Monday, February 7, 2011

Out of Africa, She Rediscovered Her Jewish Identity

by Susan E. Fisher

I have the delightful honor and privilege of serving Beth Emet as a co-chair with Simon Anolick for "Torat Chayeinu: Our Stories, Our Journey" – Beth Emet’s theme for 5771. To date, members of our Beth Emet community have shared pivotal and precious moments of their Jewish journeys through a variety of special programs. And, we have two very special opportunities to share coming very soon. Simon will tell you more about them in an upcoming blog post.

As Simon and I have learned, personal storytelling is a potent experience for both for the listener and the storyteller. For the listener it is a chance to make linkages at multiple, emotional levels. For storyteller it is a heady experience, a reflection on the forces that have shaped one’s life. Through sharing our Jewish journey, we gain insight into roads taken – and not - and who we our as Jews, our place in the world, and how we connect as community.

During one of the first meetings of the Our Stories, Our Journey committee, we asked committee members to bring a ritual object significant to their spiritual journey. Simon passed around a lovingly worn serving dish that – he explained -- his grandparents had brought from their home in Zimbabwe and used for Passover sweets.

By pronouncing that rhythmic name, Zim-ba-bwe, which is central to one element of his own story, Simon dispatched me on an expedition through my memories. First stop, the gushing waters of Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, then kilometers and days away onto a lush savannah with gossiping baboons, and then weeks and cramped train rides later, the pungent odors of rotting food and diesel fuel mingled with fragrant flowers transport me to Nairobi, Kenya.

As a 20-something journalism graduate student at the University of Nairobi, I was living a dream. Taking a leave-of-absence from my newspaper job and every-day life, this was my chance to play foreign correspondent and get far beyond the perceived constraints of my middle-class Iowa, conservadox upbringing. Little did I know that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I’d learn – that when it comes to the spirit -- there’s no place like home.

We take bags on any journey and a spiritual journey is no exception. My bags were the mental versions of an old steam trunk from Germany and the other was an empty backpack. The weighty old steam trunk held the stories of my family’s escape from Nazi Germany, tales of persecution and fear. The empty backpack was the container for what I thought I wanted to become.

I tried to fill that space with the stories I collected from my friends from this truly cosmopolitan place. My new associates were a dazzling array of African women in vivid prints, young men in stiff European suit jackets, South Asians in brilliant saris and fresh-faced international students, including my charming roommate Holly. All seemed marvelously different and exciting. But, while I appreciated them all, I soon realized I could not make their stories my own.

An arm-chair sociologist sipping weak tea out an enamel cup, I’d pepper my new friends with questions about the various stratifications in their society. “How do you know who is a Kikuyu and who is Luo?” My awkward questions about tribal differences often met the Kenyan equivalent of an amused eye-roll. “Fi-sher, you can just tell” was essentially the response.

Fast-forward a few months later. I met Annie. Tan and fit, she stepped out of her vehicle with UN plates, adjusted her aviator shades and spoke a wonderfully melodic Swahili. In a glance, she seemed to take me in—no doubt sun burnt, bangles sliding to my elbow, with a dog-eared notebook and chewed pen. In little time, we recognized one another for what we were and are – M-O-Ts - members of the tribe – our tribe. She invited me to join her at synagogue.

Being 8,297 miles away from home, I did exactly what I’d declined to do for years; I headed to Friday night services. At the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, I discovered a true a sanctuary, a sacred nexus for Jew of diverse backgrounds: a grab bag of established Kenyans, holocaust survivors, Israelis, international bureaucrats, students, and travelers. The experience was transformative: not because it was markedly different but because it was remarkable recognizable. There was the well-known order of the services; memorable tunes, the unifying force of a common language – Hebrew, and the centrality of the law.

As we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, G-d told Moses to give the people a series of law. Moses repeated the commandments to the people, who accepted his covenant, saying “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!” It is our particular customs and rules that help keep us together as a people. And, even as we interpret these rules in differing ways, it is clear that we must seek to bring holiness into every aspect of our lives.

At the conclusion of Nairobi’s services, members of the congregation would gather for Shabbat dinner at the home of the Szlapak family, the owners of the Fairview Hotel, a lovely country-style inn just outside the city centre. Mama Szlapak, the matriarch of Nairobi’s Jewish community, extended hospitality as warm as her bowls of chicken soup. Her home-made gefilte fish came served with a side of family history: The Szlapaks arrived in Kenya from Poland in 1938. In several respects, her family baggage seemed to be a matching set for my own family baggage; both carried tales of exodus and survival. Her response was in keeping with the law: to shine a light of holiness to the lives of the community.

After graduating from my journalism program, I had a few more weeks to travel, and then it was time to return to the United States. But, after my time in Africa, I had changed. Rather than going to Brazil – for yet another exploration of an unfamiliar culture – as I initially considered, I decided to make my next stop Israel….to a place I had never seen, but now felt I must surely go. And, this turn in events over time led me indirectly but, I believe, inevitably on a path that would lead me to meeting and marrying my beloved Jonathan, and raising our two wonderful boys Max and Alex in the loving Jewish community that is Beth Emet.

Thank you, Rabbi London for this wonderful assignment to join forces with Simon, our fabulous committee, and the supportive board, and the hard-working staff helping the Our Stories, Our Journey project. And, thank you members of Beth Emet for letting me share a stop on my Jewish journey. I look forward to learning from you as we gather the many stories of our collective journey as a community.

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