Pessah in Jerusalem: 1882, 1935 and 1948

From the first aliyot to the birth of the State of Israel, Seder in the capital took many different forms

Victoria's grandsons 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Victoria's grandsons 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Both Pessah and Jerusalem have been constants of Jewish life for thousands of years. Pessah in Jerusalem, however, has taken many different forms.
1882: Seder with the princes
Spring 1882 in Jerusalem was bleak. The rains had failed, the city’s cisterns were empty and the water-carriers were charging exorbitant prices. In Russia, pogroms were raging. “How can we rejoice [this month of Adar] when our brothers and sisters in Russia are suffering persecution and slaughter?” wrote Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in Hahavatzelet. “Surely the freedom of the Pessah season must somehow shed its light on the tyranny of the Russian rulers.”
Meantime, the haluka money usually sent to Jerusalem’s needy was redirected to Russia’s imperiled Jews, and many Jerusalemites could not afford matza. Hahavatzelet editor Dov Frumkin bought up quantities of matza, which he sold at two piastres per three kilos, far below cost, to “a mob of vociferating old ladies, ready to bestow, as occasion may serve, streams of benedictions or volleys or curses.”
Late in March, however, the city was cheered by the news that among the 10,000 Christian pilgrims expected in Jerusalem would be Queen Victoria’s eldest grandsons – Albert Victor and George – the sons of Edward, Prince of Wales.
The princes steamed into Jaffa on March 28, six days before Pessah. From there, they took three days to reach Jerusalem, stopping at Ramle, Latrun and Nebi Samuel. Jerusalem governor Reouf Pasha and the Pasha of Damascus welcomed them to the city. Tents were pitched for the princes near where the Rockefeller Museum stands today, and where their father had camped on his visit 20 years earlier.
Like any pilgrims, the princes visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Greek and Armenian churches, French monasteries, the Via Dolorosa and Western Wall. At midnight, Mishkenot Shaananim was illuminated in their honor, on the instructions of Moses Montefiore.
Monday evening, April 3, was the first night of Pessah. Through British consul Noel Temple Moore, the princes asked if they could attend a Seder. It was arranged that the Hacham Bashi, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Raphael Panigel, host the young royals. In the salon of Rabbi Panigel’s Jewish Quarter home, where the Seder was to be held, a dais was quickly built for the princes, and Dr. Thomas Chaplin, physician at the British Mission in Jerusalem, prepared them an English outline of the Seder. As Rabbi Panigel read the Haggada aloud, stopping, according to custom, to explain and comment on the text, Dr. Chapin and Nissim Behar, head of the Alliance Israelite Universelle School, translated for the princes.
When he reached the section that reads “Throughout all generations, our enemies have risen up against us in order to exterminate us,” Hacham Bashi Panigel addressed the princes directly. “In our own times, too, our brethren are assailed by cruel persecutions in certain countries, but the great English nation, the illustrious royal family and the wise ministers of the Queen – may God protect and aggrandize them — have manifested their sympathy for the unhappy victims… It is this sympathy which reassures us and them in the time of our deep affliction. Yes, it is indeed a great and noble nation which never closes its ear to the voice of oppression and persecution.”
The princes tasted the matza, maror and haroset, particularly enjoying the matza. At the end of Seder, aide to the Hacham Bashi Rabbi Shaul Eliashar intoned a hymn he had composed in honor of the princes’ visit, and this was followed by prayers for the British royal family. The princes thanked their host, assuring him they would never forget the evening. Rabbi Panigel cabled Sir Moses Montefiore after the holiday: “I treated them according to their high rank. They evinced pleasure in the ceremony.
Expressed themselves highly gratified.” Albert Victor died young. George ascended the throne in his place as King George V. Forty years after his Old City Seder, a central thoroughfare in modern Jerusalem was named for him.
1930s: Ingathered nations
Several days before Pessah, the streets of Jerusalem are crowded with Jewish visitors, tourists from all over the world, who have come to spend the festival in the Land of Israel. One is a visitor from America, who described what he saw in letters home.
“The streets are lively, and in the specifically Jewish streets, in Mea Shearim and the Old City, the bustle of the approaching Holiday is great indeed. [At the Wailing Wall] there are pious Jerusalem Jews, wearing their flat fur-edged caps and multi-colored cloaks. There are the Sephardic Jews, with their rabbis and judges, wearing turbans on their heads. And there are the Bukharan Jews wearing their purple cloaks; there are Caucasian Jews looking as though they were Cossacks, with Cossack headgear and wide breeches... Those who have come from the Emek and perhaps from faraway Galilee are dressed in clean white blouses. And then, of course, there are the various types of women, in their characteristic garb.
“[During the intermediate days of Passover] the children of the city and the visiting youth wore their Holiday clothing as they marched, as they sang, as they enjoyed this annual pilgrimage festival. How wonderful to see the fresh faces of the next generation of Jews from the homeland. Perhaps one day after all the problems are solved, from this new generation will arise the leaders of a Jewish nation.”
1948: Freedom and independence
Zipporah Porath, a Hebrew University student, Hagana volunteer and later a nurse, describes Pessah 1948 in Jerusalem in letters to her family in the US.
Seder night “was a wonderful evening, a huge full moon floating in a bathtub of blue, with little sparklers of stars hovering close by. The Mediterranean sky defies description… at eye level, all this beauty is silhouetted against stark earthy rock and rugged hills.” With a friend, she walked to Rehavia from her Kiryat Moshe apartment “experiencing unexpected quiet… not a shot to be heard the whole way.” As they walked, they greeted “mutual friends and sang loudly, and waved to people on balconies waiting for guests. The main guests in town were the hundred drivers who had brought the last convoy before Pessah into Jerusalem. They were separated from their families this Seder night, but, having helped provide Jerusalemites with food for the holiday, warmly welcomed everywhere.”
Their invitation was to a Sephardi Seder. The reigning matriarch was a grandmother whose hand everyone kissed after kiddush. Important passages of the Haggada were translated into Ladino for her. “Whenever the conversation lapsed into Ladino, the children, little chauvinists, were genuinely upset and demanded that only Hebrew be spoken… The herbs were truly bitter, plucked from the fields like the greens we now eat with our daily fare…”
To eat, there was mallow, a spinachlike vegetable, which grew prolifically in the open meadows around Jerusalem. Nutritionists had discovered than mallow had highly edible properties, cooked and raw. To Zippy, the haroset tasted just like mortar.
“The afikoman was placed in a napkin, its ends tied in a knot, and passed to each person at the table, who each slung it over a shoulder and held it there to symbolize how the Jews carried their belongings out of Egypt. When it fell into the hands of one of the children, it miraculously disappeared, and was only forfeited against the promise of a book.”
It was still early when Zippy got back to her Kiryat Moshe home. She decided visit Prof. and Mrs. Louis Guttman in the nearby Mekasher neighborhood. There, Seder festivities were still underway. “Prof. Guttman was using a Reconstructionist Haggada and a number of American students were present. They had a chicken, smuggled into Jerusalem by a convoy driver. He had offered it to another family, who had rejected it because they were unsure of its kashrut.” They even had four shmura matzot. Mea Shearim’s matza bakeries had been busy those first weeks of April 1948, as every other year, with a poster announcing that individuals could bake their own matza any time of the day or night in an alleyway off Rehov Mea She’arim.
The Guttmans’ neighborhs, Bea and Jerry Renov, from the American South – she from Atlanta and he from Shreveport, Louisiana – also vividly recall the Seder they held that April Friday night in their home. “We’d invited other Atlantans – Frieda and Dave Macarov (later Prof. David Macarov), another couple and a single fellow whom we’d met at the university. We each brought food, so by pooling, we had special fare for the Seder.” Bea recalls the menu: Two carrots, some matza, three potatoes, wine and 100 grams of frozen meat... what a special feeling it was to celebrate the festival of freedom, living with the hope that our own homeland would soon be independent.