Signs on the way – Parshat Bo
A Jewish Journal…
It was Friday, and the train was considerably late, at least according to the schedule board. If you can call a sheet of paper posted on a moldy bulletin board with the hours penciled in by hand and written in Malayalam (spoken language in a region in south India)—a proper train schedule…
We’d heard that there were still remnants of a small Jewish community here in these parts of India, and we found ourselves stopping people on the street and asking, “Excuse me, do you know where there’s a Jewish community?”
We received a colorful mix of replies ranging from “Yes” to “No” to “I don’t know” to “I no understand English,” to “I don’t care,” to “Would you like to buy an umbrella?!”
We tried our luck again. “Do you know any Jewish people?”
“Je-wish?” came the baffled shake of the head.
“Israelis?” we tried desperately.
This time, they had a ready reply. “Israelis? Yes! Many, many Israelis in Goa.”
Goa? We were a tremendous distance from Goa, a state on the western Indian shore, and Shabbat was only two hours away!
“Thank you,” we sighed and resigned ourselves to making do on our own.
We were on the verge of despair when it suddenly occurred to us that there was at least one conspicuous sign that we could search for.
It could be small and rusty. The sacred inscription of ‘Shema Yisrael’ inside the case may already be half-erased, but the clearly-Jewish item affixed to the door would be an indisputable indication of the owners’ Jewish identities!
The same is true not only in India, but across the world.
Indeed, it didn’t take us long to find the home that we sought. The mezuzah was our guiding light!
From there, we were able to prepare quickly for Shabbat. Well…perhaps quickly is an overstatement given that in India, the electricity shorts frequently, and the room that we’d rented had been reserved for someone else the following morning, etc., etc., etc…
Excerpted from Journal of a Jewish Journey by Devorah Zaguri-Raziel.
On the night of the exodus from Egypt, the Angel of Death passed through all Egyptian homes and struck their firstborns. The Israelites were commanded to mark their doorposts with blood, thus distinguishing their homes from those of their Egyptian neighbors’. “And you shall take a bunch of hyssop…and touch the lintel and both side posts…And Hashem will pass and see…and Hashem shall pass over the openings…And you shall guard this as a law for you and your descendants forevermore.” (Shmot 12).
Simanim from Yemen
Yemenite Jews call the traditional Jewish sidelocks simanim, which translates literally as signs. Try pronouncing it in a Yemenite accent; it sounds much better!
Every Jew has simanim—signs—on his face, on his body in the form of a circumcision, and also in his home.
There are also many identifying marks and signs of a home that greet a visitor as soon as he enters through the door. These jointly attest, “Welcome to our happy Jewish home!”
What are they? The list is long! Two sinks separating between meat and dairy… A special decorative corner in the room designated for lighting Shabbat candles—whether they’re valuable silver candlesticks that a wife received from her husband on their very first Shabbat of married life or the clay candlesticks splashed with colorful paint that the little ones proudly crafted in kindergarten… A library featuring a host of classic Jewish books, each home with its favorites…Menorahs and candelabras against the wall fostering that traditional ambiance… A breakfront filled with silver goblets that will decorate the white table on Shabbat… And, of course, the foremost sign affixed to the front door and every doorway in the house—the mezuzah.
A mezuzah attests to the Jewish identity of the homeowner—whether past or present. And the style of the mezuzah alludes to the taste and character of the residents. A heavy silver mezuzah, a smooth stone mezuzah, an olive wood mezuzah, an ornamental jewel-studded mezuzah, and a minimalist mezuzah each tells a separate story…
The gates of Jerusalem all feature decorative mezuzot that welcome visitors to Jerusalem every day of the year. A gentle kiss and loving caress of the mezuzah at the gate of the city that connects us all fills us with the feeling that we’ve all come home—to our collective Jewish home!