I was just about to pass over Passover. My husband Paul and I had been invited to two seders in Los Angeles, but one was a rock and the other was a hard place. At the former, there would be three children who were so obnoxious that their father walked around wearing headphones. At the latter, a gaggle of girlfriends who trashed other women and bashed men.
I opened up the newspaper to look for a deli that offered matza ball soup and gefilte fish when I saw it—a tiny ad announcing African American Passover. It was near LAX airport, which meant it was less than half an hour’s drive, but my gut told me it would be a world away from Hollywood, the movie studios and my computer, where I spent most of my exasperating work life.
“What do you wear to an African American seder?” we wondered. Sedate black? An ethnic look? Paul settled on a black blazer with a sea-blue shirt and I wore my cloak of many colors that I had bought in Africa.
We arrived at the low, sprawling restaurant complex where the Passover was to take place. Three impeccably-dressed, well-coiffed, smiling African Americans welcomed people at the door and, to our utter surprise, they spoke Hebrew.
“Habaim Baruchim,” one of them said to us.
Paul and I broke into huge grins. The Hebrew wasn’t perfect—the order of the words had been reversed—but the intention far outweighed the error.
“Shalom Aleichem,” another proclaimed. We returned the greeting and walked jauntily into a large hall with a prominent stage that sported some props and set elements and long tables filled with Passover celebrants.
It wasn’t hard to pick us out from the crowd: we were the only white faces. A few people invited us to join them at their table, which we did, and we made polite chitchat. After a few minutes, we saw that a slight, bespectacled man was walking across the vast room towards us. He stretched out his hand, shook ours, and introduced himself as the minister.
“Welcome to our Passover,” he said in a gentle, low voice. “May I ask what brings you here?”
We mumbled something long-winded and politically correct, but the intuitive pastor cut through our rambling.
“Are you folks Jewish?” he asked.
“I hope we don’t offend you,” he said.
I wanted to reply that after enduring the daily slings and arrows of working in Hollywood, it would be hard for this gentle man to offend me, but I kept my counsel.
“We’re happy to be here,” was all I said.
He left our table and walked up onto the stage. The room grew silent, and all eyes were on him. When he began to speak, it was with a different voice from the low, gentle one he had used to address us. His voice boomed like a pipe organ, filling the huge room with its sonorous tones.
“More than three thousand years ago, in the land of Egypt, the Pharaoh ruled with great wealth and a mighty hand, and the Jews were slaves, toiling under the brutal, boiling African sun. “
There were moans of sympathy from the audience.
“And you know the story of Moses, who was lifted from the river in his reed basket and raised in the Pharaoh’s palace. And you know that he saw a master abusing a Jewish slave, and he killed that man for his wickedness. Moses knew the Egyptians would be after him for the murder, so he fled to the land of Midian. There he married the daughter of Jethro the priest, and he learned the ways of wisdom from his father-in-law. But Moses was not destined to spend the rest of his life in Midian. Oh, no…”
“Oh, no,” the audience echoed.
“Oh, no. For God appeared to him in the blazing fire of the burning bush, and told him, ‘Go down, Moses……Go down to Egypt land….”
Guided by the booming voice of the pastor, and accompanied by a 4-piece band, the audience burst out into song, brilliant, soaring, harmonizing, “Tell old….Pharaoh….to let my people go!”
The verses were repeated, the song built in intensity, and I almost leapt out of my seat with excitement. Then, as suddenly as it started, the music stopped, the tune ended, and the preacher resumed his story.
“So Moses went to Pharaoh, and asked him to release the Hebrews from slavery, but Pharaoh wouldn’t move. Oh, no…”
“So God brought ten plagues upon the Egyptians….ten dreadful plagues that made the people on the banks of the Nile shake and shudder with terror. First there was blood….”
“Blood!” the room echoed.
“Gnats and wild beasts…”
“Gnats and wild beasts!” the participants roared.
“But Pharaoh wouldn’t relent. Nine plagues that would soften the heart of anyone, anyone but the Pharaoh. His heart was hardened. And then, the worst plague of all, and may God spare us from such a plague, the killing of all the firstborn sons….”
There were groans and moans of agony from the audience.
“But God spared the Hebrew babies, and do you know how he spared them?”
With that, the preacher lifted up a can of red paint, thrust a thick brush into it, and turned toward one of the scenic elements on stage with him: a large, wooden door set into a frame.
“God told the Hebrews to paint their doorposts with lamb’s blood…”
With vigorous strokes, and accompanied by crashing chords and cymbals, the pastor splashed the red paint across the doorway.
The audience gasped and then held its collective breath.
“And the Angel of Death saw the lamb’s blood and knew it was a Hebrew house, and passed right over, sparing the babies inside and killing all the firstborns of the Egyptians. The Egyptian people could not be consoled. The wailing of the mothers could be heard everywhere, across the river, through the cities, it echoed to the deserts and mountains, it filled all of Egypt.”
Everyone in the room howled and wailed.
“And when Egypt could bear it no longer, not one minute longer, Pharaoh relented and let the slaves go.”
"Thank you, Lord!”
The pastor was one of the most breathtaking actors and historical re-creators I had ever witnessed. No one in the audience coughed or sneezed or looked away. He carried us all to Egypt where we could feel the pain of Moses, the pain of slavery, the inconsolable grief of the Egyptian mothers who had lost their babies. He took us with Moses to the parting of the sea, and the moment when the waters closed and swallowed the Egyptians who were in pursuit. To Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the ten commandments. To the fury of Moses who came down from the mountain and saw his people worshipping the golden calf. To Moses crashing the commandments to the ground and heading back into the mountains. To the desert, where the Hebrews were so lost and bereft and miserable they pined for Egypt. To the manna that fell from heaven to nourish and sustain them.
By the end of the saga, we were wrung out, exhausted, spent, exhilarated, and ready for the Promised Land, which the preacher delivered.
We sat in stunned silence when the Passover narrative was over. We had experienced the story, rather than just reading about it. We had participated in the original Passover. We had met the Pharaoh, Moses, the Egyptians, our ancient foremothers and fathers.
The pastor left the stage, exchanged hugs and handshakes with the congregation, and headed over to our table, where the seder meal was being served.
“I hope I didn’t offend you,” he said in his gentle, subdued voice.
“Offend us? This was the most exciting, vibrant Passover we have ever experienced. But….but….”
“You want to know why we do it? Is that it?”
The minister pulled up an empty chair and sat next to us, speaking passionately and from the heart.
“Everything was torn away from us when we left Africa as slaves-- our names, our history, our language, our tribal identity, our religion. When we look back, we need something to identify with, a story, a past, but we have been robbed of it. What we can relate to most is the story of the Jews, from the time when they were slaves in Egypt, and how they liberated themselves from slavery.
We try to learn the Hebrew language, celebrate the Passover, retell the story. We hope what we did tonight to celebrate Passover did not trouble or offend you. It is a deep passion we feel for your story, which is like our story.”
It was hard to answer. The words were so moving and the sincerity of the pastor was searing.
I opened my mouth to speak, but all I could do was put my fingers to my lips, reach out, and place my fingers on his forehead.
“Thank you,” I whispered. “You have made Passover come alive for me. We are brothers and sisters.”
Paul clasped the preacher and hugged him.
“Todah rabbah,” the preacher said, “and may our One God bless you.”
About the photos:
The photos by Paul Ross were not taken during the seder, as we did not think it was respectful to record photographically. They are of a Lemba man in South Africa, a descendent of ancient Jews.
About the author:
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel journalist who has contributed to more than 100 publications and author of the acclaimed book LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us