Shavuot no antidote to 4 in the morning

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Every single night around 4 in the morning I wake up to two thoughts, which then have the power to keep me awake.

I’m not home, is the first one.

Everything is different here, is the second one.

I both bore and enervate myself.

That I am not home should not be news by now, the end of my fourth month here. And, in fact, considering the ephemeral nature of home, I am in a home, having added two new African masks, chitenges draped over the upsholstery that came with this furnished flat, a fresh bunch of roses from the market each week, and my stuff.

Everything being strange here should be even less newsworthy to me, even at 4 in the morning, as everything being strange here is why I came.

But as F. Scott Fitzgerald said in the real dark night of the soul, it’s always 3 o’clock in the morning. For me it’s four. That is the hour when thoughts become inarguable, fear-inducing convictions.

So I went to a Shavuot celebration today, to get out of the house on a Sunday, and on the erroneous guess formed during daylight hours that that wouldn’t be strange.

This was based on thinking that between growing up in New York and living in South Florida, a Jewish holiday would be like old home week, although the only ones I’ve celebrated at home I was taken to, a stranger in a strange land.

But here, where people from Birmingham and people from New York greet each other as if they could be cousins, a Jewish holiday seemed to promise a little less strangeness than that which fills and frames each day here.

That turned out not to be the case.

For one thing it was an Israeli Jewish celebration and the hosts along with most of the guests spoke Hebrew. For another thing it turned out to be a tradition in the hostess’s family that people slide around in the water on Shavuot.

“Everyone will get wet,” she said firmly.

That’s what you think, I thought back, nodding and smiling.

After all how could they make that happen, short of pushing me onto the mat they had the sprinkler trained on, and that the host kept pouring liquid soap on?

Then the water balloons came out.

“He threw it over his shoulder with his back turned,” one of the guests who, like me, stayed determinedly dry. “It’s getting very tricky.”

The guest, one of a few Zambians there, became very good at dodging water balloon attacks. We huddled together, taking turns standing behind each other and they asked me if I knew Hebrew.

No, but I know some Yiddish, I said, just to look like I belonged somewhere, although that was completely irrelevant to this place. Yiddish seems a little like Nyanga, the language that goes unwritten here, pieced together from a trail of the several dozen other languages here.

They agreed it sounded very similar in principal and wanted to know some.

I taught them how to say “nishtihin, nishtiher,” as we ran from one end of the backyard to the other, dodging water balloons.


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