An Insider’s View of the Zimbabwe Seder

image: Modreck Zvakavapano Maeresera

Modreck Zvakavapano Maeresera

The lighting in the schoolroom was surreal, creating a dreamy, mystic quality. Perhaps it was the mixture of the few light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and the candles, which dotted the tables, arranged in a rectangular shape. At the center of the room, in the empty space a group of old Lemba men was dancing and singing. Among them was one white man also dancing to the rhythm of the beating drums and the traditional Lemba music. To an outside observer he must have looked comically out of place, but not to me. The scene was pregnant with meaning, and I was filled with emotion.

Our Lemba community had just participated in our first "traditional" Pesach seder (Passover holiday meal), using a cut and paste haggadah that I had helped assemble with my friend and colleague Rabson Wuriga and Sandy Leeder, a Kulanu volunteer from Israel. During the seder, Rabson had asked the four questions and I recited the brachot (blessings) over the wine. Both of us used Hebrew and Shona (local language of Zimbabwe). Community members took turns reading the answers to the questions in Shona using their copies of the haggadah.

Now we were done. The women were busy removing the dishes from the tables. The children were munching away at the chocolates and candies they had received as gifts. The men were sipping wine in small plastic kiddush cups. Looking across the room, I could see old man Chibaya looking at the dancers, a toothless grin on his wizened face. And at my side sat Rabson drinking in the festivities. His facial expression was quietly attentive, but in his eyes, I could see a look of satisfaction that told of the hard work and effort that he had expended to make this great event possible. Indeed Rabson,* more than any other person, had contributed to the success of this day.

And then my eyes returned to the white man dancing discordantly among the Lemba men, occasionally punctuating the rhythm of the clapping hands and the beating drums with a blast from the shofar (ram’s horn) he had in his hands. For days Sandy Leeder had worked tirelessly to make sure that everything went according to plan. From the seder plates with symbolic holiday foods to the dinnerware and food preparation, to the tent and the purchase of wine and soda for seder participants and on and on, Sandy had worked in high gear to ensure the success of this special milestone in the life of our Lemba community.

The Lemba relationship with Kulanu began in 1996 when Kulanu first made contact with our Lemba brothers and sisters in South Africa through the late Professor Mathivha, a distinguished Lemba elder, and later with us, the Zimbabwean Lemba. Thus began our journey from isolated Jewish community to the path of renewal and hopefully reintegration into mainstream Judaism, the religion of our forefathers. It has been almost 20 years, but here we were celebrating our first Pesach seder as a community.

Thousands of years ago, Hashem (G-d) stretched forth His mighty hand and rescued the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt. And now thousands of years later Hashem had shown us that He does not forget his own.

When we least expected it, Jews from another country reached out to us and invited us home.

For me, this seder has strengthened my conviction that the essence of Judaism is about looking after and caring for one another. This has been demonstrated by our friends in Kulanu and those who work with the organization.

We Lemba have been so removed from the larger Jewish world, with our culture and religion under siege from other religions like Islam and Christianity. We were like a pool of water that had no feeder streams, our culture stagnant, and no interaction with our co-religionists in the larger Jewish world. As a result, we lost a lot of the Jewish ritual practices of our faith.

image: First Passover Seder among the Lemba in modern times

First Passover Seder among the Lemba in modern times
Photo by Sandy Leeder

Kulanu has provided us with a lifeline. When we least expected it, Kulanu leaders have reached out to us and extended their hands. The seder is a milestone on our epic journey back to Judaism.

Today, in this candle lit schoolroom, we began synchronizing our lives with the Jewish calendar and with Jews around the world. In this schoolroom, which coincidentally serves as a synagogue for the villagers on Shabbat, we officially marked the beginning of our return.

We have a synagogue to build, a school, a clinic. But most importantly, we have to relearn the Hebrew prayers, Jewish rituals and traditions, Halacha (Jewish law) in order to practice Judaism. But we will have the help of Jewish brothers and sisters who are eager to walk the way with us.

I looked again at Sandy Leeder, the white man who was dancing with a group of Lemba men. I couldn’t help but feel that he was now one of us. There he was dancing to one of our most sacred songs. It was a sign to me that we Lembas were coming out of the cocoon that we had woven around ourselves for self-preservation. Maybe we too had something to teach our fellow Jews. They could learn about our Lemba culture and way of life and the many things that we preserved in their original form because of our seclusion.

We owe our thanks to Sandy who worked hard to organize this seder, to Dr. Jack Zeller, long time Kulanu leader and friend, and to every volunteer who works with Kulanu on behalf of isolated Jewish communities around the world.

The music stopped and Sandy lifted his glass of wine for a final toast. “L’chaim” to life. he said. Everybody lifted their glasses, and in unison, their eyes sparkling with happiness, drank their wine.

Outside the stars were shining and a cool April breeze caressed my face as I made my way towards the tent. I felt full, complete, at peace. There was one thought that kept recurring over and over again in my mind: “Jews do not forget their own.”

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* Dr. Rabson Wuriga started working for the Lemba cause almost 20 years ago. At first he worked closely with the late Dr. Mathivha of the South African Lemba community who was committed to bringing the Lemba back into the mainstream Jewish community. Later, he served as the Coordinator of the Lemba Cultural Association (LCA), Zimbabwean Chapter. Today, he serves as the secretary of the Great Zimbabwe Synagogue steering committee and leads Shabbat services every week in the community. His contribution has and continues to be world changing for the Lemba community. Simply put, our engagement, and hopefully, reintegration with, the worldwide Jewish community would not be happening without his efforts. Dr. Wuriga is the author of the recently published book, Of Sacred Times, Rituals and Customs, Oral Traditions of the Lemba Jews of Zimbabwe, available through Kulanu and Amazon.com.