This is an interesting guest post by Ayelet Weisz of All Colores.
Entering the kibbutz’s dining room, I see multiple long-stretching tables on each side of the room. Kibbutz members and residents sit by travelers who came here for an unusual experience. Here, it’s no family evening of bonding.
Your voice mixes with the rest of the community’s voices. It is perhaps a metaphor for earlier days of building the country, when a single person’s wishes were not as important as the group’s needs.
A kibbutz is a settlement unique to Israel, where people shared food, finances and housework. Northern Israel is filled with more kibbutz settlements than cities. Even though people now keep their finances to themselves and children sleep in their parents’ houses instead of in a house dedicated to communal childcare, a kibbutz is still a small place where everybody knows your name. If you want to buy or build a home in a kibbutz, you must go through a process in order to be accepted by the community. A kibbutz is all about community and the legacy of the groups of women and men who built the country. Eating a holiday dinner in a kibbutz is similar to eating one at a restaurant, except for the extra value you get in a community soaked in history.
On the stage at the center of the room, voices require a microphone to be heard. These voices, changing all the time, read the Hagada, the booklet that tells the story of the escape to freedom.
Once upon a time, a large Jewish family escaped to Egypt to find food, for there was famine in the land of Israel. After years of co-habitation, Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, started fearing the power of the growing Jewish population. He sanctioned it to slavery, forcing Jews to build cities and pyramids. Another sanction said to throw every newborn male to the river, to let them die.
The biblical story, which emphasizes the importance of men to society, does not detail what happened to women. It is known from other slaveries that, where men collapse under excruciating work, women often go through rapes on top of mandatory labor and are still the ones responsible to raise the children. The biblical story, likely written by men as only a select number of men knew how to read and write, does not share the extent of this slavery’s influence on women. It does, however, tell that a woman called Miriam was the first responsible for the salvation of the Israeli people.
Attempting to save her baby brother Moses’ life, Miriam put him by the side of the river at her mother Yocheved’s request. She watched as Pharaoh’s daughter found him and decided to adopt him. Miriam approached the princess and suggested she uses a Hebrew wet nurse to take care of the baby. That nurse was Yocheved, who ended up secretly raising her own son. Thanks to Yocheved and Miriam, Moses grew to become the man who God chose to lead the Israeli people from slavery to freedom. Moses asked Pharaoh to release the Hebrew people from slavery. “Let my people go!”, he said to the king. Pharaoh refused. According to the biblical story, God then cast ten punishments on the Egyptian people, each one worse than the previous, ending with the tenth – killing all firstborn Egyptian sons.
Pharaoh and his team chased the Jewish people to the desert, and the Jewish people were afraid: behind them were the Egyptians, in front of them a massive sea. God came through, dividing the sea into two parts, and the Jews went through it on dry land. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were not so fortunate, as God closed the sea on them and they drowned. Forty years later, after decades of leading a nomadic lifestyle (too bad there were no blogs then), the Jews reached Israel.
Passover, also named the Holiday of Freedom, is celebrated every year in order to commemorate that salvation. As we sit by these stretching tables alongside members of Kibbutz Degania B, after every short piece of Hagada text comes a song. Celebrating family-style, the reading of the Hagada is spontaneous. Each participating member gets to read a part or more aloud if she or he wishes. Here, the crowd is so big, therefore roles were scheduled in advance and given solely to residents of the kibbutz, so that they would have a chance to practice.
Often, in family celebrations of Passover, we would read a Hagada text as we would read a book, only aloud. My parents, children of people who participated in building this country, would recognize some of these words to be songs that were sung long ago. In the kibbutz, even they were surprised when facing music with some of the words.
After every reading and singing, the entire room claps hands and the voice of the microphone changes. The children of the kibbutz sing “Ma Nishtana?”, “What has changed?”, a song otherwise sung by the youngest children of a family. The song comes to ask, what is different tonight of all nights? Unlike other nights, we eat matza (a thin, bizarre bread) instead of regular bread, remembering the matzas that our ancestors ate in the desert for forty years. Unlike other nights, when we might not sit together to eat, tonight we sit together.
The voices of the microphone greet the soldiers of the kibbutz, wishing them well. On one of the Hagada booklets on our table, we find an unsigned, hand-written text: “It is the fifth Holiday of Freedom that Gilad Shalit is in captivity of Hamas… We will pray for his quick return home”. Gilad Shalit was a twenty year old soldier when he was kidnapped in June 2006. It was an open wound for many Israelis, as military service is obligatory by law here. Right after high school, women serve for two years and men for three. Most people were soldiers and know people who are or were soldiers. Also, Shalit is not the first soldier to be kidnapped while in service. Public pressure was high. In October 2011 he was released in exchange to 1027 prisoners, hundreds of terrorists among them.
A year after this prayer was written in the Hagada booklet and several months after Shalit’s release, the spring ceremony of Passover continues. Kibbutz children of second and third grades search for the afikoman, a matza that was hidden. To be exact, it is half of the third matza of the pile that stands on the dinner table. When it’s only a family by one table, the trick is to hide the afikoman during dinner without the children noticing it. The best part of the entire evening for children is the search for the afikoman. Not only is it fun, but the child who finds it gets to ask the adults for whatever present she or he wants. Or, as in my family, all kids receive a small present equally. Here, no one says a thing when the time comes to hide the afikoman and I am left curious to know who found it and if the finder received a present.
At last comes the second part of the evening: the food. Imagine sitting by a table filled with food, knowing there’s even more food in a nearby room, and not eat for half an evening. Once the voice of the microphone declared it was time to eat, the entire room claps – and those claps and cheers of joy are stronger than any other moment this evening.
Yet food is not the last part of the evening. Afterward come the best songs of Passover. And desert. And in the kibbutz, the singing continues well after the songs of Passover are all sung. People start getting up, approaching the center of the room, and they dance as others sing to the microphone and fellow residents of the kibbutz play the guitar. After a long while, people start drifting outside, talking in groups or sitting on the lawns in front of their houses, together, under the sky of a full moon.
About the author:
Ayelet Weisz is an enthusiastic writer and translator from Israel, covering travel, body image and self empowerment among other topics. Visit her blog, All Colores, where she celebrates the everyday and extraordinaire joys of life through travel. Follow her adventures on Twitter and Facebook.