Exodus from chametz: Passover preparations around the world

Let us travel a bit and see what kind of preparations were made for Passover in various locales.

Jews prepare for Passover holiday, March 29, 2018 (Reuters)
Many of you remember the excitement of taking your Passover dishes from barrels or closets high up where they had been stored. For those whose families were Russian, you recall your mother making roussell from beets. My grandfather, my mother’s father whom I never met, made wine for Passover. Also, there was the sight of a fish swimming around in your bath tub until it could be used for Passover.
Let us travel a bit and see what kind of preparations were made for Passover in various locales.
The late Prof. Robert Levinson, author of the groundbreaking study “Jews in the Gold Rush,” discovered details about Pass- over being celebrated by Jews who lived near the mining camps and provided assistance with their stores to those who were panning gold. In one instance, Levinson discovered a description of quite lengthy preparations for the holiday.
In a town in the California hills, where snow clogged the landscape into late spring, a Jewish family lived. Since they could not get out to travel to San Francisco to order matza, they ordered it a year ahead of time. Somehow, an assistant to the matza baker got through the snow and brought the family its matza just in time.
Through the Jewish Americana collection of Dee and Arnold Kaplan, we know that there were at least four matza bakers in San Francisco from 1850 to 1880. The Jews out west simply had to have matza to eat.
The Jews living in the large and small towns in California and Nevada did make their own wine, but they wanted to drink something a little stronger. In San Francisco, the newspaper The Alta carried a Passover ad in 1875, with Prosper May pointing out in Hebrew that his “kosher wines and liquors” were sold at Commercial and Clay street. The Hebrew special was “Yamaka rum.” (You can figure it out).
In Kovno, a major city in Lithuania, the preparation for Passover was quite extensive. At certain times, there was a matza baker in the city, but sometimes the matza came from Vilna. Since a river ran through Kovno, there was fish to eat. However, for Passover, it was necessary to have carp to make gefilte fish and other types of fish delicacies.
A strong wine made from raisins was called “med.” Slivovitz was also a treat, and it was sold for an expensive price. The Seders themselves ran into the early morning since the participants wanted to follow the Haggada section where the rabbis discussed the Exodus from Egypt until morning Shaharit prayers.
IN NEW YORK in 1862, during the Civil War, the “our crowd” families of leading assimilated Jews might not have kept kosher throughout the year, but on Passover they definitely did.
I found an ad from 1862 in the Jewish Messenger of New York for “confectionery for Passover” prepared and sold by the “fancy cake baker” David Canter. The store was located at 26 Ludlow Street. The text of the ad is quite impressive. Canter “begs to inform the Jewish community and his friends generally that he intends commencing to manufacture his usual choice variety of fancy cakes for the ensuing Passover, and flatters himself that the satisfaction he has given the public for the past seven years will be a sufficient guarantee for a further extension of their kind patronage.”
Canter also handled out-of-town orders. “D.C. begs to refer by permission to H. De Boer, Esq., 788 S. Third Street, Philadelphia, all orders received by whom will be duly transmitted and punctually attended to. N.B: Positively closed on Sabbaths and the holy days.”
There was a real kosher crowd in New York even as the Yankees were fighting the rebels down in the Confederate states in southern part of the US.
Out in San Francisco, the prepared products were a bit more diverse.
An ad from 1864 had a special flavor to it. On the top was the Hebrew word kasher on both sides of the name of the product, “goose grease.” Underneath, the Hebrew words were completed by “shel Pessah,” meaning kosher for Passover.
A. Regan, of 230 Sixth Street, had a very informative ad text. With a finger pointing for emphasis, Regan wrote: “I respectfully announce to my co-religionists that I have for sale a splendid stock of fresh goose grease in quantities to suit at $1.50 per pound.” The ad concludes with instructions where to “inquire” about the product.
When I was preparing my American Haggadah 25 years ago, I traveled throughout the United States, visiting Jewish archives in many cities. I also read newspapers on microfilm, looking specifically around the dates of Passover each year for Passover products. Most had matza for sale, even in Savannah, Georgia. I also searched Passover ad files in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and even Charleston, South Carolina.
I was fortunate that my search had positive results. Although my Haggada did sell 7,000 copies, it is out of print now, with copies available only on Amazon.
One of the best ads I located was in Charleston’s local newspaper. The Jewish residents there and in small communities around the state, as well as in Georgia and North Carolina, needed extensive Passover supplies. The owner of the store was Ben Rice.
In bold letters, the first line of his ad says “The Jewish public are respectfully informed that I shall, as heretofore, furnish” also bold “matzoths.” Then Rice made clear what else was available. “Kosher sausage, beef, tongues, etc, for the coming PASSOVER, at the lowest market prices, guaranteeing superior quality.”
Rice wanted everyone to know how extensive his clientele was: “Out-of-town orders will receive prompt and careful attention.” But he urged them not to wait: “I desire, however, to impress upon you the necessity of sending your orders early, that there may be no delay in shipping. Thanking you for past patronage, and asking your continued favors, I am very truly yours, Ben Rice, 304 Meeting street, Charleston, S.C.”
In 1863, S. Lowenstein of Philadelphia, who was “the oldest matza baker in town,” said in an ad that “orders from abroad or any portion of the United States will be promptly attended to, and carefully shipped by sea or land conveyance.” The baking was done at Watson’s bakery, North Front Street near Race in Philadelphia.
In my hometown in 1869, only four years after the Civil War had ended, the newspaper headline stated: “Passover To Be Observed by Atlanta Hebrews.” Not too many details about the holiday were listed. The first synagogue in the city, the Temple, had been established in 1867. Since I was unable to find any ads in the Atlanta newspapers with an individual selling “matzohs,” I assume that the members of the Temple probably baked the matza themselves.
In 1886, the first year in which eastern European immigrants could truly be recognized as a separate group in Atlanta, there was a major story about Passover again in the Atlanta Constitution . The main headline said: “Passover Preparations for Celebrating the Festival.” The writer continued: “The Jewish citizens of Atlanta are getting ready for the Feast of Passover. Unleavened bread will be eaten.”
We all know that recipes are very important around the world – especially Passover recipes. In 1901, the American Hebrew , a leading newspaper for the Jewish community in the US, published the following recipe in its cooking column.
“Palestine Soup – Three pounds of Jerusalem artichokes, two quarts of real stock, one turnip, one head of celery, pepper and salt to taste. Peel and cut the vegetables into slices and boil them in the stock till tender, then rub through a hair sieve. Beat the yolks of three eggs, add to the soup and stir over the fire till just on the boil. The soup should be about the thickness of rich cream. If not thick enough, a little potato may be added.”
I also located Passover recipes for “Kentucky gremslich,” sole with wine (French recipe)” and “Matzoh Shalet.”
In 1902, Leo Fresh was a well known auctioneer in Atlanta and a member of the Orthodox Ahavath Achim synagogue. With nine growing children, he had to make sure that there was always enough food to put on the table. “Controversy over Hen Fattened for Passover” was the headline in the Constitution on April 2, 1902. The tale captured the imagination of Atlanta’s readers.
“A large, fat hen, which had been slated for the Passover, was the leading character in a very novel dispute which was brought to the attention of the police last night,” the story pointed out. “Leo Fresh, the well-known auctioneer, called at the police barracks last night and stated that a fine hen which he had been fattening for the Jewish Passover had been stolen by a woman who lives at 83 Jenkins Street. The hen, he stated, had been turned over to a shocket [sic] whose business is to kill all animals and fowls for the Passover. Fowls used on such an occasion could not be killed by any other person.”
How did the hen reach the Jenkins Street address? It appears that the “shocket” kept the chickens he had been given in his yard prior to their kosher killing. Fresh’s hen was smart, “escaped and ran to another yard.” The individual who had possession claimed that she had bought the hen for 50 cents from a “countryman.” The police were “powerless” to act – no proof to whom the hen belonged.
But then the incident rose to a new level. Fresh was told he needed to get a “promissory note for the chicken.”
Frustrated, he complained to the police. “But before we can get a warrant tomorrow morning,” he is reported to have said, “this woman, who has my hen, will have killed the chicken and we cannot use it. The hen must be killed by a ‘shocket.’ We have fattened that hen for the purpose of the Passover and I want it before she kills it.” There was a lot of give and take reported about the various encounters in regard to this holiday bird.
“The woman refused to surrender the hen, and Fresh notified her that he would take out a warrant, and he warned her not to kill it,” the report continued. One hundred and fifteen years later, it is my hope that Leo Fresh got that hen for his family’s Seder.
TWENTY-EIGHT years ago, I was very fortunate to interview the late Hanna Caspi Goodman, a member of the noted Caspi family of Jerusalem. She was the 11th child, and she grew up in the city before she married Dr. Philip Goodman in the 1930s. They moved to New York, where Goodman became a very noted figure – his anthologies on the Jewish holidays are still used by many around the world. There are also Hanna’s cookbooks on foods from various Jewish communities.
Hanna described for me the preparations for Passover here in the years just after the Turks were defeated and the British Mandate began.
“As soon as Purim was over, the preparations for Passover were under way,” she began. “There was much to be done. Matza was ordered by the rotel [a measure of weight, slightly more than a kilo] from a baker in the Bukharan Quarter and arrived in a large box about a fortnight before Passover.”
Next came the making of matza meal.
“A portion of the delicately rounded matza was taken to the miller in Mea She’arim, who ground the crispy, unleavened bread into matza meal,” she said. “For an even finer meal for use in baking sponge and nut cakes, steady hands worked over the coarser matzo meal in a pestle and mortar.
“The whole matzot were put in a room designated for Passover foods and dishes; it also housed the large quantity of eggs which came in from Egypt by train,” she said.
Now the action in the house became more intensive.
“From the boidem [attic] of the second-story dwell- ing,” she related, “the Passover pots and dishes were brought down and stored in a room which had been cleaned and whitewashed. The entire house was white- washed, and bed-clothing and linen filled the lines outside. The arrival of Passover throughout the city was heralded by a flapping in the breeze.”
She explained that at this point, her mother “went to the butcher to get the lamb’s fat, which, after being rendered, was used for the matza balls and other dishes. Sugar for Passover was bought by the cone. It came wrapped in blue paper, and pieces were cut off as need- ed. Olive oil was purchased in large tin cans later used by the needier sections of the population as part of the outer shells of their homes.”
Now the family arrived at the poultry stage.
“When it came to the chickens,” she went on, “we all did our share. My mother or one of my elder sisters went to the market in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and bought chickens. They were brought home alive, cackling away, their feet tied. A few days later, the ritual slaughterer was called in.”
Hanna and her siblings got busy.
“We sat around a large metal cauldron,” she related, “where we plucked the chickens until there was not a feather left. Sometimes, as a reward, we got some ginger candy.”
Passover was a time for new clothes, so Hanna and her siblings went to the tailor, who made everything to measure.
“Sometimes,” she said, “when money was available, we went to the cobbler in the Old City for new shoes.”
Hanna recalled that in the winter, the only vegetables and fruit to eat were potatoes, carrots and some oranges.
“Since Passover is in the spring, cucumbers and scallions were available from the first harvest of the Arab-grown crops,” she said.
They made haroset from nuts, fruit and wine, their mother’s special recipe. Her family bought wine in large crocks from a wine seller in Mea She’arim.
“Our maror,” she said,” was bitter lettuce; our karpas normally cucumbers.”
Hanna was a noted gourmet kosher cook. She and her husband returned to Jerusalem in 1976, living in Givat Mordechai. We were their neighbors and had some wonderful times with them – they were filled with ruah (spirit) and great knowledge.
I conclude this Passover journey by pointing out that in the American Hebrew HaDoar newspaper, one particular Passover ad from 1926 points to an aspect  of the preparation for the holiday. All the Manischewitz matza boxes are in Hebrew, as is the ad itself. This is one of the American Hebrew visual treasures of Passover that has survived.