‘Jambo!’ from Zanzibar

How a Jerusalem couple led a Passover Seder on the east African island.

Levi and Aidel Margolin (photo credit: PR)
Levi and Aidel Margolin
(photo credit: PR)
On a warm night in Zanzibar, a large group of Israelis gathered together to celebrate the Passover Seder on the tropical island off the coast of Tanzania.
With their feet in the white sands and the sound of the Indian Ocean’s waves lapping the shore, nearly 200 Israeli tourists were able to follow the tradition of reading the Haggada as well as eating kosher- for-Passover foods thanks to Chabad- Lubavitch of Central Africa (CLCA).
Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa operates Passover Seders in more than 20 locations in sub-Saharan Africa, under the director Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, who came to the Democratic Republic of the Congo over 25 years ago to establish the CLCA, which works in 13 African countries to support Jewish life and educational programming.
This year, CLCA’s largest Passover Seder in Africa was held in Zanzibar, and was led by a Chabad couple from Jerusalem – Levi and Aidel Margolin. The couple had only a few days to prepare a Seder – an experience that neither will forget anytime soon.
“We were able to pull off something amazing in quite a short amount of time,” said Levi Margolin, 32, who has had previous experiences holding Seders in unusual locations around the world including Kenya, Beijing, Athens, and a small island off Brazil.
“Enough can’t be said about the devotion of Rabbi Bentolila and his team to make this Seder happen. As the largest Seder in sub-Saharan Africa, the Chabad of Central Africa offices provided much support and guidance throughout our short time there,” said Margolin during an interview with In Jerusalem.
Bentolila, with the help of an Israeli living in Zanzibar, was able to secure a restaurant right on a beach that the couple utilized for cooking and preparations.
After the six-hour direct El Al flight from Israel, the first thing the Margolins did was to get acquainted with the location and to inform Israeli tourists in the area of the upcoming Seder.
As for traditional Passover items, the Margolins had a lot shopping to do in Jerusalem before the trip. At Ben Gurion Airport, they checked in seven bags full of traditional holiday items including horseradish root, grape juice, handmade shmura matza, and haggadot.
“We pulled up to Ben-Gurion with two cars because one wasn’t enough to transport all the luggage. Aidel was able to work her magic at the El Al counter, explaining why we were traveling with seven bags to Zanzibar and was able to get most of the bags checked in for free,” recalled Levi.
Once the couple arrived on the island, Aidel realized that the food preparation would prove challenging with only four days left before the Seder. “It wasn’t a simple snap of the fingers,” she said.
“The kitchen wasn’t so well equipped. The stove and oven ran off a gas tank that sat in the middle of the kitchen floor. There were flies everywhere, but together with the local staff, we sat on the floor peeling vegetables and stood at the sink for hours on end, hand grating 100 kilograms of potatoes!”
“As the number of Seder participants continued to climb, we thought we might not have enough to accommodate the crowds. So we flew my younger sister, Raziel, down to Zanzibar with some refills. It was just so nice to have her with us, helping out,” added Aidel.
East Africa’s Tanzania is a popular spot for Israeli tourists and the number of travelers from the Jewish state has increased steadily over the years, from 3,007 in 2011 to 14,754 in 2015, according to data from the Tanzania Tourist Board. The Zanzibar archipelago is located about 37 kilometers from mainland Tanzania. With its coral reefs, beaches, turquoise waters and unique history, the island is a popular tourist attraction after a Tanzanian safari.
For Aidel, 26, who had never hosted a Seder for such a large number of people, almost everything was unlike any Passover she had ever experienced. “The size, the crowd, the location, the food, even the songs were all unusual for me. The fresh tuna, for example, was the biggest whole fish I had ever seen.
“Levi has done this before, but I had never been at a Seder for that many people,” she said.
Nor had she ever experienced a Seder on a white sandy beach. “Sitting on the beach, with a glass of wine in your hand and feet in the sand while singing Ma Nishtana after all the hard work, was very cool,” said Aidel.
“Watching the sun go down as the holiday began, with dozens of tables lining the shore was simply magnificent.”
Although Levi had been to Africa before, the Zanzibar Passover was still one for the books. “Zanzibar is very unique aside from the beautiful beaches. People live simply. There were huts, a few cars; basic life at its best. The locals were happy and it was inspiring to see,” said Levi.
“It was great to be able to do this with my wife,” he noted.
One of the Margolins’ favorite memories of the eight-day trip was of the crowd that took part in the Seder. “The diversity was inspiring. People of all ages, all backgrounds and all types came out on a Monday night, in the middle of their vacation, to celebrate Pessah with us,” said Aidel.
“The people were so thankful and definitely a little surprised to see that Chabad didn’t forget this random location on Pessah. I give a lot of credit to Rabbi Bentolila for the operation he is running to ensure that no Jew will be left behind.
Even those traveling in Ghana, Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea and more than a dozen other places in Africa, all had a Seder to go to.”
For Levi, the director of marketing and social media at Taglit-Birthright Israel: Mayanot, Passover has always been one of his favorite holidays. Growing up, he didn’t realize that the Passover Seder could just be an exclusively familial experience.
“Firstly, we always hosted more than a hundred people at our Chabad house in Norfolk, Virginia, and secondly, Pessah with just family sounded weird to me. As I got older, I wanted to share the Seder with more and more people.”
However, for the Zanzibar Passover, it was Levi’s first experience leading the entire Seder only in Hebrew as the crowd was completely Israeli. “He did a great job,” said Aidel, a tour guide in Israel. “He spoke well, managed the crowd, got them involved, and got in an occasional joke as he always does.”
The Margolins concluded the interview with some Swahili they picked up in Zanzibar including asante sana, which means “thank you,” jambo, which means “hello” and hakuna matata, which they found out is a real Swahili phrase, and not just a movie expression from The Lion King, for “no worries.”