A Seder under siege in Jerusalem

As we hit the open road near Romema, we burst into song, joined by the guards at the roadblocks.

seder plate 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
seder plate 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Seder night in besieged Jerusalem, 1948, falling on a Friday eve was doubly special. We were in high spirits as we walked to town, marveling at the unexpected quiet. Not a shot was heard the whole way. The only sign of the times was a thick security guard surrounding the chief rabbi's home in Rehavia, a block away from where we were headed, to the family Seder of my Hagana commander, Yehuda. I was a special guest from America. Everybody had guests that year: more than 200 drivers who brought the last convoy to Jerusalem and hundreds of soldiers far from home. The family made me feel at home, including Yehuda's sister whom I recognized from my first-aid course and her husband with whom I had once done guard duty. The Haggada was recited in Hebrew, but important passages were repeated in Ladino for the benefit of the grandmother, in keeping with Sephardi tradition. The herbs on the Seder plate were truly bitter, plucked from the fields, like the greens that are our daily fare. The haroset tasted as bad as the Egyptian bricks it represented! The Seder ceremony was much like the one we had, though one custom was strikingly different. They didn't place the afikoman between two pillows but rather wrapped in a napkin, with the ends tied into a knot. Then the matza bundle was passed to each one at the table who, in turn, slung it over a shoulder and held it a bit, to symbolize how Jews carried their belongings out of Egyptian bondage. The youngest at the table, a five-year old boy, in lispy Hebrew that seemed to characterize the speech of most Sabra children, recited the traditional Ma Nishtana, or Four Questions, but it sounded more like he was actually asking: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" In response, he was told how a Seder in besieged Jerusalem was indeed different from any other. Despite the terrible food shortage, a meal of sorts was served that including kneidlach with an oddly nut-like flavor. Who knows what they were made of? The singing was really joyous. I was even asked to sing the melodies I knew, which were very different from theirs, but enjoyed by all. Because of the long walk to our student digs in Kiryat Moshe, we left early, taking a short cut through Mahane Yehuda to be out of the firing line from the Generali Building (the British Mandatory Government office compound). The flickering candlelight in the window of one house revealed a large family group huddled around he holiday table, the youngsters' ear locks dangling on the tablecloth, all singing with hassidic fervor. Every corner of the deserted cobblestone alley reverberated with the sound of holiday celebrations. As we hit the open road near Romema, we ourselves burst into song, joined by the guards at the checkposts and roadblocks we passed on the way. The following day, we feasted on an omelette made from our special Pessah ration, which included matza and one egg each. Zipporah Porath is a freelance writer and popular lecturer. She is the author of the widely acclaimed book, 'Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948'