Jewish Journal


April 24, 2008

L.A. Jewish girl joins the African Jewish matzah dance


Making matzah in the village of Gonder in Northern Ethiopia. Photos by Nili Salem

Making matzah in the village of Gonder in Northern Ethiopia. Photos by Nili Salem

My Pesach preparation, like that of so many Americans, usually involves walking to my local supermarket and loading a cart full of Manischewitz products ... you know, the chocolate-covered jellies, the matzah-pizza sauce and, of course, the kosher cheese that rarely melts. The hardest part of the process is simply choosing between the egg and onion or the butter-flavored matzah.

But preparing for Pesach this year was a bit different. Living in the village of Gonder in Northern Ethiopia and teaching Hebrew music, dance and culture to eager students, ages 6 to 20, has been an enormous blessing. I wake up each morning to pray with white-robed, modest Ethiopians who have moved from the surrounding villages to be a part of this unbelievable 14,000-person Jewish community. From morning services, I walk the rocky dirt path to the mud and straw school, which is decorated with vibrant paintings of the Torah, a shofar, Israeli flags and even a diagram of the body in Hebrew. It is alive with exuberant children skipping quickly inside to get a good seat on the wooden benches. They sing "Hava Nagila," "Esa Enai" and "Hinei Matov" with every ounce of power in their lungs and with a groovy boogie in their brightly colored foam-sandaled feet. Meanwhile, some of their older cousins and parents are busy suiting up in matching beige aprons preparing for the coming holiday.

Almost 400 miles away from the nearest "supermarket" -- not to mention one that sells kosher food -- the members of Gonder's Beta Israel Jewish Community have to make all their matzah themselves, resulting in the production of 300,000 matzot in an outdoor, 18-minute-or-less whirlwind, just in time to replace the injera (traditional flat, sour, bubbly pancakes -- the staple Ethiopian food) for Pesach.

As a Los Angeles-bred city girl, I would have had no idea where to start if I were asked to hand-prepare fresh matzah. I probably would have plopped some bread dough on my head and hurriedly walked around outside in the sun, trying to mimic my ancestors leaving Egypt, hoping that it would somehow bake into a neat flattened square crisp.

But in Gonder, they have the process down to an art. More than 100 community members in kippot and hair coverings (for the women) work under the supervision of an Israeli Ethiopian named Getinet beneath the precious shade of a large green tree. Turquoise-, yellow- and cantaloupe-shaded birds gather on the branches to witness the operation, also providing a cheery tune on the breeze. The men face each other across long, spotless tables. They count down to the start of the 18-minute cycle with an excited Amharic "ahnd, hoolet, sost!" (And I thought that the '90s cooking show, "Ready, Set, Cook!" was good.) As soon as the countdown reaches its climax and the time begins to run, they rapidly mix the flour and water, pound it out, roll it, puncture it with "the little hole making wheel" and cut out medium-sized circles.

The women collect the dough circles and bring them over to rows of metal plates that balance over bricks and burning wood. (The most muscular Jewish men are chopping the firewood on the other side of the compound.) The women monitor and flip the circles in the heat and then usher their browned collection to the check station.

Here, old men in suits sit on chairs and benches, tongs in hand, checking that each piece of matzah has been cooked sufficiently, and counting the matzot so that the number of matzot produced per round can be gauged.

Then everything (fingernails, equipment, tables -- everything) is washed down rapidly and thoroughly, and checked by the overseer. After a few-minute lull, the speedy, efficient and exciting process begins again and again, and continues from sunrise to sunset, with two shifts working in such synchronized harmony that I would go so far as to call it the African Jewish Matzah Dance!

On the second day of production this year, a leadership group from a Jewish high school in Westchester, N.Y., came to visit the matzah operation. And when I turned the corner, I was less shocked to see a group of white people in the middle of the compound than I was pleasantly amused to witness the way their jaws dropped open in awe at the matzah-making process.

I don't know that I will be able to convince my L.A. mother and two sisters to join me in turning our family's little backyard patio into a matzah-making factory next Pesach, but the memory of this one in Northern Ethiopia will surely remain with me for years to come. I will remember it not only for the all-natural hand-made over-the-fire-flavor of the finished matzah, but also for the huge significance of the matzah and the Exodus story for this special community, which is waiting on review and approval for their hopeful journey to the Holy Land.

May this Pesach bring us all a little "Jewish matzah dance" of our own -- or may it at least inspire us to enjoy the natural beauty and joy of Hashem's creations. More importantly, may the fire of our souls inspire us to perform many mitzvot and celebrate the glory of our heritage that transcends continents, languages and cultures.

For more information about the program, contact the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry at (212) 233-5200.

Nili Salem, a graduate of Shalhevet High School and UCB, is currently volunteering with the Beta Israel Community of Gonder, Ethiopia. She can be reached at nilisalem@gmail.com.

Nilli teaches the kids 'Shabbat Shalom' in this video

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