Mah Nishtanah, Literally
By now we know, viscerally, how this Passover is going to be different from all others. The obvious allusions to the 11th plague and the cartoons that leaven the grim statistics with a bit of humor have all made the rounds. I'm cooking for one and preparing for my Zoom seder. At least more people will fit on my computer screen than in my dining room!
My Pesah seder has always been different from most American seders. We still conduct it according to the Baghdadi tradition, from a haggadah that has Hebrew text followed by Judeo-Arabic translations written in Hebrew letters that are also chanted after each paragraph. You can listen to my family singing sections of the haggadah here.
I fiercely guard the eclectic collection of Pesah dishes, serving pieces and textiles that came all the way from India. The silk matza cover that my great-aunt Ramah embroidered, now spattered with wine and halek, the date honey we use for haroset (recipe here). A tiny teapot I use as a wine cup, drinking from the spout.
The ceramic bowl for the zero'a, the shankbone, has just taken on new meaning for me. It's painted with a Chinese character that I previously knew nothing about. An online link suggested it might be "shou," meaning "hand." I don't know for sure, but I love the possibilities. Maybe it was originally a bowl for washing hands according to Chinese custom, but for us the zero'a represents God's strong hand and outstretched arm. I doubt my family knew the significance of the pictograph when they obtained the bowl, which perhaps came through the import-export trade. But there are no coincidences! Whether it's true or not, my imagination has decided on its meaning.
Then there's the special goblet that only the leader of the seder uses. We call it the Dam Tzefarde'a glass, after the first two plagues, blood and frogs. It's filled with wine and only the leader pours from it into a bowl as he or she recites the name of each plague. Due to our superstitious fear of contamination by the vicarious power of the plagues, no one looks at the wine as it is being poured out and anyone who touches the Dam Tzefarde'a glass or bowl has to wash their hands thoroughly.
At the end of the seder, we give out pieces of the afikoman as good luck charms to be tucked into suitcases when we travel, just as the Israelites took their matza with them on their dangerous journey out of Egypt. I wonder if this year I should take that afikoman with me to the supermarket?
The Bene Israel Jews of Bombay, who say that their ancestors from the land of Israel were shipwrecked off the coast of India over 2,000 years ago, only had their memories to rely on when they tried to maintain Jewish traditions. They dipped a hand in sheep's blood to mark their doorposts as the ancient Israelites did so the Angel of Death would pass over their homes before they left Egypt. That became the Bene Israeli MEZUZAH.
Here's hoping that you find comfort, protection and healing in these difficult times. Refuah sh'lemah, speedy recovery, to all those who are in need.
Tizkoo l'shanim rabot! May you merit many years.
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Rahel Musleah was born in Calcutta, India, the seventh generation of a Calcutta Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad.