By Alfred Wise
While Tanzania is comprised of more than 140 different tribes, not one of them is Jewish. So for Yom Kippur, the Lubavitch Chassidim send over two rabbis from New York to lead services for a small group of ex-patriot Jews. You can only imagine a group of these rabbis, focused on outreach, clustered in a small room in Brooklyn, drawing straws. “I got Greece!” “I got Puerto Vallarta!!!” “I got Dar es Salaam????”
And in Dar, counting the Members of the Tribe doesn’t take too long. For a service to be held, by the rules of, um, well, by the rules, one needs to have a minyon, or quorum, with 10 men. They just managed to scrape that together for the evening service commencing Yom Kipper, the most holy day on the Jewish calendar.
One cannot help but be struck by this crazy contrast of worlds. Driving the few kilometers over to the service, Bodie and I passed Massai, strolling purposefully in their signature red and blue-checkered capes, beaded ankle bracelets, knives tucked in belts, carrying long warrior staffs. Bodie and I pulled into the restaurant and met Rabbi Yaacov, wearing has signature Hassidic long beard and side curls, broad brimmed hat, black suit and white talus over his shoulders.
I wanted to broker introductions. Rabbi, these are Massai, from an ancient tribe of pastoralist warriors. Massai, meet Rabbi Yaacov, from an ancient tribe of pastoralist doctors and lawyers?
Services are held at Nargila, an Israeli-owned middle-eastern restaurant, that serves as the hub of al things Jewish in Dar. It had been set up with a wooden divider in the middle, men on one side, women on the other, and Bodie running back and forth between the two, calling out to each, “here I am.”
A few middle-aged Israelis sat in the back, acting surly as if they were there only to please their mothers. A few eager Americans gave a good show of sounding out some Hebrew. Bodie, hearing Hebrew, tried a version of a Swahili song to see if it would fly with the crowd.
The service was, as in a Chabad, mostly in Hebrew. But Rabbi Yaacov thought jokes and stories were better in English. Maybe they would have been shorter in Hebrew. One, about a Jew, and Frenchman and an Italian in hell (I didn’t know we even had hell!) having the option to boil in chicken soup for 5 minutes a day in exchange for the rest of the day being paradisiacal, went on for 10 minutes with an upshot of how Jews aren’t good at starting things on time. I see a huge market opportunity for good comedic editors among the Chassid.
It turns out that beside myself, two women at the service are also blogging about their lives in Tanzania. (Mahlers on Safari and I didn’t get the other) It seems that attending services in Tanzania may certainly have some element of spirituality, but is likewise highly sought after as good blog fodder.