Pesach: Mulualem

This is easily the best Pesach story I’ve ever written… To listen to it read, start at 9:10 in the podcast below. Also, I use a highly racist term – I’m using it intentionally, not with disregard to its implications.

My phone buzzes again. It’s maybe the tenth time in the last hour. I pull it out of my pocket and glance at its shattered screen. It is my father, again. He probably wants me to come home.

I slide the phone back into my pocket, unanswered.

There’s no moon tonight and so the street is even darker than usual. A low glow from the mega-city that is the Israeli coast hovers in the air. But it only allows vague shapes to be seen. There is no definition. At least in the darkness. Of course, the whole street isn’t cast in that indiscriminate darkness. Stained concrete buildings, worn-down public housing, are set back from the road. They have harsh-looking plazas in front of them, lit by the yellow glow of sodium lamps. During the day parents sit on the broken benches while their children play between the weeds. And during the night, teenagers hang out there, ensconced in the safety of the lights.

There are also streetlamps set between the plazas. They are spaced far from one another. Young Kushi men, men like me, hang out below them. The lights serve as a sort of sign. An advertisement. They say: you can find trouble here.

My phone buzzes again. I don’t bother to pull it out of my pocket. I just let it vibrate against my leg. I’m beginning to regret even having it. I thought it’d be nice, but it’s beginning to annoy me.

I watch an ambulance zoom by, its lights flashing in the darkness. Maybe one of the paramedics is like me, a Kushi struggling at the bottom of his own world. But even as that imaginary Kushi drives by, I realize that I am below even him. I’m a street cleaner. I work from dawn ‘til dusk in some fancy town full of rich white people. They barely even see me. I’m just a yellow jacket picking their trash off the sidewalk in the mornings. That said, there are benefits to the work. Today, I found the phone outside an apartment block. Somebody had bought it once. They’d spent good money on it. And then it was shattered, and abandoned, and left out as trash.

When I picked it up, it was almost like finding an old friend.

The people who threw it away didn’t clear its memory. I guessed their lock pattern, a simple U. And then I opened it. And I found pictures, hundreds of pictures. Of another world. Of children playing in perfect parks. Of restaurants. Of large apartments with designer furniture, sparkling homes and expensive art hanging on the walls.

The phone is a window into another world. But not mine.

My world is humid and hot and smells of damp concrete.

As the cars drive past, I feel their white lights passing over us. I imagine their drivers peering into the cones of light cast by their cars. I imagine them seeing the dark forms along the side of the road. And I know what those drivers are feeling as they see us. I see it during the day. Some are angry, although I can’t imagine why. Some feel pity, which I understand. But most? Most feel fear.

They are frightened of us.

Even Kushi drivers are frightened of us. Sometimes, just because I can, I glare at the passing cars. I have little power, but I still have the power to frighten the privileged with only a look.

A car pulls to a stop. I accept cash and deliver drugs. The man in the car is a regular customer. The streetlamps are my sign post. They announce that I’m open for business. But I don’t need a streetlamp. The way I figure it, I could be wearing a suit and tie and people would still think I’m a drug dealer. They’ll never look up to me. I’m a Kushi. So why shouldn’t I do what they already expect of me?

I belong here on the street. I fit. It may not be an exalted reality, but at least I fit.

There’s some comfort in that.

My phone buzzes again.

It’s my father, again.

My father doesn’t fit. My father refuses to fit.

My father had been a big man back in Ethiopia. He’d been respected. He’d been important. And then he made the most fateful decision of his life. He decided to come here. He came here, a helpless black savage stuffed into the back of an airplane. A black savage hoping to find the Messiah. And that’s what he’s remained. A helpless black savage. An uneducated and illiterate man. A monkey in a modern world. And yet, somehow, he still hopes to find his Messiah. Even as the world squeezes him into his proper place, he refuses to accept it. He refuses to accept what he really is. He hopes somebody will, eventually, realize he’s deserving of their respect. But the more he demands their respect, the less the world gives it to him. Even my mother divorced him. She was ready to move on. She left us all.

But still, he reaches for the past. He doesn’t seem to understand that the past is gone.

And I hate him for it.

He calls again.

This time, I pick up?

“What?” I ask, letting the anger into my voice.

“Why haven you answered your phone?” he demands.

I consider lying, pretending my ‘new’ phone wasn’t working. But I don’t care enough. I don’t say anything.

“Come home, now!” says my father.

“Why?” I ask, trying to draw out the word as a sort of antidote to his impatience.

“The elevator was broken. Your ayati tried to take the stairs.” My ayati, my grandmother, is named Nikahywot.

“And?”

“Mulualem,” my father says, “Your ayati fell. The ambulance is here now. I need you to come home.”

“Okay,” I say, reluctantly.

I end the call, walk out of the light of the streetlamp, and head home.

My ayati isn’t like my father. She came here, physically. But she never left Ethiopia. In Israel she is only a frail, lost, useless woman. She can do nothing, and she’s never tried to fix that. She is only here because we are. And even that link is tenuous. She speaks Amharic, as does my father. But my sister and I don’t. Like so many of our generation, we speak only Hebrew. And so she moves around her ever dwindling community of elderly Ethiopians. And she’s watches her children and her children’s children. She watches, but she understands nothing. She’s not a part of our world.

When I get to our building just a few minutes later, the ambulance is still there. But the strobes on top of it are off. And just then, I know what’s happened.

My ayeti is dead.

I slowly walk up the poorly lit staircase. Dark mold peers out from between the peeling pink paint on the walls. All of it is highlighted by the unnatural shine of the cheap fluorescent lights. Level after level I climb, expecting to find my grandmother around the next turn. But there is nothing.

And then, one story below my home, I come across the paramedics. And I come across my ayeti. She is laid out on a stretcher and covered by a sheet. The paramedics are just waiting now, for the coroner to arrive. My father is standing next to them. He’s crying. But I imagine, in a day or two, he’ll barely notice that the old woman is gone.

She was just a shadow.

I slip past my father. He looks at me, begging me for something. But I don’t know what. Instead, I head into the apartment. I pull a bag of cheap bread out of the cupboard and some hummus from the refrigerator. And I start to eat. A minute later, my father comes in.

“You have to help me?” he says.

“With what?” I ask.

“Maybe they’ll have forms,” he says. My father can speak Hebrew reasonably well. But he can’t read it. He likes to have me around when forms need to be filled out.

“And if you fill them wrong? Does that make ayati more dead?” I ask.

He glowers at me. He wants something from me. Maybe comfort. Maybe support. But he hasn’t earned that. I just look at him, as I absentmindedly chew my sandwich. I’m insulting him with my eyes, and I know it.

A moment later, he turns and walks from the room.

Just then, I get an idea. I shove my sandwich in my mouth and pop up from my chair. I’ve heard of old grandmothers sewing gold into their clothes. Maybe my ayati had something valuable in her room. My father will be busy with the coroner for at least a little while. This is my chance.

I step into her room and quietly close the door. I flick on the overhead light – a bulb hanging from exposed wires. And then I begin to dig.

It doesn’t take me long to find what I want.

In the closet I find a small, ancient-looking, wooden box. I open it and inside I see a small clay figurine. It is clearly a lion, but it looks like a child’s conception of a lion. It has a rough, rounded shape and it is painted in bright colors. Its whole body is surrounded by a thin iron exo-skeleton. What looks like hammered threads of iron run up the insides and outsides of the legs, merging along the belly and the the back – giving a sharp contrast to the softness of the clay.

I close the box and slip out of the room.

The next morning, I’m up early. My ayeti has been taken away by the chevra Kadisha, the burial society. Her funeral will be in the afternoon. Which leaves me the morning. As my father sits in our tiny living room, I slip out of the house – the small box hidden in my bag. There are art galleries on the other side of the town; the side with gleaming white towers. One of them, I know, specializes in Ethiopian art.

Thirty minutes later, I walk in the door of the gallery. There’s a saleswoman there. She’s dressed in an elegant and perfectly tailored suit. She looks up at me. I can see the suspicion almost immediately. It is an Ethiopian gallery, but Kushi don’t often come here.

“I want to sell something.” I say.

Her comprehension and relief are obvious.

“What,” she asks.

I pull the box from my bag and open it on the countertop. The saleswoman’s eyes go wide.

“It is my grandmother’s,” I say, “She gave it to me. She said it was hundreds of years old. She said it was a lion of Judah”

“Why are you selling it?” asks the woman, staring at the little clay and iron lion.

“I don’t want to,” I lie, “We just need the money.”

The woman doesn’t even touch the piece, she just looks at it, examining it from every angle.

“Again, I have to ask, are you sure you want to sell this?” she asks.

“I must,” I say, “That’s why I’m here.”

Who would have thought selling something would be so hard.

She looks up at me, assessing my expression.

“Do you have any idea what this is worth?”

I want to say yes, so she won’t cheat me. But I really have no idea.

“To you,” she says, “It should be priceless.”

“Everything has a price.”

She nods wistfully. “Do you have any paperwork, showing you own it?”

“Paperwork? Why would there be paperwork. She gave it to me.”

The woman nods, knowingly. Ethiopians aren’t famous for paperwork.

“This is an old piece,” she says, “I don’t know how old. But it is very valuable. I’m sure it has been in your family for a very very long time. You really shouldn’t sell it.”

How much convincing will this woman need?

“I need to,” I say, “My grandmother needs medical care in America. But we don’t have the money. She gave it to me to sell.”

The woman’s face shifts to pity, a familiar expression. People act most predictably when they think you are being the most predictable.

“Okay,” she says, “But I still think you should think very carefully about this.”

She thinks for a moment longer, “Listen, I’ll sell it on commission. If you come back before it sells, you can take it back. If not, then I’ll take 5% of its sales price when it sells.”

“How much will that be?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says, “But it ought to be worth more than 10,000 shekels.”

“Wow,” I think to myself.

I shake my head to mask my excitement.

“I only wish I didn’t need to do it,” I say.

She nods, knowingly. Although, of course, she knows nothing. Then she pulls a form out from under the counter. She jots in the details of our agreement. We both sign it and then, carefully, delicately, she closes the box.

She looks up at me, “I hope your grandmother has a complete recovery.”

“I hope so too,” I say. And then, a minute later, I leave the gallery.

10,000 shekels is a lot of money.

 

A few hours later, my ayati is buried. There is a single Kess there, shaded by colorful umbrella and wrapped in his finest white robes. My father speaks briefly. He talks about their voyage together. About my ayati’s desire to be here. About her desire for her children to be here. And then he pauses, uncertain. I know what he’s thinking. She desired it, but her children did not. It was all a mistake.

But he doesn’t share that thought. Instead, his voice just peters away into silence.

The Kess steps forward then. He states, as if it is fact, that my ayati must be full of joy now. After a hundred generations, she is blessed by not only seeing – but being buried in – the Land of Israel.

It is a nice thought, but I hardly think she has an opinion on the matter.

The funeral is short, the attendance sparse. And not long after, we go home.

I imagine that our lives will continue, just as before.

My ayati was never really here.

But my father has other ideas. He goes into her room. And then, a few minutes later, he emerges. He was sad at the funeral, but now he is distraught.

“It’s missing,” he says.

My sister and I just stare at him. “What?” I ask.

“The lion,” he says.

“What?!?” my sister asks. Unlike me, she really has no idea what he’s talking about.

“The lion of Judah is missing,” my father says again. His eyes turn to me and I can see they are flashing with anger.

“You took it!” he shouts at me. “Tell me where it is you assama!

“WHAT?” I shout back, “What ‘lion’ are you talking about?”

My father tears past me and shoots into the room my sister and I share. I hear drawers being thrown open. My sister looks at me, but I just shrug.

10,000 shekels is a lot of money.

A few minutes later my father emerges from the room. His eyes are full of fury.

“Where the hell is it?” he shouts at me.

“Where the hell is WHAT?” I shout back.

He glowers at me. And then he charges back into my ayati’s room. He tears through her things, tossing them to the sides as he violently searches for the little clay lion.

“Aba,” I say, trying to sound calming, “What are you looking for?”

“A lion,” he says, “A little clay lion wrapped in iron.”

“Why is it so important?” I ask.

“It just is,” he snaps.

My sister and I stand in the hallway as my father rips through the apartment searching everything, but finding nothing. After all, there is nothing to find. He searches everything 3 times, and then 4. Eventually, reluctantly, he begins to slow. Like an engine that has run out of gas, he gradually comes to a stop. And then, collapsing on the living room chair, puts his heads in his hands. And he just sits.

“Aba?” I ask.

He looks up briefly. There is resignation in his every move.

“It’s gone,” he says.

“It’s just a statue,” I say.

He looks at me, shocked at my lack of comprehension. And then his eyes dim in front of me.

In that instant, I realize that everything is gone. The fight that had defined him is gone. The resistance to reality that had kept him together has vanished. And in that moment I know that 10,000 shekels is a lot of money. But I also know that it isn’t enough.

I may hate my father, but even I can’t rip out his soul.

 

My sister and I help my father to bed. And then I slip out of the house again. Within 30 minutes, I’m back at the art gallery. I step inside. The same saleswoman is there. Her face is pitying, but also seems to offer some kind comfort.

“We sold it,” she says.

She gives a hint of a smile. “In one day, we sold it for 15,000 shekels.”

I just stare at her.

“But I don’t want to sell it.”

She looks shocked. “But your grandmother…”

“She died,” I say. “A heart attack. This afternoon. The funeral is tomorrow.”

The saleswoman stares at me.

“Who was the buyer?” I say, “Maybe I can explain and get it back?”

“Some Americans,” she says, “They paid in cash. I have no idea who they were.”

“Where were they staying?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“What did they look like?”

“Ashkenazi,” she says, referring to European Jews.

“Do you have video?” I ask.

She does. And she shares it. I use my phone, trying to find the faces online. But I find nothing. I print a copy of the faces. I visit the local hotels. But I find nothing.

The buyers, and the lion, are nowhere to be found.

I go back to the gallery and the saleswomen hands me my 14,400 shekels.

14,400 shekels. The value of my father’s soul.

 

When I get home, my father is still in his room. Visitors come, to speak about my ayeti. But he stays in his room, getting up to greet no one. My sisters offers to cut his hair, as is our mourning tradition. But he refuses. And when she brings him food, he only picks at it. Days pass. Only when it is time to go to work again does he leave his room. But he is a different man. His eyes are sunken. His expression is dead. He isn’t even angry at me.

Weeks pass like this, his lifeless form moving in and out of the house. And then I realize what I must do.

Somehow, I have to recreate the Lion of Judah.

There’s an art supply store in the mall. I go there, looking for guidance, and looking for clay. Another saleswoman helps me. She asks if I have a kiln. I say no. She recommends some oven-baked synthetic clay. But I know that would never work. So, I buy clay – real clay. I’ll find a kiln when I need one.

I don’t go home. I can’t let my father know that I took the lion. If he sees me trying to recreate it, he will know my ignorance was feigned. Instead, I go to another neighborhood. Not Ethiopian, but Yemenite. There’s a small park there. I sit on a park bench set before a park table. And then I set to work, forming and shaping the clay. But the material slips through my fingers, it refuses to mold to my touch. It grabs onto the dirt and grime that surrounds me. It rejects every effort I make. It will not be shaped.

I can’t seem to make anything, much less a child-like lion of Judah.

But I can’t stop. So, day after day, I come here after my work. And I pour himself into making this single piece. A lion of Judah. Day after day, I work to the point of exhaustion. I show up to work so tired that my boss thinks I’m on drugs. He doesn’t test me, because he doesn’t really care. He expects me to be on drugs. But despite it all, I make no progress. It is like the clay is fighting me.

It is like the clay is refusing my attempts to atone for my sins.

One night, I’m sitting on that bench. I’ve bought batch after batch of clay and I’ve ruined them all. I’ve achieved nothing. I am achieving nothing. It is so late that even the dogs have gone to sleep. I’m so tired that my thoughts seem to drift and merge and slip easily into the realm of nonsense.

I can achieve nothing. And, yet I have to keep trying.

And that is when I hear the voice.

“Mulualem,” it says, calling me by my name. It is the voice of a woman. Her voice is soft and vaguely familiar.

I just sit there, not understanding where the voice is coming from.

“Mulualem,” she says, “I can help you.”

I can hear her words roll off her tongue. They are smooth, comforting, beautiful – like stones being gently worn away by a river’s water. I realize, in surprise, that she’s speaking in a language I’ve only heard the Kessim speak. She’s speaking Geez.

And I understand her.

“Help me,” I say. Somehow, the same language comes from within me, the ancient language of my people.

“Throw out your clay,” she says. I stand there, knowing she’s real. And I do as she says.

“What now?” I ask.

“You need to find your clay,” she says.

“Where?” I ask.

“Where there is fresh water and soil, mixing together.”

I begin to walk then. And I feel as if a hand is holding mine. Guiding me forward in the night. It leads me to a place I would not have expected. In my neighborhood, behind my building, surrounded by the smell of trash and a floating cloud of insects, there is a pipe.

It collects the water from the air conditioners in the building. It deposits that water here, behind the building.

The mud here is thick beneath my feet.

The place is disgusting. But her voice reassures me.

“This is the place.”

And then I feel her hands again. They guide mine into the mud. I feel as my fingers are submerged into the goop.

“You feel that?” she asks.

And I do.

I can feel the mud, and it seems to wrap around my fingers – embracing them.

“Pull it out,” she says. And I do.

The mud is there, in my hands.

“Roll it in your fingers.”

I do. I feel it taking shape in my hands.

“Wrap it around your fingers.”

I do. And I feel it curve smoothly around them.

“Shape it into a ball.”

I do as she says. The material comes away from my fingers.

“Yes,” says the voice, “This is the place.”

There’s a discarded bucket there. As she commands me, I gather more mud from the hole. I collect it in the bucket.

“What now?” I ask.

But instead of answering, I see the process in front of me. I must dry the clay, then crush it and soak it until it has the consistency of heavy cream. And then I pour the top of the thin slurry out and through a screen. And then when it has settled, I pour out the extra water, remove the clay, smooth it out and let it dry.

Only then, when it is nearly dry enough, is it ready to be worked.

“Purification,” she says, “It is a process of purification. Only when the clay is pure is it ready to be worked.”

I feel it then, in my hands. And I know what it must feel like when it is ready.

“What then?” I ask.

 

But the voice is no longer there.

 

Over the next three days, I do as I was told. I dry and soak and process and purify the material.

And then I try to work it. But, once again, I can’t. Once again, I can’t form it. It cracks beneath me. It doesn’t feel as it did in my vision. It isn’t quite ready to be fashioned.

I take the clay, again. And I process it again. Drying and soaking and purifying. And again, I fail. And again, I try. Cycle after cycle, I try.

And with each cycle the clay comes closer to what I felt in my vision.

Month after month passes. Summer passes to winter. And then winter to spring.

And then I know it is ready. I know I can form it. But when I try to shape it, it resists me. It refuses my efforts. It does not allow itself to be formed.

It is rejecting me and I don’t know why.

I wrap the clay in plastic bags, saving it. Because I do not know what else to do.

Pesach – Passover – is coming and I feel no closer to bringing life back to my father.

 

Pesach is as it always is, only smaller. The three of us sit together at our small table. Hard European Matzot adorn the center of the table. Eventually we reach the meal and my father explains, again, how his family used to smash their plates before Pesach and fire new ones, fresh for the festival. He has told us this story every year. There was excitement in his voice, once. There was joy in the telling. But every year, I ignored him. This year his voice is dead. He seems to be growing even more listless. This year there is no joy. But this year, I am paying attention.

“Do you remember how you did it?” I ask. My father ignores me.

“Do you remember why you did it?” He doesn’t answer.

“Why won’t you answer?” I demand.

It is then that my father places settles his tired hands on the table. He turns to me, his eyes almost soulless. And he says, “You don’t deserve an answer.”

Before long he has left the table. I mourn as I watch him go. He’s vanishing from the world.

I’ve chased him from it.

I go to bed, but I can’t sleep. And so, in the middle of night, I get up. I leave the apartment. I go to the bins in the back, to my hidden stash of perfect clay. The place is even disgusting than usual – the refuse of Pesach cleaning piled up in the bins. The insects seem to fill the air. But I ignore them.

Instead I just stare at the clay. My need has reached deep within me.

Every part of me, every cell in my body, is focused on that clay. I am willing to sit forever, until somehow it takes shape before me. I sit there, hour after hour – somehow hoping to form it with my mind.

And then, eventually, I nod off.

Only then do I hear the voice again.

“Mulualem,” she says. That musical, familiar, voice speaks out; somehow overcoming the smell of the collected garbage.

“Yes,” I answer, eagerly. The Geez flows off my tongue.

“Now you are ready.”

I feel the hands again. They guide me to the clay. And then, as I begin to work the material, I feel it finally move beneath my fingers. It flows around my fingers, obeying them. The voice speaks to me: “It isn’t the surface of the clay that gives it its form. The life of the clay is beneath, buried in the heart of the material. You have to feel that, and work out from that. Only then can you give it life. But it takes time. It can’t happen all at once. You have to build a foundation and then work from there.”

I look down at my hands and I see what I have formed. There is a simple plate there. It is rough and unadorned. But I have given it form.

I look at it, amazed at my achievement. And then I hear the voice speaking to me once again. “In Ethiopia, those who could change the form of a thing were called buda. They were cursed because only the cursed would engage in such witchcraft. We Jews were buda. We were forced to work with iron and clay. And it set us apart.”

“Am I cursed?” I ask.

But the voice doesn’t answer. Instead it simply says, “I will return when you are ready.”

“Ready for what?” I ask.

But there is no answer.

The presence is gone.

 

I come back the next night. The plate is dry and ready to be fired. But I don’t know how to fire it.

I can find a kiln, but I know that’s not what’s meant to be. I could look up directions online, but I know they will not work. Without the presence, I cannot work the material. Without the presence, I won’t be able to fire it. That is not the path I must be following.

The voice will return when I am ready.

I return to the clay. Day after day, week after week. I destroy and rewet and reform. I learn, step by step. I form plates and then bowls and then pots. I form simple sculptures. Bit my bit, remembering the feel of her hands, I learn to work the material. I learn to work from it from its heart.

And I get better and better at my craft.

All the while, my father is growing weaker.

And then he summons us, his two children, to the table. And he tells us, listlessly, that he has been diagnosed with cancer – and that he cannot be cured.

He has only weeks to live.

He seems not to care.

I work even more furiously. Hour after hour, day after day, I try to craft the lion. But I can’t. And even if I could, I could never learn to work the iron before my father’s time has passed.

And then one night, as my father sleeps in his bed, fitful and weak, I see what I must do.

I cannot form the lion. The lion will not be mine. But I can form something else.

My hands grasp the material and I shape it between them. It flows beautifully in hands. And with my hands, I build a man with a square heart. Lines, below the surface and above it, stream out of it to every part of his body. They start as strong ridges in the clay, but they get thinner and thinner. I see it and as it comes to me, I shape it in the clay. The lines seem fluid, changing and yet completely permanent. There is life in them. There is life in him.

And I know that, once it is dry, the presence will return.

When I come back the next night, she is waiting for me. And once again she shows me what I must do. Together we build a firepit with kindling and bricks. She shows me how, as the kindling burns, the object will tumble into the fire. She shows me how to protect it from that fall – so it does not shatter. She shows me how the intense fire will set it.

And she shows me how to capture the smoke so that it emerges a treasured black.

I work as she speaks. Hours later, the object emerges.

It is a small figure. It is charcoal black. And it is beautiful.

When it cools, I begin to paint it – driven by an image in my mind. I write a word in Geez. “Torah.” I paint it in a strong gold over the heart. And then I paint thin lines over the ridges that lead from its heart. But the lines grow thicker and stronger as the ridges slowly fade away.

And then the little figurine is done.

The vision is gone, but I don’t need it. Not anymore.

I have formed a man from clay and blown the spirit of G-d into it.

I hold it in my hand and I realize what it is.

It is my people.

The heart of my people is our Torah. But it flows from our distant past, our history, and it spreads within us – somehow growing stronger even as our spoken words – the paint – overwhelm those that are written – the ridges.

But the truth runs deeper than the form and colors. Like the little figure, we are drawn from a place of rejection, of ultimate exile. We are purified and recast again and again. Only we can be recast, again and again. Because our oral Torah and our history were never captured and fixed and hardened by being set in books, we have kept our malleability and its life. Our words, person to person, generation to generation, shape a deeper and richer reality. And so, again and again, through our persecution, we have been molded from our very core. We are molded by the challenges of our exile. We are molded until we are ready.

And now we are here. In Israel. The fire has been lit. And I know that we are ready to come to life.

We are ready to take on our ultimate form.

But we must rest just right in the fire. Otherwise, as we tumble into the core of it, we will shatter. All of our history will be lost and our form will be cast aside.

 

I take the little figure in my hands. I carry it, the representation of my people, to my father.

He opens his tired eyes.

He sees the little figurine. In that moment, for the first time since my ayati died, I see life and light in his eyes.

“Who taught you?” he asks.

And suddenly I know. I know the voice. It was the voice of my Ayeti. Nikahywot.

“Ayati,” I say.

“Ayati,” he smiles. “Nikahywot.”

And then he translates her name, although I know what it means.

“She is the source of life.”

As he lays there I ask what I had asked at the seder: “Why did we smash the plates before Pesach?”

My father smiles. “That is the wrong question, Mulualem. The question is: why do we fashion plates for Pesach?”

“Why?” I ask.

He asks me to sit him up in his bed. And then he says, “Mulualem, we smash our plates to avoid eating the slightest crumb left on them. This is because Egypt was the source of bread. We didn’t belong there.”

He pauses to catch his breath. I just wait for him to continue. And then he does. “Mulualem, the Ethiopians rejected buda ­– the making of new forms. So we also smashed our plates so we could make new ones. So we could reject Ethiopia. Because we didn’t belong there either.”

He pauses again. Then he says, “But it isn’t enough just to leave a place. We need to remember we were in Egypt. And we need to remember we were in Ethiopia. Because we can only find the future through the past.”

He squeezes my hand and then smiles, once more.

I sit then, with my father.

I sit with him for three days. And then the cancer takes him.

 

Three years have passed. I am still a street cleaner. I still collect trash from the sidewalks of a rich Ashkenazi town. I still see the eyes of others as they look at me. Some are still angry. Some still pity me. Most still remain frightened of me. But they do not understand. They do not know that we are tumbling into the fire. They do not know that we are being crafted by G-d. But I know. And I know we must land gently – or else we will crack and be destroyed.

And so, when my workday comes to an end I take the bus to a small river. Dozens of children, the children of my people, are waiting there for me. Together, we will dig for clay and will I tell them the story of our people.

Together, we will make dishes for Pesach.

 

My people have the power of buda.

We can change our form; even if others never see past the color of our skin.

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