My very first Pesach... in the Hi­malayas

Emma She­vah first cel­e­brated the free­dom fes­ti­val in In­dia

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - EMMA SHE­VAH

JEWS ARE end­lessly amused at how pe­cu­liar our rit­u­als must look to non-Jews. And, when it comes to eye­browrais­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, noth­ing com­pares to Pesach. Ques­tions hit an all-time high — “You do what?” “Do you ac­tu­ally be­lieve the Red Sea split?” So there’s not much point try­ing to ex­plain why you vac­uum your com­puter key­board, seal some kitchen cup­boards closed with mask­ing tape and ban­ish your chil­dren to eat pizza in the rainy gar­den, then make them shake their clothes be­fore they come in.

But imag­ine what it’s like not only to view Pesach as a bewil­dered by­stander, but then to adopt it as your own. By choice. For­ever. It de­fies be­lief, re­ally. Yet be­lief is one thing you need in or­der to see it through. Year af­ter year. Cup­board af­ter cup­board. Matzah af­ter matzah.

Hav­ing come to Ju­daism through con­ver­sion, my first Pesach was spent in the Hi­malayas when I was in my mid-twen­ties. We were in Hi­machal Pradesh, the In­dian state bor­dered by the Pun­jab and Pak­istan to the west, Ti­bet to the east and Kash­mir to the north. This is a place where con­vo­luted val­leys plunge so deep, you have to strain to see the river down be­low, then stretch your neck up to won­der at the vast­ness of the mighty peaks. Lush green forests cover the moun­tain­sides in beards of thick green and, here and there, houses with hig­gledy-pig­gledy slate roofs knot in tan­gled vil­lages, like crooked teeth.

Fun­nels of smoke rise from thin metal chim­neys. On rick­ety stone path­ways, damp goats and lolling cows are screamed at by women in colour­ful head­scarves, wield­ing big sticks.

Wide wooden bal­conies are cov­ered in corn cobs dry­ing in the sun. Ap­ple trees line the lower slopes and gi­ant pump­kin plants climb up the sides of houses to de­posit their fat fruit on the roofs. The air is clean and sharp and smacks of life. Writ­ten on a sign above a road­side chai shop are the words: “Wel­come, God is ev­ery­where”.

This is a place where na­ture is wild, in­tense and pow­er­ful. Where hand-sized spi­ders tip­toe across wooden walls and ceil­ings, and flies buzz lazily from cow pat to boozy fruit and back.

This is not a place of kosher for Pesach su­per­mar­kets, foil-cov­ered kitchen coun­ters or oven-clean­ing com­pa­nies.

We had more than one Pesach in the moun­tains but the one I re­mem­ber best was when I was mar­ried and seven months preg­nant with my first child. My hus­band and I had met in In­dia, mar­ried in Lon­don, and were back in the Hi­malayas, rent­ing a large house in an ap­ple or­chard near the river and the nat­u­ral hot springs.

His friends — all Is­raelis, some from Strictly Or­tho­dox, Jerusalem fam­i­lies — lived there, too. They kept Shab­bat al­ready, which was a new con­cept to me, and now spring was in the air, they were on a new mis­sion.

We were host­ing the Seder on

They made pit­ta­like matzahs and boiled the cut­lery

our big wide bal­cony. And they were do­ing it prop­erly — or, at least, as prop­erly as they could in the Hi­malayas. They cleaned the rooms and the kitchen, and boiled the metal cut­lery and uten­sils. They made pitta-like matzah in 18 min­utes (I was the time-keeper) and flung the ones baked af­ter the dead­line far into the fields. I was learn­ing as I went along and had no clue, re­ally. But, when I went to the vil­lage shop, I had an in­sight: I saw the small metal shovel sit­ting in the sack of flour — the same shovel was used to scoop the dry goods from all the other sacks, too — and re­alised it was a prob­lem to use it to spoon up my lentils. Our years in In­dia taught me much, but see­ing food in sacks like that, it was easy to see why cer­tain rules were im­posed all those years ago. The rice we bought (be­ing Sephardi) had the odd ran­dom wheat grain in it, so to avoid get­ting any nasty sur­prises over Pesach week, it had to be cleaned on big trays be­fore­hand and then bagged up — a prac­tice I still keep to­day, just in case.

Lo­cals, bent dou­ble with bas­kets of fire­wood on their backs, stopped and looked at us bewil­dered. But they’d seen crazy for­eign­ers do­ing all kinds of things. Turn­ing a house up­side down and boil­ing forks wasn’t the worst of it. Pesach was just as weird to me as it was to them, but I was in In­dia and weird was ev­ery­where. I’d left Lon­don and flown to Asia specif­i­cally to seek the weird. I was young, hun­gry for life and craved cul­ture shock. Ele­phant-headed deities? OK. Bathing in the murky Ganges with partly-cre­mated feet float­ing by? Sure, so why not have food on ba­nana leaves served by men with mouths full of red pan juice? Cool. And meet­ing peo­ple was the same. You gave up your house, your job and your life to med­i­tate on a moun­tain­side?

Nice. You live in a cave with a Sad­dhu and walk around bare­foot? What’s that like? And you guys, you spend one night ev­ery year reen­act­ing the Ex­o­dus from Egypt and you avoid bread for a week? Fine. Sounds quite tame af­ter all the other stuff I’ve come across.

Our Seder night was in the open air and it was mag­i­cal. The snow peaks glis­tened in the moon­light, the sky was stud­ded with stars and the air was filled with voices singing an­cient songs in a strange, throaty lan­guage.

We sat on the floor in a large cir­cle, cross-legged, with fer­tile green­ery bur­geon­ing in ev­ery di­rec­tion, try­ing to imag­ine we were in the arid deserts of Si­nai. There was no kosher meat, of course, but we’d made a veg­e­tar­ian feast. The Sephardim among us ate home­made hou­mous, mat­boucha, techina from Is­rael, rice, beans and lentils, and those not eat­ing kit­niot feasted on veg­eta­bles cooked co­pi­ous ways, and umpteen sal­ads. And we all ate the 18-minute matzah and charoset.

We had amaz­ing wine, too. Ovad had bought wine-mak­ing equip­ment and a whole trol­ley full of grapes in Delhi in Septem­ber, much to the de­light of the ven­dor who went home early with a big smile. Ovad brought the grapes up in a taxi, stamped on them with his bare hairy feet (I was barred from the en­tire process but it looked like hard work) and made a po­tent kosher wine that was ready at Purim, tested to great ap­pre­ci­a­tion, and kept for Seder night.

As they fol­lowed the Haggadah, I tried to work out what was go­ing on. Our Seder guests num­bered about 20 or 30. They were sea­soned dread­locked trav­ellers as well as post-army Is­raelis on their oblig­a­tory trav­els, but to my hus­band’s great an­noy­ance, the lo­cal English Sad­dhu, Baba Terry, his Ital­ian woman-friend and an Is­raeli “dis­ci­ple”, who lived at the end of our field in their “com­mune” (wooden hut) turned up, too.

I thought it was great, this Pesach thing. Won­der­ful. Weird. Amus­ing, even.

I didn’t think it was quite so won­der­ful when I had to do it my own house in Jerusalem a cou­ple of years later. And it wasn’t amus­ing in the slight­est when, with a tire­less tod­dler and a howl­ing baby, I had to scrub cup­boards all night un­til my hands were raw.

But we could buy all kinds of food that was signed, sealed and ap­proved of in the shops down the road, and ev­ery­one else was pre­par­ing and clean­ing, too — some even more crazily than we were. Be­lief,

kodesh stud­ies and con­nec­tion had kicked in where there was only cu­rios­ity be­fore, and that helped for sure. And there were no ti­tanic spi­ders, which is al­ways a bonus.

Twenty-two years later in Lon­don, and Pesach, more than any­thing, is stress­ful. It’s fine once it’s in (kind of) but it’s not easy and it’s not cheap. So I try to re­mind my­self, as I empty an­other cup­board and vac­uum an­other cor­ner, that, once upon a time, I didn’t see Pesach as a mighty moun­tain of work. I saw Pesach in the mighty moun­tains. And it was bizarre, sure. But it was beau­ti­ful.

I thought it was great, this Pesach thing’

Hi­machal Pradesh

Emma She­vah, back in Lon­don

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