Life & Culture

Out of Africa: a smashing children’s tale for Passover

An ancient Ethiopian custom of breaking bowls then using the pieces to create new ones takes centre stage in a new picture book


Close bond: Zahava Workitu Goshen and Mayaan Ben Hagai

Which of us hasn’t smashed a bowl or two in changing over our chametz and non-chametz crockery for Passover?

In Zahava Workitu Goshen’s childhood in Ethiopia, it was the practice to smash every chametz vessel in the home – and then grind down the clay, mix it with new and use it to shape fresh vessels for Pesach, which would be deemed free of chametz.

This breaking and re-making is now the focus of a memorable picture book, co-written by Goshen and Maayan Ben Hagai, illustrated by Eden Spivak and translated by Jessica Bonn. In the book, Workitu is reluctant to break her beloved old dishes, but she and her sister carry them to their aunt, destroy them and help shape new items from the crushed remains.

The transformation of old into new becomes a subtle metaphor for the handing down of traditions from generation to generation – and of the continuity of Judaism. In the book, Workitu remarks that the clay they are using could be the very same clay used by their ancestors in Egypt.

“It was very important to Zahava to create the effect of saying that they come from an ancient and beautiful tradition of Judaism, of being Jews in a very serious and devoted way,” says Ben Hagai, “and it’s not like when they move to another place something new began; they come from very strong roots. And we tried to say that the tradition of being a Jew can change and still hold the essence; it has to be reborn but it’s based on something ancient and deep and important – remaking something new based on something very, very strong and old.”

Goshen made her first long journey as a seven-year-old, when she began attending school in town far from home. At ten, she made an even longer journey – going on aliyah with her family – and she met Ben Hagai in Israel as an adult. At first, their friendship had a few cracks of its own.

“When we met I was social worker in Bet Shemesh,” says Ben Hagai, “and my job was to work with the newcomers from Ethiopia. They didn’t know Ivrit, so they said in order to work with them, Zahava would be not only my translator but a cultural mediator. So we started to work together and at the beginning I thought we are getting along very well, we are friends, but Zahava felt differently.

“She felt I asked questions that were provocative – ‘Did you have a house? A bed? Where did you shower?’ She was angry but she didn’t express it because it’s not in the culture to be directly angry. So at one point she gave me a paper her son wrote for his bar mitzvah [it’s usual in Israel for pre-bar/batmitzvah children to write an essay about their family history]. It was very short and I asked who helped him write it and she was proud and said, ‘I helped him and he got the highest grade.’”

Ben Hagai then proposed that they turn the family history essay into a full-length novel for young adults. The novel won an award and they decided their next project would be a shorter children’s book about Passover.

The characters in Workitu’s Passover are based on Zahava and her sister. When Goshen’s own children read the book, they joked that they’d rather not clean the home for Passover – “They said, we could break things; it’s more fun!” Unluckily for them, Goshen pronounced that now they were in Israel, they would have to stick with the cleaning.

The girls in the picture book are also excited about the new dresses their father is making them for Pesach – in real life Goshen’s father was a skilled weaver.

They might not break their vessels any more, but Goshen’s family have happily embraced the custom of buying of new clothes.

“In Ethiopia it was only one dress. Here it’s a lot of shopping – our culture is consumerism!” says Ben Hagai. Goshen remembers the build-up to the festival, with the excited anticipation of new clothes, was “a big deal’ in Ethiopia and laments that now, if her kids want something, they don’t have to wait.

Seder in Ethiopia was a large-scale communal event. Goshen remembers “many relatives coming to celebrate together and they didn’t know that the Jerusalem Temple didn’t exist any more, so they made a sacrifice of an animal.”

After eating the meat, each family would get a tiny piece of factory-made matzah, imported from Israel, its regular, inorganic shape a curiosity. “A square with holes – very strange and special.”

Goshen’s first Passover in Israel, in a hall filled with Ethiopian olim, was “nice, and strange at the same time. The food wasn’t good. They had tried to do it according to our taste but it was weird and tasteless.” One element Goshen did enjoy was the novelty of hunting the afikomen.

Raised on a kibbutz, Ben Hagai’s childhood communal Seder memories are not that different from Goshen’s.

“Zahava and I have been friends for a very long time – since 2007,” says Ben Hagai. “We’re very different and have different politics, different attitudes. I’m secular, Zahava is very religious, but we are very, very close and we always talk.

“When we talked about our book, we saw our childhoods were very different but in a way [we both had] the connection with nature and animals, the same involvement in the community and nature.

“When I was a child, I was living near Lake Kinneret – there was a special place where you can find mud that you can make [crockery] from it and as a child I was really excited to discover this spot with the special mud.

“When Zahava told me about the custom of making new pots from the crushed vessels and fresh clay, I said it was maybe this kind of mud, so I used [my childhood experience of the tactile mud] when I wrote the story. It was so exciting that Zahava created the bowls and cups – I was a child imagining it and she actually did it.”

Goshen is constantly sending Ben Hagai video clips of grateful parents (who are of the same generation as Goshen’s children), sharing Workitu’s Passover with their children.

“They [the parents] are so emotional to see their history written down and they didn’t know the customs,” she says. “And they go to their parents and their parents say: ‘Yes, yes, it was like that!’”

Workitu’s Passover is published by Green Bean Books

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