Passover in the Arabian Desert - Many Historical Firsts
By MICHAEL SUSSMAN
For the first night of Passover, a small group gathered at the Arabian Nights Village, a Bedouin Camp in the United Arab Emirates desert, to have our Passover Seder. Guests came from all the Abrahamic faiths; Muslims, Jews, Christians as well as Druze. They also came from diverse countries, including Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Israel, Germany and the Emirates. This Abrahamic Family Seder was consistent with the core values of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) based on tolerance and respect, and everyone had a place at this historic table.
This was the first Seder in history in the United Arab Emirates that was officially hosted by the Israeli Embassy. It was also the first time Israel had posted an ambassador, Eitan Na’eh, to the UAE, and the first time an Israeli ambassador led the Seder ritual and read the story of Passover in the UAE.
The table plays such a prominent role on Passover that it is known as the “Seder table.” It is where the festive “Seder Plate” sits with the shank bone, salt water, parsley and other symbolic Passover items. It is where Jews of Middle Eastern origin recline on low couches around the table to commemorate freedom. It is also where the story of Passover is read and festive songs are sung.
Under the desert stars, our Seder table was a long, traditional Bedouin table, set on an oriental rug on top of the desert sand. It combined the traditional local, Bedouin ornaments with our own Jewish symbols and decor. Yet, what was unique about this Seder was the fact that some of the most quintessential elements, including the matzoh and Haggadah, were either made or assembled in the UAE.
The most special matzoh that Jews eat on Passover is called Matzoh Shmura, which differs from other “regular” matzoh because all phases from the planting and harvesting of the wheat to the baking and packing of the matzoh are carefully supervised. Our matzoh shmura has the symbol of the UAE on the label and our Haggadah had Arabic written on the front cover as they were also locally published. In fact, our Seder was so special that our legs dug into the sand as we reclined.
As is the case in many Jewish holidays, food plays an essential role in the Seder. To summarize, our food, “we had hummus and matzoh,” meaning that we had food that was traditionally Jewish and also Middle Eastern. Beyond that, our Bedouin hosts served traditional local salads and appetizers, Eastern European Jewish food like “Brisket,” and even North American food like chicken fingers coated with kosher for Passover matzoh. This was truly the cuisine for a Seder in the desert.
The manner in which we read and sang the Passover story was also special. Canada’s Ambassador, Marcy Grossman, who personally cohosted and planned the evening, welcomed guests by thanking them for taking a “leap of faith” by attending this one of a kind event. And, to match the diversity of this distinctive event, our inclusive Seder told the story in a way that was clear for everyone to understand and also highlighted the parts that were common to all three religions.
For example, the emphasized the story about the great Rabbi Akiva, summarizing the essence of Judaism as being “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” a theme that is also common to everyone at the table.
Irrespective of where we came from and our beliefs, this Passover Seder was meaningful. For me, it was the fact that it felt so real and genuine, in spite of being so far from home. For Ambassador Grossman it was a celebration of freedom; a holiday that not only commemorates Moses leading the Jewish people to physical freedom, but also a celebration of religious freedom and freedom of expression -- values central to Canada and the UAE as well as a driving societal force behind the Abraham Accords. For one of the Emirati participants it was the ability to ask questions. For one of the Brits in attendance it was the awesomeness of the unorthodoxy of celebrating under the stars in the desert.
This may have been the first Passover following the Abraham Accords but it is one experience of many that illustrates the worthiness of the Agreement and the genuine commitment of the people. This truly was an Emirati Passover - the first of what we should hope will be many to come.
Michael Sussman is CEO of Sussman Corporate Security and editor of the book Varieties of Multiple Modernities: New Research Design.
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