Hosting a Passover seder recently in the northern Ugandan city of Gulu taught me two important things. First, it is crucial to add matzoh balls to soup just a half-hour before serving; otherwise, they will disintegrate into something more like matzoh mush.
Second — and more importantly — home can be found thousands of miles away from the places most familiar to you. The requirements are simply a table brimming with good food, a blend of old and new traditions, and four cups of wine.
I cried most of the day leading up to Passover. My roommate and I had barely slept the night before. Our power was turned off, as frequently happens. I sat on the floor as my roommate cut apart and marinated meat for the coming seder meal, working by flashlight, the task slow and laborious.
Midnight stretched into early morning. In daylight, exhaustion morphed into a homesickness I had not felt since my parents shipped me off to Jewish summer camp when I was 12.
Passover has always been my favorite holiday. My uncle and father took turns leading raucous seders full of special melodies and impassioned debates. Cousins laid bets on which of the grown-ups would fight first. We squabbled over who would get to be the “Wicked Son” during the story of the Four Children, and excitedly hunted for the afikomen even after exceeding b’nai mitzvah age.
There were also quiet, contemplative moments, those spaces to mourn relatives lost and tell stories that became family lore.
In Gulu, my work has been difficult. Starting out as a freelance correspondent, I spent my days investigating war crimes and human rights abuses, loneliness and enervation constant.
I longed for the seders of my youth, and the warmth and comfort that accompanied them.
As I walked between market stalls searching for a substitute for bitter herbs, bitterness rose in my throat. Months ago, we had decided to host a seder, combining my roommate’s Easter traditions with my own Jewish upbringing. Friends of various religious backgrounds were invited, but I was to be the only Jew.
Now, the task seemed weighty and difficult. I selected a bunch of wilted coriander and wondered to myself if I could bring my family’s rituals to Uganda.
Googling and Overcoming
In the afternoon, we peeled and cut apples for charoset, the bright skins strewn like party streamers across the kitchen. My roommate mixed flour and water for matzoh. I tended the soup, carefully shaping matzoh balls and adding spice to the stock.
We played Passover songs from my iPhone, electricity blessedly returned. Dogs twisted around our ankles, eating scraps from the floor.
I thought of a photograph I keep. It shows my aunt and grandmother preparing for a seder in 1996. They are cutting onions with their eyes behind goggles to prevent tears, childhood pets certainly hidden from view beneath the table.
As we cooked, a bit of home retuned to Gulu, too.
We were still working, stressed and sweaty, when a collection of guests arrived at the table. They carried wine and pink bougainvillea. My roommate assembled the seder plate, and I stuck that old photo to a vase of flowers in the center of the table.
Relying on a collection of haggadot and quick Google searches, we completed each ritual with care, sometimes cycling backward to correct mistakes in the order.
Our guests asked each of the Four Questions, promising to add a fifth over the seder meal. I blessed wine and candles in Hebrew, taught a song about the Four Children to the tune of “My Darling Clementine,” and snuck off to hide the afikomen.
We poured water over our hands from a bucket, explaining Jewish and Christian beliefs about hand and foot washing. We took turns reading sections of the Passover story in the Haggadah, contemplating universal themes of exodus and liberation. We dropped wine on to our plates for the 10 Plagues. We sang “Dayenu,”belting out the chorus with joy and banging on the table.
This would be enough, I thought. This would be enough.
We also ate Hillel sandwiches with charoset and a bitter herb of coriander, and shared the matzoh mush soup. We dug into a hearty dinner, along with a “fifth question” about social justice and liberation.
I played the hymn “We Shall Overcome” from a small speaker, and friends added songs about freedom by Bob Dylan.
There were more cups of wine, each blessed, and a wild afikomen search. My roommate led the Hallel portion of the service. As with my family seders, there were quiet moments, too. We set intentions for Passover and Easter week, as well as for a secular life in humanitarian work and activism. We said Kaddish for our loved ones lost, and read an Allen Ginsberg poem. We shared in gratitude and thankfulness.
Our seder concluded well after midnight, with the door open for Elijah. This time, I substituted “Next year in Jerusalem” for “Next year in Gulu.”
Together, we said, “Next year may we all live in peace.”
Friends migrated to the porch, the stars bright in the sky. Someone brought out a guitar and we all played and sang together, finishing what was left of the wine.
Afterward, I lay below my mosquito net, full of gratitude. I felt rooted in community halfway around the world, and grounded in a blend of beliefs and experiences.
With Passover, I was at last truly at home in Gulu, and eager to continue sharing and learning.
Sophia Neiman is a freelance writer from Baltimore who currently lives and works in Uganda.