- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Migdala
The day of the harvest festival, Yom Teru'ah, dawns clear and crisp. From now, the days grow visibly shorter. From now, we gather in more than we plant out. We cut short rather than growing long. We dry what is moist, and we steep those things that are dry. All to make food enough to see Migdala Nunnaya through the winter.
The fish still run in the winter, but the storms are more fierce, and the light so short. Many of the hardiest vegetables in our gardens grow only slowly through the cold months. We pile up straw around the plants to shelter them. We seal some under linen covered hoops to protect them from the worst of the weather. But those vegetables and fruits which only grow in the heat and the long light have to be preserved as they finish their season, or we won't taste them again until the following year.
The harvest festival celebrates all the work we do to keep our gardens and our livestock well and sound and productive. The festival celebrates all there is yet to be done before time and weather overtake our undertakings.
This year, the twins Timo and Sahul are big enough to help with the scutching and the heckling of the flax. They are almost big enough to use the hoe in the garden. Our bellies grow bigger, but our hands grow more capable. Mother has enough help to see quite a bit done before we turn to the collective activities of the village: soap-making, heckling flax, rope making, the final cheese make, the olive harvest with preserving and pressing, the end of the grape harvest, brokering the fish and packing them for travel.
In the cold months, the village stores only what it needs to get through to spring and the return of abundance. We even find buyers for the linen surplus from the year before. Every grade of linen has its value.
My tunic is completed. I set the last bead by lamp light the night before Yom Teru’ah. Now, up with the birds, I release the chickens and doves from their nocturnal captivity.
I poke up the fire in the kitchen, and add enough fuel to make flames. I provide the goats with the scything from around our fruit trees. I scratch their heads between their droopy ears while they munch with evil-eyed contentment on the meadow treats.
The one nanny looks to be growing her tail hairs back out. The fire singed her only lightly. Timo and Sahul spent more than an hour trying to coat her tail with a salve Mother gave them the day it happened. The burnt nanny goat did not like the game. Her tail was sore and she did not believe it needed touching by rowdy little boys with suspiciously greasy hands. However erring, she is a nanny of acute discernment and great will.
I am glad for all my chores. Otherwise, I would shake thinking about my part in the procession. I start the barley porridge cooking.
On Yom Teru'ah we celebrate the sweetness of the harvest. We will have fresh figs and grapes, and melons with our porridge. We will also have honey, jams, preserves and herb scented jellies. All of these foods are symbols of the sweetness of life in every season.
I set the table. The fishers in our family sleep in for the festival day. The boats rest on the high holy days in Migdala.
Our household is not blowing the shofars this year. Zebadyah and Dawud do not climb the ridge behind the village every day for the month preceding Tishrei to blow the carved and polished shofars one hundred times at dawn. Mother says the horns call us to open our hearts to the changes we want to make in the new year. I know they call to the roosters, who call right back and maybe more loudly for being closer.
Households with new young coming do not take the moon preceding Tishrei to blow the shofar. And my mother is expecting young. This is the first baby in our home since she bore me.
The news is new. Mother and Zebadyah share the blessing with us the night before the festival. This is why we do not take our turn at the shofar this season. This is why my mother takes special pains with me and my tunic for the procession. Next year I won't be the baby. Next year I am the big sister.
“Yehi Ratzon,” Zebadyah intones over the porridge. He spoons honey onto the porridge, more than he likes. He adds a few pieces of dried fruit from the platter Mother set before him. Zebadyah spoons fig preserves onto the barley porridge as well, and adds a splash of thick, sweet melon syrup—a concentrate my mother makes at the end of the season with the damaged and over-ripe fruit. He stares glumly at the glistening mess in the bowl.
“Yehi Ratzon,” Zebadyah intones. 'May it be Thy Will.' He brings his spoon, dripping, to his mouth and shuts his eyes.
Zebadyah takes the entire spoonful at once. He chews little and swallows quickly. He takes up his cup and drinks one, two, three full glasses of water. He drinks until the pitcher is empty. On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the sweetness of a bountiful harvest in Migdala. We do this whether we enjoy sweet food or not. Poor Zebadyah.
“You had your spoonful, Zeb. You don't have to eat more than that. The New Year will be prosperous. We have baked fish, stuffed vine leaves, spinach pastries, and so much more, to eat after the procession and the service. Let me bring you an egg.” Mother bustles as she distracts Zebadyah from his ceremonial breakfast.
The boys help themselves to as much as they want of anything they like. They do not suffer their father's affliction. On this day of the year, eating sweet foods is required. Eating sweets to the point of illness is neither encouraged nor prohibited. Everyone tells the story of the Rosh Hashanah they learned how much sweetness is too much sweetness. Some of my brothers persist in learning their limits each harvest festival.
I eat only one, or two, spoonfuls of the porridge myself. A school of fish churn in my gut leaving room for nothing else. I drink water to drown, or calm, the fishy feeling inside me. Mother leans over as she walks by and kisses 'her spot' on the top of my head.
“Not too much water, Hanna. Once you're on the stilts, you can’t get down until after the final blessing and the last sounding of the shofar.
An hour later sees the women of Migdala gather at the pier on the beach. We wrap and tie our stilts with care. Some of the village girls have tied shells, feathers, bells and even coins into their wrappings—matching the ones wound in their hair and stitched onto their tunics. The old women tsk at this boldness, and make the gayest girls wait longest for help into their stilt-walker’s tunics.
Almost last, I slide into my still stiff tunic. The beads and pearls settle securely. The knots and needlework hold. The crones near me murmur their approval of the robe. They know my own hands worked the thread and counted the beads.
The first and longest bray of the shofar calls our scattered flock together. By the second sounding of the holiday horn, we are in marching form. On the third call to renewal, we take our first stilted steps.
Like sandpipers, once we find our footing, our pace and grace increase. To the calls and redounding echoes of the gold-worked shofars, Migdala’s sparkling stilt-walkers swarm down the village high street lined with her men, boys, tiny girls and oldest women.
I fell into the procession near the back. I don’t have a tambour or flute to play as the women at the front of our line do. My only care is keeping my balance and keeping up with the parade.
I rest my eyes on the embroidered bird covering the back of the tunic in front of me. I focus my awareness on the fanciful shape and feel with my feet and my ears the way my stilts should take each piece of earth.
At the head of the procession, the most experienced stilt-walkers begin to stomp and twirl in counterpoint to the thunder of the shofars. Dust rises in a cloud. It catches the sparkle and glare from beads, bells and shells. We move over the dust in our white tunics. Migdala’s stilt-walkers float and wheel like shining egrets over the earthen mist of their passage. We are the very force of growing plants and the fertility of the fields to come.
Migdala dances and nature listens. The festival fervor sends our prayers forward with all the strength, grace and attention to detail it takes to bring flax from stored seed to finished linen.
The rattle and thrum of the tambours begins to call me as I stride along on my stilts. I fall into the same tempo as the rest of the procession. The holy horns sound a bass heard through the skin and the stilts themselves. I revel in the twinkle and the rhythm of our walk. I could do this with my eyes closed, but my eyes are wide open—soaking in each moment.
I am myself, unique. I am one with the dance and prayer of tradition in community.
A shrill wail, high and terrible, tears through our festive morning. It splits the pace of the parade, all sound but the shofars stills. The howling shriek takes form. Now it is words of accusation.
“There they are! She took my necklace. The stupid herd-girl sewed my pearls on her rags. I can see them from here!”
The source of the interruption wears a woven wheat and barley crown, not our tradition but in the vein of the day. Her pretty golden hair shines richly even against the glossy stalks of the harvest bounty. Marta’s rigid arm and outstretched finger point directly at me.
Menservants of her household step forward and reach for me. I flinch away and begin to lose my balance. Village arms on every side steady me from stumbling and bringing a poor yield to the village fields in the year ahead.
“What is the meaning of this accusation?” I hear a shout in my father’s firmest voice, gaining in volume as he pushes nearer through the crowd.
“Who speaks against my daughter?” comes my mother’s protest.
The menservants hold me now, but so too does much of Migdala’s Yom Teru’ah procession. Zebadyah and Shelomit pop through the crowd around me at the same instant, from different directions.
“Those are my pearls and that, that child of Jews flaunts them for all to see,” cried Marta in her clear, Syrian inflected Aramaic.
Zebadyah looks as though his eyes will start fully from his head at this. My mother merely sets her chin, a step I fear more than my father’s bright choler. I stand my ground, without speech. This child of the sun cannot know what she says. The pearls are Gabura’s, on loan to me for the honor of our family and the glory of Migdala.
Dawud and Gabura shoulder their way to us, trailing the four small boys. The whole family stands together.
Marta is nothing daunted. Her servants number many more than the men holding me. Little boys and females on stilts are easy to overcome. The two bigger boys and the sole man in our family are not force enough against the casual entourage of the Children of the Sun. Certainly Miryim and Eleazar skulk there, behind the stony-faced and gold adorned nanny they share.
Zebadyah sees the truth of those numbers. My father counts well for a fisherman. But he won’t give his daughter, even his wife’s daughter, up to the whims of Syrian royalty or the arcane exactitudes of Roman law in all its awful majesty. Not when a necklace of semi-precious stones is at stake.
The Syrian custom dictates cutting off the hands of thieves. Roman law calls for the cropping of the ears. No lesser sentence exists in either system of justice for theft of anything worth more than a bunch of dried herbs.