Chag atis adeesdzá bééhániih sameach to one and all

The cover of the 2022 Salina Bookshelf, Inc. calendar
The cover of the 2022 Salina Bookshelf, Inc. calendar (Courtesy of Salina Bookshelf)

By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

If you’d like to change up your Passover greeting this year, you could try it in Navajo. That would be atis adeesdzá bééhániih — Passover in Navajo — as it appears in a calendar published annually showcasing Navajo and Hopi artists by the Flagstaff, Ariz.-based publishing house Salina Bookshelf, Inc.

Salina Bookshelf, founded in 1994, is an independent publisher of multicultural materials which includes textbooks, children’s picture books, children’s chapter books, informational texts, reference books, audiobooks and language learning materials. They specialize in dual language books in Navajo/English and Hopi/English and textbooks used to teach the Navajo language in schools.

Passover has been included in the calendar for several years, stated Tyler Mitchell, executive editor at Salina. However, he’s not exactly sure when it was initially added or who translated the word for the holiday into Navajo.

According to “Ethnologue: Languages of the World,” the Navajo language has 7,600 monolingual speakers and more than 170,000 fluent speakers worldwide. There are some slight regional variations in pronunciation and vocabulary among the language spoken in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“It’s is in the 2022 calendar and we have been including it for quite a few years now,” Mitchell said about Passover. “We have Christian holidays and Navajo Nation Treaty Day, which commemorates the Treaty of 1868 on June 1 every year.”

For the Navajo (Diné), the 1868 Treaty allowed a return to their ancestral homelands (Dinétah) and is an important symbol of Navajo sovereignty, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

“It’s an important holiday that commemorates when the U.S. government allowed the tribes to return to their homelands after having been displaced in ‘the Long Walk,’” Mitchell said.

As far as he knows, Passover is the only Jewish holiday in their calendar.

“When we do our calendar, we find a list of holidays on the internet, include some of them and give Navajo names to them,” he said.

For the past several years, Albuquerque, N.M. resident Dr. Gordon Bronitsky, who received his Ph.D. in anthropology, has worked promoting indigenous artisans. He has extensively studied Native American history and is an expert on Native American-Jewish relations, having worked on cultural diplomacy with the state department.

Bronitsky discovered the unique calendar and broke down the translation of atis adeesdzá bééhániih. “Atis is the act of moving over an object; it is the literal translation of ‘passing over an object,’” Bronitsky said. “Adeesdzá is the act of walking and bééhániih is ‘its’ remembrance.’ Thus it is a literal translation of the term Passover.”

Bronitsky thinks the Jews and the Native Americans have several things in common besides the obvious tribal social structure.

“We both are living in two worlds — the traditional and the contemporary,” he said, “Both Jews and Native Americans understand this concept. I, for instance, am not the kind of Jew my grandfather was or the kind my grandchildren will be. The Navajo understand that.”

Bronitsky asked a Navajo tribal member to come up with a Navajo word for “Jew,” and what they devised was “bich’ah yazhí Dine’e’” or “people who wear small hats.” On the other hand, the Navajo word for “German” translates to “people who wear metal hats,” he said.

He said he hopes to create a panel discussion with members of both tribes one day. “Native Americans who are Jewish and Jews who are Native American,” and ask, “What does it mean to belong to two tribes?”

The calendar is 9 inches by 12 inches and opens into a double-page spread that includes an illustration from “one of the many children’s books illustrated by Navajo or Hopi artists showcased each month,” said Mitchell.

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Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a freelance writer living in Anthem, Ariz.

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