What does Pessach (Passover) mean to me?
President Obama has just visited Israel and he (or his well-informed script-writers) told me how the story of the exodus from Egypt inspired the Black struggle for equality. I don’t know if the explanation for the iconic Matso bread (whether true or not) inspired Martin Luther King but it is an essential part of my Pessach story.
Forgive me. I may have told this story before. That’s a risk you take on a holiday that repeats yearly.
I was educated in public schools in Australia where I was effectively the only Jew. (If there are no Jews in your class or even your year, you are alone). So when I brought my Matso sandwiches to school they gained quite a bit of attention. I told my friends they were Israeli (Army) survival rations — and everybody wanted a taste!
Only later did I realise my flippant remark had more depth.
Pessach is about Jewish culture, history and liberation – and how that translates to Israel. It’s about living in the world’s only Jewish state and not simply somewhere else with a relatively large Jewish community or in my case, small. It’s about matzo, maror† and your Ukrainian born, Israeli wife feuding with her Tunisian born, Israeli sister-in-law over the Gefilte fish and other trivia as they have for the last thirty years.
It’s about taking a bite and knowing that the culture, history and the liberation is mine. In Israel it really is survival rations.
The Maccabeats have really hit it out of the park with this one. We’re glad to share it with you. Please pass it on.
20 March 2013
In case you’re not Jewish and puzzled about the card, Matzo is the traditional unleavened bread (made deliberately not to rise) something like a Swedish crispbread although it doesn’t look or taste the same and is generally made from wheat rather than rye flour, with all the calories. Some people develop a taste for it. Others hate it and even leave the country to avoid having to eat it. Shmurah matzo, made under the strictest rules is more expensive and even more tasteless.
The background is the traditional song, Chad Gadya, a playful cumulative song in Aramaic and Hebrew that is sung at the end of the Pessach seder meal. One interpretation is that Chad Gadya is about the different nations that have conquered the Land of Israel: The kid symbolizes the Jewish people, the cat, Assyria; the dog, Babylon; the stick, Persia; the fire, Macedonia; the water, Rome; the ox, the Saracens; the slaughterer, the Crusaders; the angel of death, the Turks. At the end, God returns to send the Jews back to Israel.
The recurring refrain of ‘two zuzim’ is said to be a reference to the two stone tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Or it might be quite literal. A Zuz was an ancient Jewish silver coin struck during the Bar Kochba revolt. They were overstruck on Roman Imperial denarii or Roman provincial drachmas of Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian. Four Zuz, denarii or drachmas make a Shekel (a name repeated in Israel’s currency today, a Sela or a Tetradrachm.
Lyrics for the final verse:
Along came the Holy One Blessed Be He
— and slew the Angel of Death,
— who slew the shochet (ritual slaughterer)
— who slaughtered the ox
— which drank the water
— which put out the fire
— which burnt the stick
— which hit the dog
— which bit the cat
— which ate the kid (baby goat not baby child)
— which Father bought for two zuzim.
Chad gadya, chad gadya. One only kid, one only kid.
† Maror (usually translated as bitter herbs) symbolizes the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.