My journey began at the Central Bus Station, that concrete monstrosity that serves as neutral ground for every single one of the many parts of the melting pot that is Israeli society. It’s the place where rich girls from North Tel Aviv tread the same ground as the lowest class of hooker who waits on the street corner, where big businessmen wander under the noses of illegal immigrants hocking their shoddy goods. There never seems to be any problems between these vastly different groups of Israelis who rarely even speak the same language and have nothing in common save for the fact that they all live on the same small slither of land on the Easternmost edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
The buses stopped several hours ago and all of the Jewish monit sherut drivers have long since gone home either to prepare their own Seder night meal or to enjoy the start of the Spring Festival with their families. I amble past the swarthy Eritreans, Russian pimps and Arab drivers until I find my own portal to that other dimension which is the eternal city of Jerusalem. I enter into the monit closely followed by three nicely dressed English girls, one of them is carrying flowers no doubt for the host of the Seder night meal to which she is on her way. In Hebrew so heavily accented with London that the driver can’t understand what she’s saying she tries to ask if he will stop at her destination. In the end she gives up attempting the native tongue. He grunts his agreement when she says the words in English.
The price is 35 New Israeli Shekels to get to Jerusalem, way more than the regular price, but then this isn’t a regular day. There are no buses running any more and no way for me to get to where God’s house once sat and I pay the fair happily. A man pops his head in the door of the monit sherut and say in harsh Arabic tones words that I didn’t understand but whose meaning was clear, it was time to get moving.
The girls are chatting excitedly as only young girls can and I plant my headphones firmly in my head to allow the mournful tunes of Leonard Cohen to drown them out. I have always loved watching the world roll by on the journey from the world of the materialistic to the world of the soulful as we transcend time and space in a white minibus.
The cityscape gave way to green fields on either side of my little vehicle, I peer out through the window to glimpse the sun setting in the West, behind me, the last rays of light brushing against my machine seeming to gently prod us further towards the one night a year that we take to remember our bondage at the hands of the Pharaohs.
The plains eventually gave way to the hills that signalled the beginning of our ascent to the place where King David’s wisest son first built a home for the God of the Jews, the place revered above all by secular and religious alike. We ascend and I await my arrival in my nation’s capital while listening to Hallelujah and then Suzanne, one utterly apt and the other not at all.
Finally my journey from commercial centre to the spiritual plain came to an end. Stepping out of the little white vehicle I nodded goodbye to the driver and wandered down to the almost completely deserted Zion Square. The magnificent streets around me were bathed in both silver moonlight and a rather less magical glow from the street lights. I should jump straight into a cab but I can’t…not yet, I need to breath this moment in first. I walk a few steps along the street recently re-paved and widened to make room for the tram that isn’t running today.I walk along the street, thoughts of plagues and liberation in my mind, thoughts of 21st century Jews and a world now devoid of both parting seas and leaders who talk to God. I shake my head to clear it, if I’m not careful I’ll be late. There’s a knot of drivers chatting in Arabic in Zion Square, a nod to one of them is all I need to get myself a cab and I’m on my way.
I walk into the apartment armed with not one but two bottles of wine, my hostess welcomes me with a hug, as does her mother and sister and her sister’s husband. It’s nice to be liked. I place the two bottles of plonk on the ground alongside about 20 more and settle in to making small talk with the other guests while waiting for the latecomers to arrive. I realise as I wait that this is the first time in my life I have celebrated Seder night without my family.
The table is laid out to perfection with a Haggadah on each seat as well as a mini seder plate for everyone alongside a big one in the middle, I’m starving and the smells emanating from the kitchen do nothing to lessen the feeling and everything to raise my expectations for the meal to come, can we get started now please? I’m HUNGRY!
The answer is no, we are waiting for the latecomers but I am given responsibility for pouring the wine which I jump on. Getting everyone wasted is a much better way to break the ice than sitting in a circle saying our names and some (not particularly) random fact about ourselves.
The latecomers arrive and we all sit down at the table and state our names as well as one (not particularly) random fact about ourselves. The hostess’s brother in law is running the Seder and I’m pouring more wine. He does the main prayers but we spend the night going round the table, each of us reading a paragraph from the Haggadah. The first time we do it we’re all to share a random fact about Pesach that we don’t think anyone else knew. I was all set to share this one from the virtual pages of this very publication but apparently I’m not the only one who reads it and I’m pre-empted. I choose to go with the fact that Afikomen is actually a Greek word (for real).
When it comes to my turn to read I read in English, unable or unwilling to try to master the Hebrew on the page in front of such a large audience. My first paragraph of the evening is the question asked by the simple son. I read it in English. The person to my left goes without sharing a random fact about Seder night but does read through his paragraph in perfect Hebrew.
I’m embarrassed, he’s not Jewish he’s Muslim and he’s reading a Jewish prayer more fluently than me. He’s an Arab pharmacist from Jaffa, his Hebrew is better than mine and here he sits at the Seder table. He’s sitting next to his American born, Jewish boyfriend and their hands remain intertwined throughout the evening. Did he just read the paragraph about the wicked son? Oi Vay! “more wine anyone?”
He covers his wine glass as I move to pour, oh yeah, “anyone else?”
How on earth did the wicked son land on his door?
I gripe about the answer given to the wicked son, “it’s not very fair” I say. The genius son uses the same “you” when asking his question as the wicked son so how come the wicked son gets in Schtuck and smart one gets his ass kissed?
The host says that in Hebrew the specific form of ‘you’ used by the two sons is different, so we take another look and it is…kind of. My objection still stands, everyone laughs…thank God everyone laughs.
We move swiftly on, I do my job and keep the glasses filled, the host does his job and keeps the service moving, the 5 year old does her job and looks cute for the whole evening while occasionally repeating things other people have said but either very quietly or very loudly. The loud repeats are very funny. Her grin at our laughs very cute.
I’m at a table with two journalists (proper ones not bloggers), one Chief Operating Officer of a startup, one violinist at the national theatre, one drama teacher, one pharmacist, one 89 year old Holocaust survivor, one chief buyer for a major fashion chain and two lawyers. I’m in fast company here.
“More wine anyone?”
The night continues and we end up debating the fact that whisky ought to be Kosher for Pesach, especially since there is some kind of grain used in matzah and especially since our own ancestors “ate massa (a more historically accurate transliteration than “matzah”). And that massa looked very similar to a pita.” The argument goes on for a while and I’m loving it, mainly because I’m not so involved in it and can pick my side from a distance. Naturally I err on the side of no caution and shall be drinking Scotland’s finest from now on.
First part over, soup arrives. The hostesses grandfather has drained his bowl before mine’s served after having added more salt and pepper than I would have believed would suit any taste. His daughter, the hostess’s mother asks him if he enjoyed the soup she made, he says “no, not enough salt and pepper”. I quite liked it, he finished his a lot quicker than I finished mine. He’s 89, the same age as Shimon Peres.
Main course comes and we’re really off, requests for more wine from every direction and stories flowing across the table like so much spilled red. Stories of acting, stories form Canada and America and South Africa, stories from London and stories of reporting the news. Stories of music and life and culture in Israel and beyond. Stories from Jaffa and stories from the territories. Stories from kindergarten and from the different worlds we each inhabit but that have crossed over on this night, just like when an Angel passed over us on another night long ago. But how long ago? Another lively debate begins over meat and potatoes and fish and lord knows what else inhabited the table.
When it’s my turn to read again I go for the Hebrew, If the wicked son can do it then the simple son might as well give it a try I reason. The hostess’s sister has a better idea of why I am suddenly prepared to try it in the naitve that’s my second language; “ah so now you’ve had enough wine to be able to read Hebrew she says” Everyone laughs, I turn red and laugh too.
The second part of the Seder gets going and the songs get belted out, from it would have been enough, to one more kid, you know the rest. We say grace after the meal and prepare to head back to Tel Aviv. I have a ride with the hostess’s sister and brother in law and another couple. The five of us bundle into the car.
On the way home we listen to the radio, when Pink Floyd comes on the driver turns the volume right up and we all join in, singing our hearts out to Wish You Were Here.