Passed-Over Jewish History

by Marnie Macauley April 3, 2017


istock-503624192In “What Jewish History Forgot” we look at fascinating, little-known, unsung, and yes, funny finds, the details of which you may or may not read in history books. Yet, these facts and anecdotes are not only edu-taining, but can forever affect the way we see ourselves, and how the world sees our culture. For this entry, we look at Passover, our celebration of the Israelites’ exodus from Egyptian slavery. Did you know that…

Pesach Was A Noble Shlep In The
Old West?

Today, preparation for Passover, or Pesach, is a relative breeze for most Jews living in the Western States, such as California.  But did you know the tsouris the Jewish Mama endured to keep our customs in the western territory during pioneer days?

Picture it. This was a time when there weren’t enough Jews around to make a gezunta Bar Mitzvah and before you could find Manischewitz matzo in the General Store next to the saddles and shotguns. Did you know these Jewish mamas, with 3,000 years of gritty DNA, insisted on keeping things kosher with enormous dedication? For example, they raised their own livestock and grew veggies to follow the laws of kashrut.

In 1959, Seymour Siegel quoted the following from the journal of a Jewish girl: “When we got ready for Passover, we even scrubbed the door knobs. We had a library with books in it. For Passover, my mother made me go through every one of those books, shake them out, G-d forbid someone would be reading a book a crumb would fall out.” The place? Nogales, Arizona.

Ira Steingroot in “Keeping Passover” quotes a young boy describing the holiday.

“All holidays were celebrated at home, where the baked goods were made.” Did you know that mamas shlepped to Sonora, Mexico to buy the fish for the gefilte fish for Passover and Tucson (over two hours away) for matzo makings? Jewish families would come together and celebrate the sacred observance in one house.

So mamalas, while we shvitz hunting for stray chametz crumbs, we can remember with pride these heroines who grew, raised, ran, prepared, cooked and banned together to keep Pesach alive and well in the Old West. 

“Madison Ave” Came Up With The Modern Passover Haggadah?

True, the “Haggadah” (The Telling) or the Passover story, has been around for thousands of years and was, for most of them, passed down orally. The earliest written version we know of, which originated in the Mishnah in tractate Passoverim was created in Spain during the 13th century. Today, our Haggadahs are filled with legend, rituals, songs, blessings and of course prayers. One of the most popular and well-known came from – Maxwell House Coffee. Coffee and Haggadahs?

Did you know this alliance was the brainchild of marketing genius and ad-maven Joseph Jacobs and a non-Jewish Tennessee salesman, Joel Cheek?

As the story goes, during the 1930s, when Cheek, who shlepped coffee in saddlebags in Tennessee, wanted to hit the Eastern market, it was Jacobs who explained that Ai Ai Ai! … coffee beans were Kosher for Passover, as they were actually berries. So of course Cheek listened when Jacobs told him to hit the independent Jewish stores. The coffee became a hit, and Cheek and his Jewish customers forged such a bond that General Foods published and distributed Haggadahs, named of course: Maxwell House!

Jews With A Handful Of Weapons Held Back The Nazis For Almost
A Month?

Most of us over age 40 have heard of the heinous Warsaw Ghetto during WWll and the Nazi scourge. But how many know that under the leadership of Mordecai Anielewicz, the Jews of the ghetto staged a series of uprisings in 1943? More, while the Nazis, under SS General Juergen Stroop planned a three day victory to deport the remaining 60,000 Jews, they held out for 27 days! Ultimately, these Jewish heroes were defeated. Mordecai Anielewicz was killed during the siege on May 8 after which Stroop burned the ghetto and ordered the destruction of the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street on May 16. Of the horror, Stroop wrote: “Over and over, we observed the Jews preferred to be burned alive rather than being caught by us.”

Ironically, yet poignantly, this final heroic battle occurred on Passover eve, 1943.

The Seder, “Words of the Warsaw Ghetto” before the Final Uprising, 1943:

Passover has come to the Ghetto again.

The lore-laden words of the Seder are said.

And the Cup of the Prophet Elijah awaits.

But the Angel of Death has intruded, instead.

Who shall live, who shall die, this Passover night.

But no more will Jews to the slaughter be led.

The truculent jibes of the Nazis are past.

And the lintels and doorposts tonight will be red

With the blood of free Jews who will fight to the last.

Jewish Celebs Tweet Pesach?

From Presidents to cave-dwellers in Sri Lanka who today doesn’t “tweet” all from world policy to whether they had a blintz or a cheese burrito for breakfast? So, of course, many a Jewish celeb has had something to tweet to the world on Pesach. Did you know The Forward has kept a record of the most, well, you decide:

The late Joan Rivers on her way to daughter Melissa’s for Pesach:  “Seders in L.A. are so showbiz – until Elijah arrives, we’ve hired a seat filler from the Oscars.”

Ari Shapiro: “‘Tis the season to throw out the half jar of horseradish that’s been in my fridge since last Passover and buy a new one.”

Dan Levy: “Passover is a great holiday if you don’t hate your parents and love being constipated.”

Andy Borowitz: “Chocolate bunnies? Too obvious. Let’s go with bitter herbs and saltwater. – The man who invented Passover.”

A Former Secretary Of State Broke Matzo With Refuseniks?

We Jews traditionally conclude the Seder with the emotional words: “Next Year in Jerusalem,” referring to the coming of the Messiah and our spiritual redemption in our Holy Land. But how many know that under President Ronald Reagan, former Secretary of State George Schultz did much to help imprisoned Jewish Soviet dissidents, and kept the pressure up with the Soviets to issue exit visas. Ultimately, in one of his proudest moments, he recalled participating in a Seder in Moscow in 1987 with Refuseniks, including Ida Nudel, Josef Begun and Vladimir Slepak. According to author Tim Boxer, Schultz felt the zenith of his career was a phone call from Ida Nudel – from Jerusalem.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“I am home,” she said.

To all, a happy and safe Pesach! 


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