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Chani Smith - Chad Gadya

B’chol Dor Va’dor
Chad Gadya

Chani Smith“I was born in Israel on a kibbutz called Ne’eve Eitan which was founded by Polish Zionist immigrants in the late mid-thirties.

My parents were born in Poland. I’ve forgotten exactly where my father, Eliyahu, was born but from a very young age he grew up in Krakow which is where my mother was born. That is where they met - at a Zionist youth group called ‘Akiva’, which was the biggest traditional Zionist youth movement in Poland before the war.

Very sadly most of the members of this youth movement perished in the Holocaust. There was just one village and one kibbutz from the first wave of immigration of that youth movement that made it to Israel before the war. My father came in 1935 and my mother in 1936 and they were the only members of their families that got away. There was real break for that whole generation of my parents’ friends who were cut off from where they came from and from their families and friends.

When my parents first got to Israel they had a short period of hachshara when they worked at drying swamps in Hadera and building roads in Petach Tikvah etc. And then when land became available in the Bet Shean valley, a very hot place, they went there and founded a kibbutz. That’s where I was born and where I lived until I was nearly three. My father sung in the kibbutz choir.

After twenty years my parents, my brother, sister and I left the kibbutz for two years, when my father was sent on schlichut in the embassy in Poland. The embassy was looking for someone who was a native Pole, who knew the country very well, to try and find children who were hidden during the war. Under cover of being an embassy worker dealing with immigration that was happening at the time because the Polish Government had renewed diplomatic relationships with Israel, my father had three jobs! He was helping with the immigration process, he was setting up clandestine Hebrew classes, which were illegal, and he was travelling the country and finding kids in convents and monasteries and remote villages. He was finding them and trying to find if there was any surviving family and settling them in Israel. This was 1955 to 1957 when Poland was a satellite of the Soviet Union.

3 photos of Chani's father - a) As a young man in Krakov from the 1930s, b) with Chani as a baby 1953, c) on kibbutz Neve Eitan lat 1940s

There were also some remnants of my parents’ extended family still in Poland and he also helped them to immigrate to Israel. After two years we returned to Israel and settled in Petach Tikvah.

I studied musicology and Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University, as well as flute, and came to England in 1978 to study music at the Guildhall with William Bennett. I hadn’t intended to stay but I met the love of my life! I met Danny at a Jewish-Christian Bible seminar at Bendorf and we were engaged by the end of the week. Two months later we were married.

My family was not religious; we were not observant but we were traditional and Pesach has always been very, very important to me. My mother came from a very religious Chassidic family and in her youth she rebelled against what she felt was the oppression of religion, and went to a Zionist youth movement that was not orthodox. She had a very complex relationship with her past and with religion and with God. The fact that she lost her parents and most of her siblings - only one brother and one sister out of eight survived the camps - made her relationship with that past even more painful. So connections to that chapter in her life were something that we didn’t have much access to; we didn’t hear many stories.

Some of the music that we sang at our Seder came from Poland and some of it came from Israel – it was newly composed by composers who were pioneers, like my parents, and had had a music education in the conservatoires of Europe. They came to Israel and wanted to invent tradition, create tradition and they were very successful actually. They created songs in musical modes and rhythms that were more in line with the local Arabic music. One could explore how authentic that was, but this was their ideology and their songs became known throughout the country.

We used to do Seder every year with my parents’ friends, which, like my parents, had lost all their family in the Holocaust. So there were these two families where there were no grandparents around. We were the lucky ones because we had two aunts living in Israel - my father’s sisters - who survived the war as part of Oskar Schindler’s workforce. My aunts had no children so we were the children for everyone. One tradition that I think was unique to our family Seder was that because my parents, and the people we celebrated Seder with, had little or no extended family, my parents used to leave presents for us on the doorstep for when we opened the door for Elijah! In singing the songs from my parents’ homes there was a sense that we were receiving some treasure from a world that was gone.

I’d like to sing Chad Gadya which comes from my home. It’s very Chassidic. My children now add sounds and movements for all the animals and it becomes more hilarious as it unfolds and gathers momentum.

I actually have many more Pesach songs but then I married into another family where my husband Danny has his own traditions; and my sister-in-law Judy has her own traditions, which come from her family. So our Seder is a lovely mixture of all of these lovely songs, and they get better with the passing of years.”

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