My Maori Moment


Every year at the Passover seder, we declare: “In every generation, every Jewish person is obligated to see themselves as if they themselves had actually come out of Egypt.” I’m sure I’m not alone in my frustration with this statement, seeing as my experience hasn’t given me much frame of reference for life as an ancient slave. But my family has always focused more on the attempt. It’s impossible to truly imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt, but striving to step into an unfamiliar pair of shoes is the meaningful part. I’ve been working on this skill in recent months while studying abroad in New Zealand at the University of Auckland.

It’s hard being outside the Jewish bubble, I’m not going to lie. My seder earlier in the month included rice crackers in lieu of matzah, spicy peanut butter as my maror and a single apple standing in for charoset. There’s no Hillel on campus, and I’ve become grateful to New Yorkers for understanding Yiddish, because “schlep” is not at all the universal term I thought it was. And the bagels are terrible. But Jews are historically adaptable, and I’ve been able to make friends and form a community here while keeping true to my Jewish self, thanks in large part to an early breaking of the ice by an unexpected group of people: the Maori.

I didn’t just get through a holiday of questions (four, to be exact) to avoid explaining the ones likely coming to mind right now: who are the Maori, and what could they have to offer to a nice Jewish girl from the tristate area?

The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. Relations between the Maori and the European settlers have been rocky over the generations, but the country is now trying to embrace and integrate its Maori culture into daily life. Anyone who has heard of the Maori before is probably familiar with the traditional haka war dance done before national rugby games, but there are dozens of subtler indicators of Maori presence. Maori phrases appear in the salutations of emails, signs are posted in English and Te Reo (the Maori language) and certain customs such as not sitting on tables or the summit of mountains are common. At first, I didn’t think the Maori culture would have much bearing on my life besides being a particularly interesting part of the foreign (to me) ambiance of New Zealand. Relating to the country’s indigenous people on a deeper level, especially in connection with my Jewish identity, came out of left field.

During orientation, my study-abroad program visited a Maori community, where we spent the night and learned that there is more to the Maori than meets the eye. They are deeply connected to their roots and hold their ancestors in high esteem. The concept of whakapapa — keeping account of one’s genealogy — is a central tenet. As our guide explained this, my mind went to the Tanach, to the lists of names that trace Adam to Noah, Abraham to Joseph to Moses. I thought about my dad, who searches out eighth cousins and collects old photos to add to the growing account of our family tree. The Maori also express their values, teachings and culture through storytelling, and oral tradition preserves their way of life through the generations. Where would my Jewish identity be without the story of how my great-great grandfather didn’t want his daughter marrying a “shpringer” (a loafer), much less the stories in Genesis?

But the Maori tenet that really struck a chord was the people’s connection to their land. When you formally introduce yourself in a Maori setting, you don’t share your profession or where you go to school. You list “your mountain,” “your ocean” and “your river” — the physical aspects of whatever place you call home. “Home” is not necessarily the region in which you were born, either, or where you currently live; it is the place that FEELS like home, wherever your connection to a place is strong. You don’t even need to have just one.

I’ve struggled to explain to people my connection to Israel, why I rush to defend it, why it never feels like a foreign country, why I can call it a home even though I’ve never lived there. Being in an unfamiliar community surrounded by unfamiliar people halfway around the world, I could finally put it in simple terms: New York is home because it’s where I live. New Jersey is home because it’s where I grew up. Israel is home because my ocean isn’t the Atlantic, it’s Yam Tichon, the Mediterranean. My mountain isn’t the hill where my house is, it’s the one I climbed near Sde Boker. There’s a visceral connection between me and the dirt in Israel, and among all the people I’ve met, the Maori understand that in ways few people outside the Jewish community do.

In Jewish tradition we talk about being a light unto the nations, but we forget that interacting with people in those nations can shed some light on us, too. Because of the understanding I reached in the Maori meeting house, I became more comfortable despite being far from the Jewish bubble I’d left behind. I also knew that in stepping (or rather leaping, in this case) temporarily out of that bubble, I’d discover the answer to a Jewish question that had always nagged at me.

While I can’t put myself into a native New Zealander’s shoes, I can imagine his or her life a little better now. And next year, when I’m back home at my family’s seder, retelling the story of how the ancient Jewish slaves escaped Egypt for the Promised Land, I’ll have a deeper grasp on the meaning of home. And there’ll be some real charoset, too.  

Yaël D. Cohen is a junior at Columbia University. She is a 2015 Write On For Israel graduate.

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.