Passover preparations bring history to life
A bead of sweat runs down Nathan Rittri's brow as he removes matzo from a 700-degree oven at Yeshiva Girls School in Squirrel Hill.
Students as young as 3 scramble to help Rittri mix flour and water in a big metal bowl and then roll it flat with wooden pins, as they make the unleavened bread of Passover.
It is the only bread product that Jews are supposed to eat during their eight-day holiday observance and a symbolic part of the Seders they will hold in their homes Monday and Tuesday nights to mark the Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, with Moses leading the way.
Seders can go past midnight, as Jews pray, sing, eat and read from an ancient text called the Haggadah.
“Seder means ‘order' in Hebrew, and the whole order is laid out in the Haggadah, which means ‘telling,' ” says Rabbi Michael Werbow of Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Squirrel Hill. “We're here to tell an ancient story of freedom from persecution and to expound upon it in different ways, including those personal to us.”
Matzo represents the dough the Israelites didn't have time to let rise when they fled Egypt, says Rittri, who lives in Squirrel Hill and teaches at Yeshiva. “It's also called the bread of the poor because there are only two ingredients: flour and water.”
Lieba Rudolph, an Orthodox Jew affiliated with Chabad of Squirrel Hill, says shunning leavened products, as commanded in the Torah, is a way to humble oneself before God.
“Leavened bread is called chametz, which in Hebrew means puffed up ... arrogant … full of pride. Matzo is flat,” she says. “It's the bread of humility.”
The commandment is so strict that particularly observant Jews begin weeks in advance to rid their homes of every crumb of leavened bread or cake, according to Chani Altein, whose husband is rabbi of the Squirrel Hill Chabad.
“We clean our sink with boiling water, and then my husband applies an iron to it. Some people use a blow-torch,” Altein says. “The idea is to erase the past and start from scratch with a koshered, Pesach (Passover) kitchen.”
Kitchen counters and refrigerator shelves are lined with foil or covered with boards, and non-Passover foods are given away or locked away. Some Jews sell their chametz to non-Jews for a token sum and then buy it back after the holiday, Altein says.
Lynn Magid Lazar, a Reform Jew, doesn't go that far, but she puts chametz in a separate cupboard and serves only matzo for the eight days. With classic favorites like matzo-ball soup and lemon-meringue pie made with ground-almond crust, matzo is more of a treat than a sacrifice, she says.
“My matzo meal brownies are so good you'd never miss the flour,” she says. “I make them all year.”
Matzo's symbolism is expressed at the Seder when it is dipped into horseradish, a bitter herb that signifies the harsh lives of the Israelite slaves, and into charoset, a paste made of chopped apples, nuts and wine that connotes the clay the slaves used to make bricks. Pieces of matzo are broken off and hidden for children to find, in an effort to keep them engaged and to prompt their questions about Passover.
Parsley or celery is dipped into saltwater in remembrance of the Israelites' tears, while a lamb shank on the Seder plate is a reminder of the Paschal sacrifice the Israelites made on the eve of their exodus, says Rabbi Werbow.
“They used the lamb's blood to mark the doorposts of their homes for God to see as he passed over. They wanted him to spare them plague he had put on the Egyptians for keeping them enslaved.”
This passing over is how the holiday got its name.
Much of the Seder is spent reading aloud from the Haggadah and asking age-old questions, including “Why is this night different from other nights?” and “Why on other nights do we eat all kinds of vegetables, but tonight only bitter herbs?”
Four glasses of wine are consumed at strategic points in the service, and one is left for Elijah, the prophet who will announce the Messiah, Werbow says. “You open your front door, so the spirit of Elijah can come in.”
Because Passover is such an important holiday, Jews open their Seder to even casual acquaintances who may not have a family with which to celebrate, says Lazar, who will host her 34th Seder this year for 20 relatives and friends.
“We get creative in retelling the story by acting out plays and singing,” says Lazar, who is a member of Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill. “We might discuss current events if they are relevant to Passover and share stories about Seders from the past.”
Lazar adds an element of tzedaka — or charity — to her Seders. “This year, everyone will get a little gift I brought back from Israel from a sheltered workshop for older people,” she says. “I'll include information on how to send donations.”
In recent decades, Jews have been encouraged to regard Passover as a time of personal redemption as well, a concept that Lazar embraces.
“The story of the exodus can be even more relevant when you think about what you can do to come out of the narrow places in your own life,” she says.
Rabbi Ely Rosenfeld of Chabad of Fox Chapel put it this way: “We're not slaves anymore, except to our whims, or when we buy into the baloney of what society teaches us to value and what to think.”
“We have self-imposed limitations on our productivity,” he says. “Passover is a time to unburden ourselves of those.”
Werbow agrees, recalling an experience he had while tutoring a young man with autism. “I got him to relate to me by having him type on a keyboard,” Werbow says. “When I told him the story of Passover, and that slavery no longer existed for us, he typed, ‘Yes it does.' He wrote that his Pharoah — his oppressor — was autism, and that being able to communicate was the Moses that would free him.”
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.