“Lights, camera — action!” is not the usual opening to the Passover seder, but viewers tuning into South African television on April 11 could well be forgiven for making that mistake.
They’ll see a seder with a uniquely African twist.
Jeanette Jegger, 28, wrote and directed the 24-minute documentary, “An African Pesach,” with an eye toward the fact that this year’s Jewish festival of freedom coincides with the 10th anniversary of South Africa’s transition to democracy.
In light of that coincidence, Jegger sought to take Passover “out of the realm of the traditional Jewish family,” and tell “the story in a way that was more relevant to a wider audience.”
Jegger did so by filming a seder run by Tikkun, the Jewish community’s umbrella outreach initiative, with Jewish and black South African high school students.
“It provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on Jewish freedom and the reality of where we, as the South African Jewish community, are now,” Jegger said.
Nozipho Gqomo, 16, a student from the black township school of Langa High, said the experience resonanted with her own path to freedom.
“I thought that we were the only ones who suffered,” she said, referring to apartheid-era South Africa. “But now I acknowledge that the Jews experienced tremendous suffering, too.”
Jegger, a graduate of the Herzlia Jewish day school, made the students the stars of her documentary film.
Nosiba Nyovane, 17, another student from Langa High, has been part of Tikkun’s personal development programs at her school for three years.
“I think the African Passover celebration is a great idea because it brings us together as a family,” she told JTA.
Nosiba said that in bringing together students from rural and urban areas and helping them relate to each other, Tikkun has helped her learn and become a role model for the younger children she mentors in the group’s Student- for-Student program.
Jenni Davidson, a Herzlia high school student who is one of the stars in the film along with Nosiba, said filming the model seder was a brilliant idea.
“Like Nosiba said, we’ve both come from very different cultural backgrounds and it’s very interesting to see another perspective of Pesach,” Jenni said. “One of the main things that Tikkun promotes is interaction between people of diverse backgrounds.”
For schoolmate Amanda Stein, the Passover film was a learning experience.
“I’ve seen today how the girls from Langa High have reacted to the different customs that we have and this has made me stop and appreciate things that I take for granted,” Amanda said. “The rabbi has explained certain things that I didn’t know before,” she said of Passover customs.
In the film, Herzlia’s campus rabbi, Dani Kerbel, runs the show.
Kerbel says the documentary is an important educational tool.
“The trouble is that we sometimes get stuck in ritual — we follow the letter of the law but we don’t stop to think about it,” he said. The film helps people think about Passover customs and meaning, he said.
“In Judaism, the process of kavanah — thinking, meditating, understanding — is so important, and what is amazing is that one’s seder after an exercise like this is so much more meaningful.”
He added that the cross-cultural element of the African seder was “just great.”
“One can become very jaded with one’s own perspective — you just do it because that’s the way you’ve always done it,” Kerbel said. “When somebody comes with a completely fresh outlook, enjoys it and asks questions which one has forgotten to ask, it completely freshens it up and makes it more interesting.”
“It also forces one to explain things and to ask oneself the questions one has been avoiding in hiding behind the ritual,” he said.
In the documentary, Tikkun Cape Town’s programs are showcased by executive director Barbara Miller.
“For them it is a wonderful platform to show what they do, as a lot of people don’t know,” Jegger explained.
Miller said Tikkun’s programs are meant to discover the similarities in the various cultures and religions of participants. Linking the Jewish experience of moving from slavery to freedom with South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy gives “our work an additional boost,” she said.
The filming of the documentary — done in a single day — was preceded the day before by an afternoon of matzah baking. During the exercise, participants discussed the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.
At the seder, Kerbel’s explanations of the significance behind contents of the seder plate were quickly overcome by lively discussions about social justice.
“Why do we have four glasses of wine on Pesach?” one of the students asked.
Noting that the number four recurs throughout the Haggadah, in the story of the four sons and the four questions, the rabbi said there are four levels of redemption in the Torah.
“To be free is not a single idea; there are lots of levels of freedom,” Kerbel said.
“The whole concept of Pesach is freedom, but, despite 10 years of democracy, are we truly free today?” he asked. “Despite our political freedom, we still have language barriers and we’re not free because of AIDS and poverty.”
“On another level we are slaves to peer pressure, drugs and alcohol — things we wish we were free of. The issue on Pesach is to stop and explore these things, because that is the first step towards freedom.”
How else was this seder different from all other seders? It probably was the only one that ended to the rhythm of African drumbeats.