The Museum of
Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays
The various phases of the Passover celebration, "Pesa," as it is called on the East Side, are numerous. To the Gentile it is best known as the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. For the eight days of the holiday no Jew will eat yeast bread, the "chometz" of his language. When his ancestors fled out of Pharaoh's kingdom they went hurriedly at night; they tarried only brief hours at the stages of the journey, and there was no opportunity for allowing the bread to stand and rise; flour was hastily mixed with water and allowed to bake in the sun. In commemoration of this, the Hebrew the world over eats the unleavened bread, "matzos," during the holiday. There is a proverb, preserved through countless generations and retold today on the East side, which runs: "There is no Jew without matzos."
This arose out of the custom still prevailing according to which the more prosperous Hebrews went through the Ghetto distributing matzos to their poorer brethren. From this proverb there comes a story still told with appreciation on the East Side, the tale of an improvident and lazy Hebrew. This owner of the patriarchal name of Moses, so the story goes, had an altercation with his wife six days before "Pesa."
"Moses," she complained, "in six days Pesa will be here and we have no matzos. What are you going to do about it?"
"Never fear," he replied with an inimitable race shrug. "Never fear, wife, there is no Jew without matzos."
Three days passed and Pesa drew near, and his wife again assailed him.
"Moses, three days and it will be Pesa, and all the neighbors have matzos; what are we going to do?"
Again came the confident reply: "There is no Jew without matzos."
Pesa Day arrived, and the wife realized that with the setting of the sun the holiday would be upon them, and they had no matzos. For a third time she tearfully besought her husband as he started to the "Schul" for prayers. For a third time she received the proverbial answer.
When Moses returned from the synagogue, he found his wife in hysterics, wildly bewailing their condition. Thereupon, so the legend runs, he smote her two sounding whacks, and as she fled from his blows she shouted out the window, and the neighbors rushed in.
"He is beating me because we have no matzos," shrieked the woman.
"No matzos, you brute?" chorused the neighbors. "Stop beating your wife and we will give you matzos."
Then from all sides matzos were showered upon the family of the resourceful Moses, and, as the sun went down and the festival began, Moses turned to his wife and said calmly:
"There, you see, wife, it is as I told you--there is no Jew without matzos."
But, while matzo is one of the distinctive features of the Passover feast, there are many others equally interesting. In a Hebrew household the preparation for the holidays begins several days before sunset on the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan. The dishes and eating utensils for the holidays are taken down from their resting place, for one of the rules of the religion is that no dishes used on the other days of the year can be eaten from during Passover. In some families new dishes are purchased, but in the majority of cases a special set of dishes, frequently heirlooms, is kept for this purpose. The day before the holiday begins the house is carefully swept, and every crumb of bread is removed. The knives are ground at the "kosher" butcher shop, to remove all stains the meat block is carefully shaved off. As a symbol of the cleaning away of the bread crumbs, the head of the house goes through the rooms, armed with a large spoon and a feather brush, and gathers up crumbs that the members of the family have left for him. Then these are burned, and the house is clean. Even the pockets are carefully searched for crumbs, that the cleansing may be thorough.
With the setting of the sun on the evening of the 14th of Nisan the feast begins. There is, however, one distinction between this and other feasts: No Hebrew will eat leavened bread after 9 o'clock that morning. The first two nights of the Passover are known as "Seder" nights, and are the most important of the holidays. The two nights are observed because of the doubt existing in the calendar as to the new moon. Among orthodox Jews both nights are kept, in other households only the first is celebrated. At the meal on the first "Seder" night the most interesting ceremonials take place. The head of the house reclines on his left side at the table, while the others sit, this symbolizing the authority belonging to his position. There are special prayers and the father of the family reads the story of the captivity and flight in Egypt. Four glasses of wine, specially prepared in vessels in which no other wine has ever been kept, are placed on the table, and when the story of the plagues sent upon Pharaoh is reached, the children dip their fingers in the wine ten times and let the wine run off on the floor, telling off the names of the ten plagues.
A distinctive feature of the first "Seder" night is the eating of the green leaves of horseradish--"moora," as it is called on the East Side, signifying bitter, in remembrance of the bitterness of the captivity. On the second night the more orthodox Hebrews eat white horseradish in memory of a famous Talmudist, who observed "Seder' by eating this between slices of "matzos." On the second night the same prayers and the same reading form the Scriptures take place. There is a story, told on the East Side and amounting almost to folklore, of the unfortunate experience of an orthodox Hebrew, who married a German Jewess--and the East Side tradition has it that the German Jews are notoriously unorthodox. On the first night of "Seder," so the story goes, the orthodox Hebrew read to his wife the story of the Egyptian captivity, and particularly the incidents connected with Joseph and his brethren. To this reading the good wife listened with tolerable composure. Two hours are consumed in the prayers and reading, before the eating begins.
On the second night, however, when the reading began again, and she heard the name of Joseph and foresaw two hours of waiting before dinner, she interrupted in terms scandalously irreverent.
"Aaron, is that the selfsame Joseph that you read about for two hours last night?"
"Of course, or course," explained her husband, surprised and pained at the interruption.
"Well, Aaron, if that is the very same Joseph, let him go to the devil and let us get to our dinner."
There are many hundreds of Jewish households on the East Side in which the ancient customs of "Pesa" are no longer observed as a fulfillment of the law. But there are few in which the rites of the first "Seder" night are not celebrated, for the sake of the children. Proud of their history and of this phase in the ancient glory of their ace, generation after generation perpetuate the custom.
"We are not orthodox, we are not even religious," said a prominent East Side Hebrew to a Tribune reporter the other day, "and yet I wish you could have been with us last Saturday night and seen my little boy as I read him the story. I wish you could have seen his eyes flash and heard the questions that he asked. What your race finds in Christmas our Jewish children get in Passover. Days before it came he was on tiptoe with anticipation. Nothing in the ceremony escaped him. It was for him, for the children, that we kept the holiday, that they might always know the history of our race."
This incident best illustrates, perhaps, the reason why the great exiled race, in this the 5,663rd year of their calendar, cling to the fulfillment of rites that began centuries before the Christian era. next ►►
Copyright © 2007-9. Museum of Family History. All rights reserved. Image Use Policy