Life & Culture

My first Pesach was in the Himalayas

When Emma Shevah finds Pesach hard work, she remembers a magical, musical seder night amid the mountains


Jews are endlessly amused at how peculiar our rituals must look to non-Jews. And, when it comes to eyebrow-raising activities, nothing compares to Pesach. Questions hit an all-time high — “You do what?” “Do you actually believe the Red Sea split?”

So there’s not much point trying to explain why you vacuum your computer keyboard, seal some kitchen cupboards closed with masking tape and banish your children to eat pizza in the rainy garden, then make them shake their clothes before they come in.

But imagine what it’s like not only to view Pesach as a bewildered bystander, but then to adopt it as your own. By choice. Forever. It defies belief, really. Yet belief is one thing you need in order to see it through. Year after year. Cupboard after cupboard. Matzah after matzah.

Having come to Judaism through conversion, my first Pesach was spent in the Himalayas when I was in my mid-twenties. We were in Himachal Pradesh, the Indian state bordered by the Punjab and Pakistan to the west, Tibet to the east and Kashmir to the north. This is a place where convoluted valleys plunge so deep, you have to strain to see the river down below, then stretch your neck up to wonder at the vastness of the mighty peaks. Lush green forests cover the mountainsides in beards of thick green and, here and there, houses with higgledy-piggledy slate roofs knot in tangled villages, like crooked teeth.

Funnels of smoke rise from thin metal chimneys. On rickety stone pathways, damp goats and lolling cows are screamed at by women in colourful headscarves, wielding big sticks.

Wide wooden balconies are covered in corn cobs drying in the sun. Apple trees line the lower slopes and giant pumpkin plants climb up the sides of houses to deposit their fat fruit on the roofs. The air is clean and sharp and smacks of life. Written on a sign above a roadside chai shop are the words: “Welcome, God is everywhere”.

This is a place where nature is wild, intense and powerful. Where hand-sized spiders tiptoe across wooden walls and ceilings, and flies buzz lazily from cow pat to boozy fruit and back.

This is not a place of kosher for Pesach supermarkets, foil-covered kitchen counters or oven-cleaning companies.

We had more than one Pesach in the mountains but the one I remember best was when I was married and seven months pregnant with my first child. My husband and I had met in India, married in London, and were back in the Himalayas, renting a large house in an apple orchard near the river and the natural hot springs.

His friends — all Israelis, some from Strictly Orthodox, Jerusalem families — lived there, too. They kept Shabbat already, which was a new concept to me, and now spring was in the air, they were on a new mission.

We were hosting the Seder on our big wide balcony. And they were doing it properly — or, at least, as properly as they could in the Himalayas. They cleaned the rooms and the kitchen, and boiled the metal cutlery and utensils. They made pitta-like matzah in 18 minutes (I was the time-keeper) and flung the ones baked after the deadline far into the fields. I was learning as I went along and had no clue, really. But, when I went to the village shop, I had an insight: I saw the small metal shovel sitting in the sack of flour — the same shovel was used to scoop the dry goods from all the other sacks, too — and realised it was a problem to use it to spoon up my lentils. Our years in India taught me much, but seeing food in sacks like that, it was easy to see why certain rules were imposed all those years ago. The rice we bought (being Sephardi) had the odd random wheat grain in it, so to avoid getting any nasty surprises over Pesach week, it had to be cleaned on big trays beforehand and then bagged up — a practice I still keep today, just in case.

Locals, bent double with baskets of firewood on their backs, stopped and looked at us bewildered. But they’d seen crazy foreigners doing all kinds of things. Turning a house upside down and boiling forks wasn’t the worst of it. Pesach was just as weird to me as it was to them, but I was in India and weird was everywhere.

I’d left London and flown to Asia specifically to seek the weird. I was young, hungry for life and craved culture shock. Elephant-headed deities? OK. Bathing in the murky Ganges with partly-cremated feet floating by? Sure, so why not have food on banana leaves served by men with mouths full of red pan juice? Cool. And meeting people was the same. You gave up your house, your job and your life to meditate on a mountainside? Nice. You live in a cave with a Saddhu and walk around barefoot? What’s that like? And you guys, you spend one night every year re-enacting the Exodus from Egypt and you avoid bread for a week? Fine. Sounds quite tame after all the other stuff I’ve come across.

Our Seder night was in the open air and it was magical. The snow peaks glistened in the moonlight, the sky was studded with stars and the air was filled with voices singing ancient songs in a strange, throaty language.

We sat on the floor in a large circle, cross-legged, with fertile greenery burgeoning in every direction, trying to imagine we were in the arid deserts of Sinai. There was no kosher meat, of course, but we’d made a vegetarian feast. The Sephardim among us ate homemade houmous, matboucha, techina from Israel, rice, beans and lentils, and those not eating kitniot feasted on vegetables cooked copious ways, and umpteen salads. And we all ate the 18-minute matzah and charoset.

We had amazing wine, too. Ovad had bought wine-making equipment and a whole trolley full of grapes in Delhi in September, much to the delight of the vendor who went home early with a big smile. Ovad brought the grapes up in a taxi, stamped on them with his bare hairy feet (I was barred from the entire process but it looked like hard work) and made a potent kosher wine that was ready at Purim, tested to great appreciation, and kept for Seder night.

As they followed the Haggadah, I tried to work out what was going on. Our Seder guests numbered about 20 or 30. They were seasoned dreadlocked travellers as well as post-army Israelis on their obligatory travels, but to my husband’s great annoyance, the local English Saddhu, Baba Terry, his Italian woman-friend and an Israeli “disciple”, who lived at the end of our field in their “commune” (wooden hut) turned up, too.

I thought it was great, this Pesach thing. Wonderful. Weird. Amusing, even.

I didn’t think it was quite so wonderful when I had to do it my own house in Jerusalem a couple of years later. And it wasn’t amusing in the slightest when, with a tireless toddler and a howling baby, I had to scrub cupboards all night until my hands were raw.

But we could buy all kinds of food that was signed, sealed and approved of in the shops down the road, and everyone else was preparing and cleaning, too — some even more crazily than we were. Belief, kodesh studies and connection had kicked in where there was only curiosity before, and that helped for sure. And there were no titanic spiders, which is always a bonus.

Twenty-two years later in London, and Pesach, more than anything, is stressful. It’s fine once it’s in (kind of) but it’s not easy and it’s not cheap. So I try to remind myself, as I empty another cupboard and vacuum another corner, that, once upon a time, I didn’t see Pesach as a mighty mountain of work. I saw Pesach in the mighty mountains. And it was bizarre, sure. But it was beautiful.


Emma Shevah’s latest book is ‘Dara Palmer’s Major Drama’ (Chicken House)

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