The Museum of

       Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays




Pearl's father (standing) with a neighbor in Czernowitz,
cir late 1930s.


The Family

Childhood Memories of Pesach
Czernowitz, Ukraine (then Cernăuţi, Romania)

The loveliest childhood memories include the holidays and preparations for them. Mother used to cook and bake all the traditional foods for each holiday. For Passover everything in the apartment was cleaned, rearranged, washed, polished - so that no "chametz" remained anywhere, no bread, no breadcrumbs. The preparations also meant buying lots of food: eggs by the hundred, goose fat that had to be rendered and the cracklings, called "greeven" reserved for the holiday, potatoes by the sackfull, nuts, wine, and of course matza. Father ate a different matza called "shmoora". It was baked of less refined wheat flour, under special supervision, with him present at the baking. Even to-day orthodox rabbis eat "matza shmoora".

On the day before the Seder, all the dishes and glasses were put away and the Pesach stuff put in place. All this to commemorate the exodus of our Israelite ancestors from bondage in Egypt and the rejoicing in freedom. In their hurry, they baked unleavened bread--matza. It was a time of good food, great expectations; it was also the joyous expectation of spring and warmth after our long, cruel winters. We would always get new shoes, socks, a new spring coat or a dress. We would put on the new clothes for the seder.

Father, who was a deeply religious Jew, without being fanatical, took his social responsibilities seriously. He belonged to the Jewish Community Board and was an unpaid member in charge of social aid. Since there were large numbers of poor Jews in town, his responsibility, by his own choice, was to see that nobody goes without Pesach kosher food--matza, meat, potatoes, eggs, sacramental wine. The same care was applied to see to it that Jews in hospitals, the insane asylum and prison were provided with kosher food for the holiday. By the time he had satisfied all these provisions, he came home to celebrate the seder. By that time Mother was almost asleep from the accumulated tiredness after all the work that had gone into preparing the holiday and the hour was late.

However, by the time he arrived, everything went into motion. He sat on a "hesse bed"--three chairs along which was spread a feather bed. Father put on a white "kittel"--a wide, white linen garment with wide sleeves and he began to read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus.

I, as the youngest child, enjoyed the privilege of sitting next to him and I asked the four questions. One of the great attractions of the seder were the different wine glasses reserved for everybody year to year. The children had small blue or green or yellow glasses, with little handles. As one grew older, one advanced to a bigger ornamental glass, or a different color. Since every celebrant was supposed to drink four glasses, the parents made sure the children should not get tipsy.

There was laughter and merriment about the prophet Elijah. His glass stood filled all evening and at one time, during the seder, one opens the door for Elijah to appear. There were anecdotes about youngsters, who would play pranks on a family and would jump in, all wrapped in a white sheet, the moment the door was opened for the prophet.

There were also funny moment at the reading of the Haggadah, the story of Pesach. Everyone had a text. Some of them were illustrated, some were really hilarious. They showed the father and the four sons asking the questions. One was supposed to be wise, one wicked, the third a simpleton and the forth was noncommittal, he didnít care to ask a question about the exodus from Egypt. We invariably thought that all four didnít look too smart in the illustrations.

In my Haggadah, when it came to eat dinner, there was a piece of advice: Eat and drink and just be merry. We thought it was good advice - so why did we have to read so much after dinner? That did not make us merry, for we were all sleepy. Of course, we read to the end and sang Chadgadia and finished with the wish expressed by all the generations throughout our long history:

Next year in Jerusalem. Of course, before we could reach Jerusalem, we had to reach the kitchen and wash all the dishes.

The message of joy on the liberation from slavery has achieved a very immediate meaning to me later in life, in the years since my own liberation from bondage in 1945. It has been 40 years since and yet, when I ponder about the course of my life, I should sing "Hallelujah" more often than just at the seder, for freedom must not be taken for granted. One feels how indispensable it is only when one has been deprived of it. Every seder since, I celebrate my own liberation from slavery. Hallelujah.  next ►►




From Pearl Fichman's memoirs, "Before Memories Fade," 1989.

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