Short read

An ode to matza

When I was a child in the USSR, nobody knew why we ate this unusual burnt thing, or even that it was a substitute for bread. But it was tangible, and through it we 'kept' Passover

Dr Daniel Staetsky

There are many things that the average Jew living today does not know about matza. For example, most people do not realise that one of the best ways to transport a few sheets of matza across a city is to put them in a pillowcase. In fact, knowing that can be vital, even though very few Jews today would know it. Yet for those who grew up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and the 1980s, knowing how to smuggle matza correctly was critical.

Matza was indeed transported in pillowcases — from the place where it was baked (mostly a small facility next to a local synagogue) to the place where it was consumed (mostly home). Why pillowcases? Many in the West might immediately assume it must have something to do with persecution by the Soviet authorities. But the real explanation is much more prosaic. Cardboard boxes, of the type used today, were simply not available. And plastic bags were simply not used. We lived less in a state of permanent revolution, and more in a state of permanent deficit. We used pillowcases not because there was some great symbolism in them, but because they were the only things we had to hand.

Today, under conditions of religious freedom and reasonable prosperity, Jews can pack and transport their matza in more normal ways. More than that, they can also hold an actual Passover celebration. Recent surveys of Jewish religious observance conducted among Jews in Europe, Israel and the USA all present a similar picture. In the Jewish communities of the Western world today, about 70-80% of Jews hold a celebratory Passover meal (seder). In Eastern European Jewish communities, the proportions are lower but still considerable — probably in the range of 40-50%. In Israel, attending a seder is close to universal: over 90% of Jews do so. And there is little variation when it comes to gender, age, level of education, income or origin: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, well-educated and less well-educated, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, all tend to participate at similar rates.

There is even little variation by degree of religiosity. In Israel, over 80% of self-described secular Jews participate in a seder. In the USA, the variation is greater, but only the most secular fall significantly below the American Jewish average of 70%: about 50% of American Jews who do not identify with any religious denomination attend a seder. And even among Soviet/Russian immigrants to Israel, a particularly secular corner of Israeli society, over 50% take part. Indeed, Passover is not only the most celebrated of all Jewish festivals; it is more widely observed than other major Jewish customs and traditions, such as lighting candles on Friday night, eating kosher or attending a synagogue.

Why? What makes Passover the most popular? On this issue, like on so many others, social science does not have an answer. But it has two key schools of thought. The first – the ethnocentric school – maintains that the celebration of Passover has become more of an ethnic than a religious custom. For many Jews, it is now divorced from faith and religious observance. Having a meal with the family, with a small dose of ritual, does not require faith or real proficiency in religious practice. For the ethnocentric school, Passover seder for Jews has become rather like Christmas lunch for many non-religious Christians.

Seder dinner table

Then there is the economic school of thought. Attending a Passover seder is easy, and it does not compete with any of life’s other pleasures. The economic school maintains that fundamentally, people care about the pleasures of life, and secular, or highly secularised people, care about secular pleasures. Observance of the laws of Shabbat stands in the way of the cinema, museums, restaurants, the beach, French lessons, shopping, swimming, you name it. Giving up all that requires some faith. The same goes for keeping kosher, especially in the Diaspora. Eating kosher limits what you can consume and forces you to think every time you purchase, cook or eat food. You lose out by eating kosher. You waste time — unless, of course, you believe that it is strictly necessary. So, for a secularised Jew, observance of any festival and custom is in inherent conflict with more pleasurable activities. But the Jewish festivals and customs that have the best chance of being preserved are those where this conflict is minimal. And Passover is a good example. It happens once or twice a year, and largely involves having a meal with the family. Not much is lost by observing it in some form.

Who is right? Both schools of thought have their attractions, and there is a grain of truth in each of them. But they are also both imperfect. There are other festivals that could be made more ethnic, such as the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana), and there are other customs that are not terribly demanding, such as lighting candles on Friday night.  So why not them? Why specifically Passover? Neither the ethnocentric nor the economic schools of thought offer a really satisfactory answer. And there is an additional problem: both ignore the Soviet Jewish experience. Passover was the only Jewish festival that had some presence among a Soviet Jewish population that was otherwise devoid of all Jewish knowledge, ethnic or religious. Why was that?

Personally, I credit the matza. I was born and grew up behind the Iron Curtain. In the Soviet Union of the 1970s, Jewish communities had zero traditional Jewish knowledge. Synagogue attendance was miserably low, and even those who attended treated it as a social club. The departure of tradition was gradual. Gennady Eistrakh, a social historian of Soviet Jewry, provided interesting descriptions of the ‘de-taboo-isation’ of non-kosher food. This process is often perceived by Western observers as a result of either voluntary secularisation or political oppression. Not so. The simple deficit of goods and food shortages played an important role. One cannot be too picky about food when there is no food. If one refuses pork, what is there left to eat?

At first, Jews came up with ways to justify deviations from the laws of kashrut. Eistrakh describes how special frying pots were kept for pork only. They were not used for anything other than pork so as not to contaminate other utensils! Yet, the ‘contaminated’ pork was good enough to eat!

At some point in the early 1940s, my great-grandfather managed to purchase a piglet, and he tended to the animal all through the spring and summer. My great-grandmother was in two minds about it. When the time came to slaughter the grown-up pig, the decision had to be taken — to sell or to eat? My great-grandmother refused to eat it. My great-grandfather said: “I raised the pig myself, which makes it clean, so I will eat it.” And, in this way, being ground down by secularisation, political oppression and constant food shortages, Soviet Jewry went from justified deviations, to simple deviations, to a new norm. And under a new norm, the very meaning of Jewish traditional ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’ became completely lost.

It seems to me that the thing that accounts for the survival of some traditions under these extremely tough circumstances is tangibility. And the reason Passover was still maintained in some way by Soviet Jews was the tangibility of matza. Matza is an extremely concrete, physical item that you make and eat. Making and eating it does not require any explanation or any real knowledge. In appearance and taste, it is highly unusual, particularly given the other foods that were available. So, it is not only concrete, but unique. Think of any other Jewish tradition, festival or not: nothing passes the test of tangibility and ease in quite the same effortless way as matza.

I came across a piece of matza for the first time when I was about five years old. My grandmother gave it to me without explaining anything. We then sat next to each other, and she read me a book. I remember asking her what this ‘thing’ was, and I remember her reply: “matza,” she said, stressing the last syllable. I thought the burnt taste of this new thing — this ‘matza’ — was delicious, and its unusual look was magical. I asked for more and she seemed surprised that I liked it. Nobody knew what it symbolised. Nobody knew what Passover was even about. Nobody knew that matza had to be consumed exclusively and that bread should be avoided altogether. Matza, when purchased, was dumped into a bread tray in the middle of the table, with bread next to it. Baking it, smuggling it, eating it was the one and only thing you did around Passover — the exact dates of which were also not known. How could they have been? Who would have kept a calendar? It is not as if you could have Googled it.

It took me seven years to have another contact with Jewish tradition. When I was 12, I was taken to a synagogue for the first time. For a Yom Kippur service. When the prayers finished, I had a sense that something tremendous had happened, something other worldly, and that my life would never be the same after witnessing this. And yet, there was nothing concrete, nothing as tangible as a piece of matza, to anchor this emotion. I remember thinking, “How, on earth do I take this with me from here? What do I take?” The “what do I take?” question does not exist with respect to Passover. It has an answer. It’s a piece of matza.

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Dr Daniel Staetsky

Senior Research Fellow and Director of JPR's European Demography Unit

Dr Daniel Staetsky

Senior Research Fellow and Director of JPR's European Demography Unit

Daniel holds a PhD in Social Statistics and Demography from the University of Southampton and a Master’s degree in Population Studies from the Hebrew University...

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