Well, if I didn't feel like we were living undercover before, I certainly felt like it on Passover night.
There we were, 38 relative strangers, huddled together in an unfamiliar kitchen listening to a child we'd never met reciting the 4 questions.
Not exactly a family gathering. But in some ways, a more meaningful Jewish holiday than I'd ever experienced before.
We'd heard about it through the sibling of a friend of a friend. The brother of a college classmate of my boy Seacrest had been invited to a seder that was being held in Dubai. Now, I'd never met this brother of the classmate of Seacrest, nor had I ever heard of the hosts. But when the sibling of the friend of my friend emailed us the details, of course Daddy and I quickly RSVP'd that we would attend. I mean, what are the odds that we would receive a *competing* seder invitation this year?
After overcoming just a bit of pre-holiday stress (who knew, when we accepted our assignment of bringing a dessert, that 99% of online Passover recipes would require MATZOH MEAL; thank heavens for kosher meringue) we put on our fancy clothes and Daddy pocketed his dusty old yarmulke and we headed out to an unknown address. When we arrived, Indian neighbors were standing on the sidewalk eyeing the influx of guests suspiciously (or maybe they were eyeing us completely hospitably, and this was just my paranoia talking). Either way, we hurried past with minimal eye contact, trying not to call attention to ourselves.
We entered the house and I was immediately transported back to the front reception hall of every synagogue I'd ever known: the heavily overdone jewelry, the mildly grating nasaly voices (though this time with English and South African accents, which made them vastly more alluring than annoying), the competitively over-aerobicized physiques.
In other words: MY PEEPS!
Conversation quickly turned to our collective relief in meeting one another, and our shared amazement that we had found enough Jews to fill the entire ground floor of someone's home. It felt like we were gathering in a public storm shelter during a hurricane: all of us so glad to see each other, so comforted to see that the other person had also made it through.
"I heard that there are 10,000 Jews in the UAE!" said one admirably optimistic participant. (The rest of us shook our heads and rolled our eyes discretely.) "I think it's more like 100," said a grumpy (and more realistic) skeptic. Someone else did some quick math aloud and announced, "Probably around 1500." The group accepted this number even though it seemed to me a little high, considering that none of us in the room knew any Jew who wasn't there. But okay. 1500 Jews, wow!
Then people started excitedly comparing Jewy experiences much as you would with Sasquatch sightings. "The organic cafe here has matzah!" said one yenta. "And when I went this week, there was only ONE box left." ("OOH, THAT'S A GOOD SIGN," we all chanted in robotic unison.) "MY local supermarket serves something that looks EXACTLY like challah," said a sister yenta, "but *only* on THURSDAYS!" ("OOH!" we all sighed. "THAT'S A GOOD SIGN!") Then there was some talk about the mythological secret synagogue that, according to Dubai legend, Sheikh Mohammed has set up in a private home in order to woo a prominent American businessman to come to the UAE. But alas, no one in attendance had ever seen it themselves. (Not a good sign.) The requisite jokes were further exchanged about how, at the end of the evening, we'd go to leave and the CID (Dubai police) would be patiently waiting outside to escort all of us directly to immigration. Ha ha, the subject of deportation for political insurgence never fails to get a laugh! (nervous laughter, but laughter nonetheless.)
Suddenly someone approached Daddy and said, "Over here. We need you for the minyan. Would be amazing if we could say kiddush. Can't believe we might actually have ten men." (Why ten, you say? Well, for those playing at home, and by that I mean gentiles, and sorry-ass Jews like me who had to look this up on Wikipedia, "It was the firm belief of the sages that wherever 10 Israelites are assembled, either for worship for the study of the Law, the Divine Presence dwells among them." Learn something new every day, my friends.)
So Daddy went off and stood by the front door with nine other Jewish men. Most wore yarmulkes. One wore a fedora. (And good day to you, too, sir!) One guy was very old and white-haired and reminded me of my elderly Jewish grand-uncles who are still doing the Passover thing with great gusto back in Jersey and I got a teeny bit emotional for a second. You don't see a lot of old people here in Dubai. Let alone old Jews. Made me miss my late grandfather, who really got into all this religious stuff. Ah, life.
Not sure exactly what went down during the kiddush (did I mention I'm a sorry-ass Jew? very out of practice.) but the visual was powerful. All the men faced forward and some bowed a little bit and seeing a group of them standing there in their yarmulkes (and fedoras) felt like an act of peaceful revolution.
Then it was time for the seder. I had initially been stunned to see through the open French doors that the tables and chairs were set up in the back yard: were we really going to be reciting Hebrew right out there in the open?? But then our host called everyone's attention and declared, "Let's do the seder right here in the kitchen. There's no need to do it outside."
I felt my eyeballs turn into cartoon spirals as my brain began racing to process all the possible interpretations of "There's no need to do it outside." Did he mean, there's no need to move everyone, when we're already all so comfortable standing around here? Or did he mean, THERE'S NO NEED TO RISK IT, when the neighbors are already standing out there wondering what we're up to?? I'll never know.
At that point, despite the conspicuous presence of those mass-produced paperback Haggadahs that were the cornerstone of every seder I ever attended in the USA, the host-- let's call him Dubai Moses, as he was leading us Jews through the desert-- announced, "The seder is for the children. It's not for the adults. And so, if no one objects, I'm going to do an abbreviated seder that the children will understand, hitting only the highlights. And-- since I'm the first to admit that I'm far from the most frum person here (meaning, religiously observant)-- anyone who would like to jump in is welcome to." No one jumped. So away we went.
For the next ten minutes, Dubai Moses spoke directly to the 6 tweens and 3 infants in attendance (our kids were not there; why take chances with their lives and/or mess up the bedtime schedule, thought neurotic me), flipping through the Haggadah and remarking on only the most critical aspects of the story. I'm of course paraphrasing, but in relevant part what Dubai Moses said was this:
"A long long time ago, the Jews were slaves in Egypt. They were forced to work outside in the heat from before the sun came up to after the sun went down. How do you think you would feel if you were a slave? Sad? Tired? Depressed? It's a lot like the construction workers that you see on the buses here in Dubai going back and forth between their work camps. You see? It's happening all over again."
Yikes. This made me uncomfortable. Because the ubiquitous sight of dark-skinned construction workers perpetually toiling in the half-built streets of Dubai, like ants or bees or Doozers under the blazing sun, already causes me emotional distress. And now, the analogy laid out so plainly like this-- where the Indian and Pakistani construction workers are the modern-day slaves of the Passover story-- makes *us* the heartless Egyptians who sit around in our fancy homes heartlessly reaping the benefits of their blood and sweat and labor. You know, the Bad Guys. Which of course we are but what can I do about it?? (A blog for another day, methinks.)
So anyway, Dubai Moses tells the kids that the Jews were slaves and so are the construction workers and then I zone out in self-torment and then the next thing I know someone's handing out masks. (Note to self: Research why I was wearing a cat mask and the guy next to me was wearing a Torah scroll mask with a crown on it and the guy next to him was wearing one that simply said BOILS in block letters. Was there a kitty cat plague I don't know about, or were the hosts just making due with whatever they had on hand?)
Then Dubai Moses got to the part of the story where the Jews put a mark on their door so that the Angel of Death would pass over (get it? passover?) their houses in its search for Egyptian firstborn children. He noted, "This is kind of like mezuzahs, which we don't do here in Dubai." (Second note to self: I'm pretty sure that mezuzahs have nothing to do with the Passover marks on the doors, which I think was actually blood, and that Dubai Moses was just getting in a little dig at the UAE while he had a sympathetic audience. But look into this as well.)
Finally Dubai Moses called his 9-year-old daughter to the front of the kitchen and asked her to recite the 4 questions. Which she did, eloquently and confidently and melodiously. The rest of us murmured along at the chorus (if you can call it that, not sure, no disrespect intended). Daddy later told me that for him this was the most moving part of the evening: A child, innocently leading a room full of adults, in a Hebrew prayer, on Arab soil. It's unlikely the kid had any real sense of the tiny act of heroism she was performing.
And just like that, the seder was over. There was no singing, there was no discussion of the 4 sons (cue that corny tune of "My Darlin' Clementine"), there was no plate onto which I could put 10 drops with my pinkie. But there was-- more importantly-- miniature glasses of wine passed between husbands and wives, actual matzah (brought into the country by one of the seder attendees, who is a pilot for Emirates), and a whole room of Jews. The company of whom I have missed so, so much.
The dinner experience was similarly fulfilling (especially the matzoh ball soup, yahoo!). We sat outside in Dubai Moses's back yard under a full moon and made easy conversation with complete strangers. Just as Dubai Moses had opened his home to all of us, sight unseen. And that's one of my favorite things about the Jews: even if we've never met, we're looking out for each other; we're all in the same boat so why bother with the formalities.
Most of the Jews that night were from England or South Africa. There were two other Americans besides us (my hookup included). Lots of people were talking about a dinner a bunch of them attended a few months back that was hosted at a Dubai hotel by some American Zionist organization (!!!!!). (Side note: You have to have some serious balls to show up at a pro-Israel event here. It's the inverse of laying low. I don't think I could do it.) One attendee offered to take me to the off-the-beaten path marketplaces. Another offered to give me acupuncture. Another hustled Daddy for his business card. (Hey now, networking is a valid component of the Jewish community, too.)
Then Dubai Moses, who was sitting at our table, described how his 9-year-old is dealing with some anti-Semitism at her school. Which also happens to be SUSHI'S SCHOOL, the American school, gulp. Dubai Moses said that it was just one kid spouting off some anti-Semitic remarks that he had certainly heard at home, and that while that his daughter's classmates do not know that she's Jewish, her teachers do (we have the same arrangement with Sushi's teacher) and have been consulted about the problem. I expected Dubai Moses to be more upset about it, but instead he said, "You know what? It's fine. Because now when we go back to South Africa, my daughter will be able to defend the Arab point of view." Very diplomatic of him, no? And we compared notes on how our eyes have been opened to the way that the Arab world sees Jews, and Israel, and how neither the pro-Arab world nor the pro-Israel world gets the straight story from their media.
(Was initially a little stressed about anti-Semitism at Sushi's school, where she proudly declared her allegiance to HANUKKAH! on the playground this past December, but then remembered that there were swastikas painted on lockers at my New Jersey middle school last year, and conceded that no place on earth is utterly devoid of anti-Semitism, unfortunately.)
The evening concluded with a furious exchange of mobile numbers and the promise to get together again soon. I couldn't help wonder if someone was going to initiate us into a secret Jewish handshake before we dispersed (and was a little disappointed when no one did). But even without the handshake, it was a truly memorable experience and I will be forever grateful to Dubai Moses and Dubai Moses's wife (did Moses have a wife? my sorry-ass-iness rears its ugly head again, we'll call her Mosette for now) for providing me with a night's worth of respite after a year and a half of spiritually wandering through the desert.
A final thought about my first Passover seder in Dubai. I'm not sure God was there. Or, if he was there, I didn't notice. Now, in all fairness, I'm an atheist, so maybe he was indeed hanging around, checking in with all the faithful, and just didn't reveal himself to me out of spite. And he's entitled to that, by all means, fair is fair. My point is just that there wasn't a whole lot of praying, or discussion of the Almighty, or that kind of thing. It just seemed like all of us Dubai Jews had showed up at that seder seeking not divine interaction, but human connection.
Just some confirmation that we weren't alone.
(WHICH IS WHAT *I* AM HERE FOR, YOU IDIOT!! shouts God into my deaf ears.) (But again, a blog for another day.)
The gentleman giving the farewell toast to Dubai Moses and Mosette concluded his remarks with, "Next year in Dubai!" And while I perhaps wouldn't go *that* far... the classic "Next year in Jerusalem!" has a certain enduring ring to it... suddenly I'm thinking that another Passover here in the UAE might not be *quite* so bad. :)