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A Seder Far, Far Away: Passover in Bahrain

My hunt for matzah in Manama, Bahrain, was one of the stranger experiences I had in the Persian Gulf. When we moved to Bahrain in the fall of 1993, I had the foresight to pack a few boxes of unleavened bread. The next year, just before my second seder in the Middle East, my mother sent two packages of matzoh (plural of matzah) with a friend who was coming to Bahrain on business, and would arrive a few days before Passover. Her plane landed on time, but her bags, toting my well-traveled matzoh, were delayed on another flight, completely missing the holiday.

After two lonely Passovers in Bahrain, during which my Episcopalian husband John cheerfully kept me company through abbreviated seders, I decided to go all out and invite a table full of guests the next year. I knew that I would still miss being with family, but I longed to share the seder with people I cared for. Needless to say, I still faced the annual search for matzah.

Jawads, the local supermarket established and owned by a prominent Shiite Muslim family in Bahrain, sold a large, square cracker with a matzah-like texture. It would have to do, I thought. No one else at the seder would notice. It wasn’t blessed, but it was unleavened. And sure enough, no one knew or cared because, besides Helen, a friend from South Africa, and me and my daughters, there were no Jews at the dinner. Helen was the only adult Jewish person I knew in the entire country.

The guest list included Nora from Argentina, who had been raised Catholic but told me that her mother was a German Jew who had immigrated to South America as a child; Graham, Nora’s Christian and decidedly British husband who had never been to a seder but waxed eloquent about two Jewish blokes he went to boarding school with in England; and Amer, a Palestinian Muslim born in Jordan and now an American citizen, who was the only man to wear a yarmulke. After having finalized the guest list and decided on the menu, I faced the difficult task of having to direct the seder all alone.

My Uncle Bill in New York City had conducted the first thirty seders of my life. My extended family and I had gathered each year at his home–with my cousins and I at the “kids’ table,” where we would giggle and create chaos until the grown-ups would quiet us down. “Okay, let’s begin the reading,” Bill would say. One by one, we were called upon to recite passages of the haggadah. We snickered as one of us tripped over a word or made a gross mispronunciation of a Hebrew phrase. But while we laughed, we narrated the tale, plague by gruesome plague, absorbing each moral message into our bones. The familiar story of the deliverance of the children of Israel from the bondage of the Egyptian pharaoh became a part of us.

Now, here I was 10,000 miles from Uncle Bill’s house, all grown up and with children of my own. It was time for me to become the active leader of a seder, after having been a passive Passover player all my life. I was quite nervous. The guests who would grace our table didn’t know the story as my cousins and I did. I would have to bring it to life for them, without relying on their subconscious comprehension of the sequence of events. And how could I make this ritual feast meaningful for such a mixed group of people?

I figured the best place to begin would be with the familiar. First, I xeroxed pages from the haggadah that outlined the story and discussed the nuts and bolts of performing the rituals. What were the objects on the seder plate and what did each symbolize? I practiced speaking out loud about the egg, the shank bone, the karpas, haroset and bitter herb. I reread the laws of hametz, or forbidden foods, and included a few of the Hebrew prayers that we could read in translation. While my guests didn’t read Hebrew, I thought that seeing the Hebrew words on the page would add to the flavor of the evening.

Next, I collated this information with other writings that dealt with the more universal meanings of Passover–enslavement, persecution, freedom from bondage, and redemption. My father, a great collector of quotations on numerous subjects, and especially those with moral weight, had sent me two quotes. The first was a special Passover message distributed by the Jewish Fund for Justice. The thrust of this passage was that while Jews around the world were celebrating liberation, others still shed tears in bondage and hungered for freedom. It concluded by saying that each of us has a responsibility to respond to the struggles of people everywhere. Only then can Jews celebrate their own redemption from a tyrant who ruled millennia ago.

I had also read somewhere that the exodus from Egypt had become an historical model for subsequent experiences of liberation in Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. We talked about this concept during the seder, and I was glad to see how each guest related to Passover in his or her own personal way. Amer, of Jordan, mentioned that by definition all religions were exclusive, but here was a chance when we could sit at one table and be inclusive. If we could do it, he mused, why couldn’t those in power? My husband John commented that he had probably been to more seders than anyone at the table, aside from Helen and me, but that this was the first one where he felt included and not like an outsider.

I thought this would be a fitting end for the first night of Passover. We were all expatriates living far away from our families and respective houses of worship. But on this day we had convened not only to mark a major Jewish holiday, but to share the wisdom of religious and moral thought relevant to the whole human race. At the end of the evening, we lifted our wine glasses and clinked them in unison. “The wine symbolizes joy and gladness,” I concluded.

Susan Eisner Eley

Susan Eisner Eley is the former editor of Golden Falcon magazine, Gulf Air’s inflight travel magazine in Bahrain. Since returning to New York City, she has been managing editor of Dance Spirit magazine and editor of Dance Teacher magazine.