Someone Else's Simcha / Eran Altif's brit milah - Making the cut, Samaritan style
Nestled in the city of Holon, one small street holds the secrets to an ancient community, and one's family's new obsession – a baby boy.
Location: The Yitzhak Ben-Zvi Samaritan Community Center
Time: 7 A.M.
In the neighborhood: Ben-Amram Street in Holon, a winding, narrow road that serves as the heart of the city's Samaritan neighborhood, otherwise known as Neve Pinchas. Rows of one- and two-story houses crowd both sides of the tiny road, windows packed with potted plants and shaded by nearby high-rises. A verdant gateway is decorated with an inscription of Shema Yisrael ("Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one") using the Samaritan alphabet.
Samaritans: The Samaritans are an ethnic, cultural and religious group that adheres to the Samaritan religion, closely related to Judaism and claimed to be the original form of worship prevalent among the People of Israel prior to the Babylonian Exile. The center of Samaritan faith is Mount Gerizim, located near the West Bank city of Nablus, and they are concentrated in main locations – Holon and Kiryat Luza, on Mount Gerizim itself. Their overall population is estimated near 715 people.
Venue: A stone arch rises above the street, decorated with a Torah psalm written in Samaritan Hebrew, and leading to a wide stone yard holding both the Samaritan synagogue and the Samaritan community center. The wide expanse of the yard, however, quickly morphs into the human density of the community's center's small hall, with members packing the room, including those who had traveled from Mount Gerizim. A cacophony of languages reverberates from the hall's walls, with friends and family greeting each other in Hebrew, Samaritan and Arabic.
Simcha: Eran Altif's brit milah
Number of guests: 350-400
Home: Eran is the first child of father Yaniv, 34, a pharmaceutical salesman, and mother Sivan, 25, a professional translator. The young family lives in Holon's Samaritan neighborhood, right next to, well, everyone. Yaniv: "Everyone knows one another and helps one another. Let's just say, there's no such thing as privacy. Each person knows exactly who the person in front of him is, what he did yesterday, and what he'll be doing tomorrow. You live with them, grow up with them. Everything's together."
Brief history of time: Yaniv is the eldest child of Eran and Zehava Altif, raised in Holon with younger brothers Oved and Roey. Sivan was also raised in the city's Samaritan neighborhood, and is the eldest child of parents Uri and Nadia Sassoni, alongside younger sisters Ortal and Liraz. In the dense Samaritan neighborhood, knowing about each other is the easy part. Getting to know each other, however, required some finesse. Sivan: "We used Facebook and [instant] messenger. Just like everyone else, I suppose."
Family history: The Samaritans may be an ancient sect, but the fears that come with being a new parent are never out of style. Yaniv: "On one hand, it's very exciting. But on the other, you still don't really know how to relate to this tiny creature. Very scary." And while parenting boot camp can be tough, it's a bit easier when there's an entire family at your beck and call: "Everyone helps out a lot. My mom lives 300 meters away. Sivan's mom lives 400 meters away," says the new dad. Sivan, laughing, says, "My dad's ecstatic. He visits every morning, afternoon and evening, calls all the time, asking if [the baby] peed, showered. He calls 10 times a day, even if he always gets the same answer."
Rites: Chairs placed along the hall's four walls are slowly filled by the community's elders, dressed mostly in slacks and short-sleeved shirts, with the side further from the door occupied by the Kohanim, or members of the Samaritan priestly families, dressed in traditional gray garb and donning red head covers. At the center of the row sits Samaritan High Priest Aharon ben Ab-Chisda ben Yaacob. Over in the corner, the women huddle loudly around two small tables, one laden with food and drink, and another laden with the morning's main attraction – baby Eran dressed in an embroidered all-white outfit.
The men slowly rise to their feet, bowing their heads, with the priests leading prayers that are nearly inaudible over the laughter and chit-chat that continues throughout. A few men standing on the outskirts of the session try to quiet down the surrounding mayhem, to no avail. The mohel, who isn't a member of the Samaritan community (since there wouldn't be much work, with an average of about two brit milas every year), arrives at the scene, dissolving through the crowd and reaching baby Eran's, besieged in the corner of the room. Men go in and out of the women's area, depositing money at the hands of a family representative.
Gradually, the quiet prayer turns louder and louder, until it morphs into a mesmerizing drone that easily drowns out every other sound. That is, until a sudden yelp is heard from the women's table, with some fearing the mohel went at it before getting the agreed-upon signal. However, it turns out to be a false alarm, as some of the women cover their mouths with laughter – baby Eran has just urinated on the now smiling mohel.
Following a quick cleanup, the men standing closest to the baby's part of the room finally give the okay, as the mohel quickly gets down to business. In no time, everything's over with, as Sivan's mom Nadia, sporting a huge smile, cradles the newborn, under the continued droning of the men's prayers. Finally, the praying abruptly stops, with the packed crowd choosing anyone of three paths: congratulating the baby and mother and bestowing them with cash gifts; rushing to the impressive spread placed on a table in the middle of the room; or getting some fresh air.
Music: Birds chirping, with a side of lively debate and laughter.
Food: Standing at the entrance to the hall, Yaniv hands out chocolate bars and bottles of iced tea. Inside, a table positioned in the middle of the room is filled with the more serious stuff: Falafel, flat bread, hummus, salads, stuffed vegetables, as well as a staggering variety of fresh summer fruit.
Drink: Bottled juice as well as assorted soft drinks.
Word in the ear: Grandpa Eran, on his very first grandson: "You can't put into words how happy I am. I feel like a bird in flight."
In my spiritual doggy bag: To appreciate a sense of community so profound that any individual functions like the limb of a greater body.
Random quote: Shachar, a retiree who uses his spare time to spread the word of the Samaritan community through their official website, makes a point of proving that even the youngest members of the group can read ancient Hebrew. He calls a young boy, around 6 or 7 years old, who then, without blinking, proceeds to easily read out the psalm inscribed using the ancient text on the community center's entrance archway ("Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out"). A now confident Shachar calls on a young girl who happens to pass by, asking her to perform the same task. She stares blankly at the letters and says, shyly: "But, I can't read it without the vowels," to which the boy, holding his small head between his hands, retorts in disbelief: "I can't believe you didn't know that!"
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