by Judith Fein

One morning, as I was brushing my teeth, the phone rang. I picked it up with a mouth full of toothpaste and was surprised to hear the voice of a Maori friend from New Zealand.

“Kia ora,” he said, blessing me with the traditional greeting. “How about you and your husband come to visit us before the new millenium? You know that our mission is to bring the tribes together, and you are certainly one of the tribes.”

“Gare gu kidding?” I said, sloshing the toothpase over to one cheek.

“No, I’m serious. The chief is turning 80, the 90’s are coming to a close, and a visit from your tribe would be most appropriate.”

“What snuld I bling?”

“Just bring yourselves. Pack light.”

The night before we left for New Zealand, our suitcase was so overstuffed that it bulged out as though there were a dead body crammed inside. My husband hoisted it into the trunk of the car, slammed the trunk shut, and rubbed his hands in packer’s triumph. Premature triumph.

“Can you open the suitcase once more?” I asked my husband. “I forgot something.”

“No, no way. That puppy is closed. Sealed. Don’t you know what ‘pack light’ means? I refuse to open it again until we arrive in New Zealand.”

I silently counted to five, and by the time I had reached four, my spouse, quite predictably, had softened.

“Okay, okay, what do you want to add?”

“A Chanukah dreydl and a box of instant latke mix.”

“That’s really useful among the indigenous Maori half a world away, ” my husband snorted sarcastically.”There’s not even room for me to pack a pair of socks and you want to schlepp along potato pancake batter and a plastic spinning top.”

I gave him one of those married looks, he removed the suitcase from the car trunk, and I wedged the Chanukah paraphernalia into a corner and zipped the suitcase shut. Two days later, we were given a formal greeting by the charismatic octogenarian Maori chief. His house was full of Maori friends and relatives, and we were blessed and welcomed as travelers, as Americans, and especially as Jews. Several of the whanau (extended family) members told us how much they loved the Old Testament stories, and how they identified with us as tribal people. They said they felt that the millennium was all about the tribes of the world coming together in peace and living in harmony. Their grandparents and great grandparents had told them stories of the tribes crossing paths and living together in ancient times.

“Isn’t it a special holiday for the Jewish tribe right now?”asked the chief’s gracious wife.

“Yes, it’s Chankuah, ” I said, shooting my husband an exultant look,” and I just happen to have my Chanukah gear in our suitcase.”

I pulled out the little dreydl and the crushed box of latke mix, and the whanau gathered around. Since I can no more cook than I can perform airplane acrobatics, my husband motioned everyone to follow him into the kitchen and they whipped up some latkes and set them on a plate with a mound of applesauce. Everyone was ready to dig in, their forks were poised in mid-air, when I held up my hands.

“Wait, wait,” I implored them. “Let’s light the candles first. We are really supposed to have a menorah…which is an eight-branched candelabra…..”

“This is a miracle,” said the chief’s wife. “I have an eight-branched candelabra. I bought it because it called out to me in a store. I was waiting for the right occasion to use it.”

Out came the eight-branched candelabra and a fistful of candles.

“Chanukah lasts for eight nights, ” I explained. “Tonight is the first night, and so we light one candle. Each successive night we add another candle until all eight candles are lit on the last night of Chanukah.”

The Maori sat on the edges of their chairs, leaning forward, leaning into the words, the explanation, the ritual.

“There is a Hebrew prayer we say as we light the candles. Tonight, in every Jewish home around the world, families are reciting the same words. “

“Baruch atah adonay…” I intoned as I lit the first candle. When I finished, there was a long and respectful silence, and then one of the little kids piped up, “Can we eat the latkes now?”

“Of course you can. Happy Chanukah.”

The gentle Maori held their forks aloft, and then hit the latke pile, decimating it quickly.

“We like Chanukah,” was the general pronouncement. “For the millenium, we sure want to be bonded to you guys.” They asked questions about the origins of Chanukah, I answered to the best of my ability, and I thought that was the end of my indigenous Chanukah experience. But news travels fast in New Zealand. Five days later, we were in a family marae, or gathering place, in the remote North Island coastal town of Paihia. We were given another formal welcoming ceremony by a beautiful Maori woman named Grace Edmonds, her husband, some Maori friends, and about two dozen of the Edmonds’ grandchildren. They performed Maori songs and dances for us and then Grace addressed us: “The new millenium is all about the coming together of the tribes, and we can start tonight. We hear you are going to show us how to celebrate one of your tribal holidays,” she said gleefully.

Out came the plastic dreydl, but this time there was no instant latke mix. It was going to be a very impoverished Chanukah.

“Hey,” I said,” I know the Maori are wonderful woodworkers. Do you think you can improvise an 8-branched candelabra and find some candles?”

Grace’s whanau went running around the marae, and within minutes they came back with a lovely slab of wood and eight big, fat household candles. They melted the candles onto the board and presto, we had a menorah. The kids were watching, wide-eyed, and I knew that whatever they witnessed that night would leave a lasting impression about Jews.

“I’d like to tell you about Chanukah and teach you the short blessing we sing as we light the candles each night, ” I told them. “Baruch, atay, adonay,” I intoned. I sang the blessing once, in my nasal, off-key voice, and I was astonished when they sang it back to me, in perfect Hebrew.

“How did you learn it so fast?” I asked.

“We are people with a long oral tradition,” said Grace. “We can recite our ancestry for hundreds and even thousands of years. So a short blessing is easy for us.”

“Okay, ” I said, testing them,” can you remember this? Nun, gimmel, hay, shin. Nais gadal hayah sham. Those are the letters on the four sides of the dreydl.”

The kids didn’t hesitate. “Nun, gimmel, hay, shin, nais gadal hayah sham,” they repeated back to me. “Those are the letters on the four sides of the dreydl.”

“This is obviously too easy for the Maori, ” I said with a grin. “So I’ll sing a whole song and let’s see if you can remember it without coaching.”

By the time I had finished the last verse of “I had a little dreydl,” the kids were singing it back to me, flawlessly. And then they began to spin the dreydl. The star-studded Southern Hemisphere night air was pierced with shrieks of glee as the children called out “nun” or “shin” or “gimmel” as they won each pot and collected the toothpicks they were using as gambling chits.

As they played on that night, I thought of how the Jews, too, were people with a long and powerful oral tradition. We had also been able to recite our genealogy, starting from Adam and Eve, until it was written down in the Hebrew Bible and we no longer had to remember it.

“I love Chanukah,” said a little brown-skinned Maori girl who was missing two front teeth.

“It comes so naturally to us,” said a big, burly Maori man named Russell. “It makes me wonder. My grandfather said that long, long ago we Maori had origins in the Middle East.”

Russell was right. Chanukah did seem natural to these Maori kids. They slipped into the holiday traditions with such grace and ease. I looked lovingly at the beautiful little Maori girl with the missing teeth and thought about the coming together of the tribes at the millenium. I wondered if the Maori stories were true, and if at some point in the distant past our ancestors had come together in peace and understanding and shared a moment in time. Did these Maori kids carry in their cells shared memories of desert life, Middle Eastern landscapes, ancient holidays, and even….somehow…through their vast migrations across oceans and continents…the first Chanukah?


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