Community Seders in Zimbabwe

Pesach I Mberengwa

By Hilary Zhou

For the past 5 years, starting in 2012, the Lemba Jews in Zimbabwe have been celebrating Pesach as a community in the form of giant community seders. The first ever seder for us as Lemba Jews was celebrated in Mapakomhere in Masvingo province of Zimbabwe in 2012, when Kulanu’s regional coordinator Sandy Leeder came and organized a community seder for the Lemba Jews of that rural community. In many ways that seder marked the beginning of the Lemba’s journey towards reintegrating with mainstream Judaism. Ever since then we have introduced the seder to the Harare Lemba Synagogue (a community of Lemba who live in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe), and this year we added Mberengwa, bringing the number of community seders in the country to 3.

Bringing the seder to Mberengwa was long overdue; as a district that boasts the largest Lemba population in Zimbabwe it is only fitting that Mberengwa has its own seder. Despite having the largest Lemba population, Mberengwa also has a substantive Lemba traditional chief and it is the hub of Lemba culture and traditions, and for those reasons bringing the seder to this community was logical. For many years,the people of Mberengwa have been patiently waiting for the seder and modern Judaism to be introduced to their district and this year they were able to see that dream come true.

The intensive education that I received through the Kulanu-sponsored Harare Lemba synagogue education programs, including learning with teachers like Guershon and other visiting teachers, did not only give me a deep understanding of what this holiday was about, but also prepared me to lead the first ever seder in my home district of Mberengwa. Leading the Harare Lemba synagogue seder last year also helped a lot in preparing me for this great day.

The venue for the Mberengwa seder was at Chegato Primary School, a school that is close to a Lemba village called Masarira. Masarira village consists of about 200 households mainly of the Madi clan, while there are also the Sadiki, Hamis, Mani, and Sarif clans in the village; it is located a few kilometers from the Dumbwi Mountain where the ngoma lungundu used to be housed.

The village has a population of about 5000, but currently only about 2000 due to the rural-urban migration when people move to cities in search of jobs and sources of living.

We started preparing for the seder early Monday morning, lighting fires for cooking and roasting meat. Our shochet, Vupamwe Zhou, 15 years old, is an apprentice and will one day replace the village shochet. He acted as the village shochet, meeting the daily slaughtering requirements and slaughtering the sheep for the Pesach seder.

Vupamwe was selected to be the village shochet because he has never set his foot outside the district, which means he is believed to have never eaten non-Lemba kosher food and is also believed to have never eaten from a non-Lemba household. According to Lemba traditions, for one to be a shochet they must be known to have adhered to Lemba dietary laws all their life.

After the skinning and burning of the hides and chametz, it was time to set the seder tables at the school dining hall.

Sheron, my wife, took this opportunity to teach and share her knowledge with the ladies about how to set the Ke’ara (seder plate). She had lettuce and ginger for maror; charoset which she prepared with apples, cinnamon, raisins, nuts and red wine; karpas; a boiled potato; Z’roa, the roasted lamb and goat bones; and beitzah, a hardboiled egg, which completed the seder plate.

A bottle of wine, a cup of salt water, matzot, and translated copies of the Haggadah completed the set for each table. One of the elderly ladies, Mrs.

Makuvaza, who was helping with the dining hall preparations, was very happy about what she called the greatest reunion: “What we want now is to continue to learn, and our great wish now is to have services. Please tell our dear brothers and sisters who have made this possible to send us rabbis to teach us.” Hopefully with enough learning I will be able to take up the role of leading services for the village.

As we waited for the lighting of the candles and the shehecheyanu, since it was a first for most people, I took the time to give a brief background of the seder and the story of the Exodus and its meaning and why we eat and drink wine and tell the story of the Exodus. I also took the time to teach about chametz and the dietary requirements for Passover, and how different traditions have different dietary observances, which brought us to a discussion on which tradition we were supposed to follow for Pesach: the Ashkenazi or the Sephardic traditions. The decision will be made by the Halacha committee sometime this year. I also took time to explain how this, our first seder in Mberengwa, was a significant one since it symbolized our coming back to mainstream Judaism.

A temperate mood presided in the dining hall as everyone listened while we discussed the Pesach seder and its traditions. “We need books and tallit so that we can read and learn Jewish law and practices, since we had lost our books long ago. Please thank everyone who made this possible for us; this is indeed a dawn of a new era in our lives,” said Mr. Zvoushe Zhou.

After the candle lighting, it was time to begin the seder service, which we began with the reciting of the Kiddush and the drinking of the first of the 4 cups of wine. There was a bit of pushing and shoving as all our junior guests jostled to be the one to ask the four questions. We eventually settled to have 4 kids to ask a question each, from four of the five clans present, and this gave an amicable ending to the jostling.

Due to the enthusiasm from the kids, for the afikoman search we decided to have only the girls participateas only the boys had participated in the asking of the four questions. The ultimate prize of a bar of chocolate went to Elsinah Ngavi while all the other children also received sweets as a compliment for their participation.

We recited the Birkat Hamazon, then the Nirtzah, and finally it was time to say our goodbyes. It was a wonderful night of eating, song, and dance. About 70 women, men and children gathered to celebrate Pesach in Masarira village. Their ages varied from a year old to 80 years. Finally the modern seder was introduced to the Lemba Jews in Mberengwa. Hopefully soon we will have services and eventually build a synagogue for the community one day.

I would like to thank everyone who made this special night possible, Kulanu and its donors for the donation that made this event a resounding success, and Natasha Simcha Butchart for sourcing the matzot.