bag packaging had no sticker reserving it “For sacramental use only,” but it certainly contained no yeast.

Whether it be serendipity, fate, luck or the machinations of a higher power, two wandering Jews found each other at a time when they both yearned for a communal experience.

A better-planned Pessah gathering took place in Malawi, Southern Africa. A week or so earlier, a motley crew of visiting Jews, Israelis and interested participants decided to organize a Seder. By the time we gathered, over 20 of us had arrived via road and lake, mountains of food had been prepared and enough Haggadot printed.

On cue, an Israeli family arrived clutching a box of matza and a jar of gefilte fish. They had spent weeks driving south from Kenya, and tucked in a corner of their muddy 4x4 amongst spare tyres, camping equipment and fuel cans was some unleavened bread and processed carp.

They had come prepared, and had made provisions to ensure that wherever they may be, that night would be different from all others.

The riot of remonstration, debate and sloppy table manners meant everyone felt at home. The surroundings, however, were slightly different.

Eating in a hired open-sided restaurant perched on a tiny peninsula surrounded on three sides by the shimmering Lake Malawi, fishermen in the distance illuminated the water with hurricane lanterns, trying to attract fish to their nets.

Our environment may have been a sun-kissed land of white sandy beaches licked by translucent waters, but 99 percent of its inhabitants would have swapped places with us in a jiffy. This region is poor, its death rate high and the developmental challenges intimidating.

Celebrating Pessah in these parts takes on a new and salient meaning. Many are slaves to abject poverty, unable to do as they please and shackled by a lack of opportunity. Our freedom meant that we had the means to not be at home eking out a living, the freedom to travel and the freedom to move on.

In South Africa, the location of my last Seder, you can’t help but feel the connection between biblical Jewish emancipation and recent local history. Trapped within their own borders as third-class citizens, the majority of South Africans labored under the yoke of apartheid to build the country, like the Hebrews in Egypt built the Pyramids.

Mandela led his people through a 50- year wilderness of oppression and servitude in search of a promised land. Seventeen years after the first truly democratic elections, South Africa still faces huge problems, but its entire people are free to face them. Today, South Africa is a liberated society laden with dynamism and entrepreneurship.

Pessah reinforces my status as a wandering Jew. It celebrates the freedom that I have to roam, just as it celebrates the rights of others to stay at home, live where they wish or vote for their government. This year I’m sitting down for my Seder in South Africa again. As for next year, who knows? Maybe Jerusalem.

Jonny Newton is a freelancer who focuses on travel and features, currently based in South Africa.

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