Happy days are here again!
It’s that time of the year again. It’s the “Spring Festival”, perhaps better known as Passover, or by its Hebrew name, Pesach.
This festival commemorates the exodus of the Children of Israel from servitude in Egypt. It’s celebrated, if that’s the right term, for seven days (eight days if you’re unlucky enough to live as a Jew in the Diaspora, i.e., outside the Israeli paradise). During this period, according to the biblical injunction in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 23: “5 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, is a Passover offering to the Lord. 6 Then on the fifteenth day of the same month will be the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord; seven days you must eat unleavened bread.“
We no longer sacrifice a paschal lamb (although some do try and the Samaritans, at any rate, succeed) but we do sacrifice ourselves and our digestive systems to the vagaries of unleavened bread, otherwise known as “matzo” or “matzah”.
Matzah gets mentioned elsewhere in the Pentateuch. In the Book of Exodus (12:8), we are exhorted to eat meat, with matzah and maror (bitter herbs) and we’re told again ten verses later on that we are to keep up what’s good for us for seven days. Not only are we to eat this bread of affliction for a week (or, because of the fact that the festival started this year on a Friday night, for nine days), “for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste. Thus you will remember the day you left the land of Egypt as long as you live.”
Not only are we to eat the matzah but we are also informed that we must not consume anything that has anything to do with leavening (chametz) — so no bread, no beer, or anything made from wheat, oats, rye, barley or spelt. Although matzah is usually made from wheat flour if it’s been in contact with water or moisture for longer than 18 minutes, it is considered dangerous to the Jewish soul because it rises or “leavens.” Leavening agents, like yeast and sourdough, are also chametz.
So … the wheat is closely supervised to ensure that no water touches it from the time of harvest to the time it is baked, to safeguard against the evil leavening process — and this leads to a whole industry of supervision and certification to ensure that the Jewish people remains in an yeast-free state for the duration of Passover.
Ashkenazi Jews (those whose forebears came from Eastern & Central Europe) also forbid the consumption of other grains and pulses, just “to be on the safe side”. Sephardi and other non-Ashkenazim (those of Middle Eastern and North African origins) permit rice and pulses and are generally more generous about what our stomachs and intestines have to go through for a week and some American Conservative rabbis have followed suit this year. Of course, these differences of stringency and exactitude can lead to absurdities, especially in Israel, where the same package or jar can have two labels on opposite sides, one telling that you can take it easy and eat happily without worry of having offended the deity during Passover week and the other promising you a life of hellfire and brimstone if you as much as touch the stuff, always remembering, of course, that you can repent six months down the line on the Day of Atonement. (Unlike Catholics, Jews don’t need a priest for confession — you can autodivulge your sin and then listen to it yourself, should you so wish.)
The main irritant (literally and metaphorically) is not the fact that beer or whiskey can’t be ingested (why wine, the result of a process of fermentation is OK is a mystery to me but I suppose there’s a perfectly logical explanation — there always is) but that they want us to consume matzah.
For those of you who have not experienced this substance, it’s looks like and tastes like cardboard and you’re required to consume it. Yes, eat it! It’s hard to start off with but melts in your mouth once you get it out from between your teeth and unstick it from your palate. What happens to it further down the digestive system is God’s revenge on the Jewish people for disregarding most of His/Her other decrees. Consuming the regular version of matzah would, in normal circumstances, be considered cruel and unusual punishment, and cruel and unusual retribution is prohibited in some enlightened countries.
Matzah usually comes in square boards (occasionally circular) with perforations, supposedly to aid in breaking it into more manageable bite-sized portions. However, this rarely works, as is well-illustrated by the photograph, which clearly shows a series of hidden fault lines. These generally assume preference over the official puncture marks so that when you have spread something tasty on the matzah to give it some flavour (it really tastes like pasteboard) and apply pressure along a perforated line to break off an easy-to-hold, east-to-eat piece, you are more than likely to end up with a small piece in one hand and a larger piece landing on the table the wrong way up, or if you’re less lucky, down your front or on the floor.
There is another version of matzah that is eaten by the Strictly Orthodox, called matzah shemurah, literally, supervised matzah. Consumers of this variety are assured that every grain of wheat and every speck of flour have been overseen — kosher leprechauns following the grains and specks from field to oral orifice — so that there is not the slightest chance that they have come in contact with any leavened or leavening material or any vessel that may have been in contact with such unJewish matter.
This may well make many people feel that they are on the deity’s right-hand side but it is my strictly unlearned opinion that matzah shemurah is an invention of the World Dental Federation to drum up business, just as the manducation and absorption of regular matzah is strongly encouraged by the International Society of Internal Medicine.
And while of the subject of boards, the photograph below is one of those for which the caption appears even before you’ve raised your camera to compose the picture. A couple of times a week, I pass the Great Synagogue of North Tel Aviv at 312-314 Dizengoff Street not, I should stress, to use the facilities it offers for I am just passing. The synagogue’s notice board generally contains some information of interest or relevance to the synagogue attendees if not to the general public and passers-by like me — prayer times, recent deaths, dates of religion study classes and so on. On this particular morning in December 2013, the notice board was empty except for what you can see here.
As I looked at it, I discerned that there was something familiar about it and it was then that the caption “Oblivion” appeared in my head. I had spent 40 years as a journeyman academic. You know what I mean — a life of turning out papers, looking for outlets for your work, hoping that you can get at least some of the articles into good journals — and if you’re really eager and enthusiastic, hoping that someone might actually read them and then cite them so that you can have some impact on others who follow.
On the whole, I was reasonably successful and I have a few pieces that I’m quite proud of, a few of which have had an impact. I also have several that I wish had never been published. Whereas in the past, these would have been entirely ignored, or in a less bad situation, forgotten, today with electronic journal access, that’s almost impossible.
However, this noticeboard summed up my efforts and those of the vast majority of my colleagues. The rusting staples, of course, represent an academic’s published works, the contents of which for the most part have been forgotten — they’ve simply vanished. Here and there, you see scraps of paper, the remains of your life’s opus, those which are remembered. The bat droppings are the stuff you really don’t want to be reminded of but can’t get rid of because they’re there and can be called up by anyone, anywhere, at any time.
And on that note and with that deeply disturbing thought, I’m off to eat some matzah and flagellate my insides yet again, which, too, is deeply disturbing.
P.S. My wife tells me that some people actually enjoy eating matzah and that they do it all year round. It takes all kinds …