Saturday, July 12, 2014

Uniquely Israeli: New Year's Dinner At The Kibbutz

My mother had three brothers, and two of them lived in a Kibbutz. Before their mother, my grandmother died, she asked her children to keep in touch, and suggested that during the Jewish holidays each Kibbutz’s brother would host an urban sibling. Thus, throughout my childhood we spent every New Year's  Eve and Passover Seder at the Kibbutz. Whenever we were there, my parents, brother and I would  sit at the communal celebration with my aunt, uncle and their three daughters. What impressed me most as a child was the artistic program; there was always happy singing, dancing and reading together about the holiday, Israel  and the Kibbutz.

I had not been back  for many years, but this New Year Eve, having no children around, Johnny and I decided to reunite with my family in the Kibbutz. Jewish Holidays, especially New Year and Passover, are events of mythic significance in Israel. Families get together and people take pride in the number of guests that they invite.

As the result of all this hospitality, traffic on those holidays is infamously  horrendous. In order  to get to the Kibbutz some 55 km north of Tel Aviv at 7.30PM,  we had to embark on the trip at 4.30. At that time the traffic was already heavy, as most of the holiday guests did not wish to be late for dinner.

Unlike the celebrations which I remembered,  this time dinner was not communal; we had a private meal. Besides my family, the other guests were the three sisters of my cousin’s daughter-in-law, and their families. Although I had never met them before,  the experience that we had last night was uniquely Israeli. It turned out that their family was part of the Bene Israel community in India. Bene Israel (Hebrew Sons of Israel) is a historic community of Jews in India, believed to have been one of the Lost Tribes and descendants of ancestors who had settled there centuries ago.

The family immigrated to Israel from Mumbai in 1969 via Teheran. The husbands of two of the sisters are also members of the Bene Israel community and came to Israel around the same time. One of the husbands told me that his mother tongue is Marathi, the language which is spoken in Mumbai. Marahti  is an Indo-Aryan language which  is the official language of Maharashtra state of India, and is one of the 23 official languages of India.

For this holiday meal the four sisters  prepared traditional Indian dishes and blessed their traditional new year's  blessings. 

Israel , like the United States, is a country of immigrants intended to be a melting pot; we were brought up to believe that we were first and foremost Israelis. But thank God this exercise failed, and today more and more people are curious to find out about their personal history and try to preserve their community’s heritage.

As a child, twice a year, I learnt about the holidays through singing and dancing;  it became part of my Israeli heritage.  My cousin told me last night that the Kibbutz no longer has a communal celebration on New Year's Eve.

It makes me sad that this Israeli tradition no longer exists. Of course there is no comparison between the long history of Bene Israel and the short cultural tradition of the Kibbutz, but I still hope that with time, the children of the Kibbtz will be interested in preserving their disappearing heritage. Bringing back some of the traditional celebrations will give meaning and joy to their secular holidays and will keep alive an Israeli tradition which was born in their own community in the Kibbutz.  

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