By Leah Solomon
It was two days before it was all about to happen. For the first time in years my mom wasn’t around for this part. We were terrified. The atmosphere was electric, so much so that you could almost see everyone’s brainwaves through their hair, which dripped with sweat. Everyone had their role to play. You had to do your part and you had to do it well. We had to pretend that our matriarch was watching us through a telescope all the way from New York so that we performed in exactly the right way. My sister and I were the purchasers. The list was clear and precise and it NEVER changed. It was one of the most important tasks of it all. We were the foundation. What we came home with would make or break the next few days. Pesach was coming.
Pesach is my favourite Jewish holiday. Pesach, or ‘Passover’, commemorates the liberation of the Israelites who were led out of Egypt by Moses. Not only is the story behind the holiday incredibly moving, but it’s also the one festival that you pull out all the stops for. My family and I would begin the actual preparation days in advance. We would make the hour-long drive to Durban so that we could buy all the right kosher Pesach food, since they had to cater for more than five Jews. Usually we have around 20 guests who join us, all of whom would have received the email invitation a month before. We had to bring in more tables so that they could all have their own place mat and chair. My older brother is a teacher at the junior school next door to our complex, so we would always put him in the awkward position of having to ask permission to use school property (classic Jewish guilt). He would get back at us by enlisting the help of some of the children in his class to carry them over, making us feel guilty for depriving innocent boys and girls of their education and making them endure manual labour. It used to work, but now we’re just glad that we get free table hire.
The night before and the morning of Pesach is always the busiest. We are constantly running around from one task to another, never completing one before heading to the next station. The night before would entail all the prep for the cooking the next morning. Chopping, slicing, peeling, arranging, carrying, breaking, spilling, buying, driving, putting your head in your hands, drinking. These were the most common actions we all did repetitively. It became like a dance. One motion moved into the other like second nature and clockwork. Preparing for a five course meal is never easy. Salads, gefilte fish, chopped herring, vegetable soup and kneidl, brisket with roast vegetable, and dessert. There’s a lot of food.
The next morning we would all awaken to my mom scuffing her sheep’s wool slippers down the passage and the beautiful sound of the kettle being switched on. We’d all rise in a daze, but we knew that we’d need to pace through our morning routines a lot more hurriedly than usual. You never fought or tried to negotiate, you just did it. Experiencing a mildly irritated Jewish mother whose yon tov doesn’t go according to plan is something you do not wish upon your worst enemy. The morning and afternoon are dedicated to cooking, setting the table, and creating setting the atmosphere for one of the most sacred and exciting celebrations in the Jewish calendar.
Pietermaritzburg does not have the most thriving Jewish community. At the moment, I can count all of the practicing Jews on both hands (I do not count ‘Jews for Jesus’…like, what?). The first Jewish settlers arrived in Maritzburg around the same time as the first European settlers. The Jewish community was small back then, but nowhere near as minuscule as it is now.
Initially, the Jews of Maritzburg were without a synagogue and were left to use the Masonic Hall for festivities and celebrations. However, in 1914, a synagogue was consecrated. By the 1940s there were approximately 85 Jewish families living in Maritzburg. Unfortunately, despite the presence of the synagogue and its regular services for the various holy days, numbers started to decline every year. Due to people moving to cities and countries with larger Jewish populations, the synagogue was closed in 2000. Thus, my Jewish upbringing in a very non-Jewish city was unique, but just as fulfilling. I am even more grateful for who I was surrounded by.
Since I was the tiniest tot, my sister and I were constantly surrounded by our closest family friends at every big Jewish celebration, Pesach being one of them. None of them were Jewish. But, for me and my family, it was and still is more of a spiritual and cultural experience rather than a religious ceremony. We always stuck to the technicalities of Pesach – not eating anything with yeast or grains for eight days, the traditional elements on the seder plate, the order of events. However, we tweaked the evening in a way that suits us and our loved ones.
Firstly, the seder we have conducted for many years is a feminist, women’s version. The seder remembers women and children who have been affected by poverty and domestic violence and celebrates women who are at the forefront of working towards a more equal society. The story is told from the eyes, hearts and souls of women. Secondly, my dad would conduct the seder in such a way that it would nourish everyone’s spiritual needs. It became a night of sharing and giving thanks and showing compassion and appreciation for each other. During the seder you drink four small cups of wine (this was my favourite part when I was fifteen and drinking was the highlight of my life). Each cup represents an expression of redemption G-d uses in describing the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
“I will take you out…”
“I will save you…”
“I will redeem you…”
“I will take you as a nation…”
At each of these points the floor would be open to anyone who would want to express their gratitude or pay homage to someone important to them or to an event in their lives. Pesach at my house is a coming together of individuals over food and drinks and going on a journey of their own liberation from whatever may be holding them back, or coming into a new phase of their life, guided by the story of Moses leading the Jews out of oppressive Egypt. Pesach is about renewal, rejuvenation, feeling freed and liberated by your own hardships, be they emotional, physical, mental. It is a time to join with those you love most and accompany each other on a personal expedition out of your own imprisonment. Its an incredibly therapeutic experience.
So, no, Pesach is not just like “Easter for Jewish people”. It is so much more than that. If you ever have the chance to attend a Pesach celebration you better say yes as quick as a Jo’burg kugel will ask you why you’re single or when you’re getting married.
1. Gefilte fish: Traditional Jewish meal. It is a fish loaf that is baked in the oven and then lathered in a horseradish mayo.
2. Kneidl: This is a soft dumpling made of matzo flour. You eat it with soup.
3. Matzo: This is the ‘unleavened bread’ that Moses and the Israelites ate in the desert. This is what Jews eat for the duration of Pesach.
4. Yon tov: A celebration, festivities.
5. Seder: A Jewish ritual service and ceremonial dinner for the first night or first two nights of Passover.