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.
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
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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