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       Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays


Paint What You Remember
Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays in Opatów, Poland
as told by Mayer Kirshenblatt



I painted the seder scene more than once. In the first painting, I made my grandfather big because he was the head of the house, even though he was actually a small man. When I remember this scene, I made my grandmother much bigger. I sit near my grandfather, because I am the oldest grandchild on both sides. You can see the servant girl, a Gentile girl, helping to serve the food. Although they had electricity, it was not reliable, so there was always a coal lamp as a backup for emergencies. When I visited Iłża several years ago and knocked on the door of my grandfather's house--Polish people now live there, and they let me in--I was really shocked at how small the kitchen was. I remember it being huge. I said to myself, "My God! Is that it?"

There were several bakeries that made matzo for Passover. Esther Lustman's mother had such a bakery on Ivansker veyg in the basement of her house. All year long, she sold her baked goods from a shop on the main market square. When it came time to make matzo, she cleaned out the bakery to get rid of all traces of leaven.


Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
Passover Seder at My Paternal Grandfather's,
February 1992
Acrylic on canvas
30 x 40 in.

The way they made matzo was like this. One man did the kneading and portioned out the balls of dough. Six women diligently rolled the dough on a board. One lady did the perforations, and a man at the oven baked the matzo. The whole process, from adding water to the flour to taking the matzo out of the oven, had to be completed in eighteen minutes or less, according to religious law.

Just before Passover, we did our spring cleaning. All the furniture was taken out into the yard, and everything was torn apart. All the books were taken out and aired: we let the wind blow through them. The beds had to be cleaned scrupulously and the straw mattresses emptied. We poured boiling hot water into all the seams and joints in the bedsteads to kill the bedbugs and their eggs. After we got the Flit, my father would spray everything with Flit. That helped a lot to keep the bedbugs under control.

The mattresses were made by stuffing straw into a rectangular burlap bag that had a slit up the middle. Every year, before Passover, we emptied the mattresses of the old straw. It would have deteriorated and lost its spring by then, so most people took their old straw to the bonfire where we burned khumets, or leaven, just before Passover started. We would refill the mattresses with fresh straw that we bought from the farmers, who knew to bring straw to market just before Passover.

Spring cleaning included a search for any trace of leaven. Leaven is prohibited during Passover, the holiday that commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The Jews left in such haste that their bread did not have time to rise. This is why, during Passover, we are prohibited from eating leaven. We would use a goose wing, with the feathers still attached, as a duster (feydervish in Yiddish) for sweeping the leaven into a cloth. To destroy the leaven, we used to go to an empty place on a back street, intern vul, on the south side of town. A man tended a big fire for just this purpose. You had to pay him a small fee for throwing your khumets into the fire. To get out of paying this fee, one guy would divert his attention while another guy threw the khumets into the fire when the man wasn't looking. If he noticed, he would rush over to the fire, grab the piece of khumets, and throw it back at the guy.

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