In the Diaspora: My Pessah epiphany

After biting into Passover bread rolls in Jerusalem, it'll be harder to go back to matza lasagna in NY.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
Duty calls. Obligation beckons. I should be writing about the arrest of Ben-Ami Kadish on spying charges and the specter it raises of American Jewish disloyalty. I should be writing about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's spate of interviews and speeches and the political problems they create for his former congregant, Barack Obama. I should be writing about J Street, the liberal Jewish lobbying group recently launched to be the non-AIPAC of Israel advocacy. Duty calls. Obligation beckons. The brain says one thing, the viscera insist on another. In the coming weeks, I fully expect to address the weighty issues, as is my wont. For the moment, though, in the slipstream of Pessah, my gut tells me that I must write of bread. And in so doing, I must write, too, of Israeli genius. As a nation notable for its high levels of education in the sciences and its thriving computer and biotech industries, Israel can proudly claim parentage of the cellphone, the ingestible video camera, AOL's instant-messaging system, the most efficient drip-irrigation system and scores of other innovations. I speak here, however, of none of those things. I speak here of Pessah bread. I speak here from recent experience - no, something beyond experience, dazzling, illuminating revelation. The epiphany came one morning last week, during a visit to Israel for the awarding of the Sami Rohr book prize to Lucette Lagnado for her splendid family saga, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. I was one of the judges who selected it as the winner, and, yes, its story of Egyptian Jewish life and loss is yet another column topic abundant in gravitas. BUT I'M getting off-point here. It was the morning after the awards ceremony and I had overslept. Between jet lag and the unlimited wine at the awards reception, I had overslept so flagrantly that I had missed not only my planned morning of touring the City of David with an Israeli friend but the breakfast at my hotel. (And little is less forgivable in a journalist's existence than missing a free meal.) So I headed out with my son in search of caffeine, and I knew well from past Passovers that coffee would stir the sense-memory for the forbidden hametz. Yet there, on the menu of the Cup o' Joe restaurant along Independence Park in Jerusalem, was a list of breakfast sandwiches on Pessah bread. As I read down the list of toppings - Bulgarian cheese, feta cheese, olives, tomatoes and so forth - I shamelessly salivated. I worried, too. I had never before seen or heard of such a thing as Pessah bread, much less tasted it. Surely this food was an oxymoron. Surely this menu was temptation itself, for did not the sages teach us that hametz represents idolatry, the evil inclination? I did a double-check that the restaurant was, in fact, kosher l'Pessah. The sign in the window said so. The haredi family a couple of tables away offered even greater assurance by its presence. Filled with alternating currents of desire and trepidation, I placed my order. Some moments later, the waitress appeared with a respectably thick and pleasantly browned roll, filled with the bounty of Israel's dairies and greenhouses. I bit in, chewed, savored. I waited to be turned into a pillar of salt. How could a roll on Pessah be anything but a cosmic tzitzis check? I never wound up as sodium chloride, though, and I had one more meal with Pessah bread just to make sure the Almighty hadn't lost track of pathetic, insignificant me. I asked friends and strangers alike about this remarkable food. I learned it was made with both matza meal and potato flour. Two Israeli mothers of my acquaintance told me they had recipes for Pessah bagels (may the Holy One be praised). The husband of one of my Sami Rohr colleagues said he'd had a McDonald's burger on a Pessah roll. So my selfish question is this. Why, as a relatively observant Jew in America, can't I find this stuff at home? I mean, I live in the 21st-century shtetl of Manhattan. I shop at SuperSol and Kosher Marketplace. Have I somehow missed this culinary breakthrough? Or has it not broken through yet outside Israel? All I can say is that, after this last Pessah in Jerusalem, it will be harder than ever to go back to my American compromises next year, to matza lasagna, to matza sandwiches that crumble all over my tie, to even the homemade matza brei of which I am ridiculously proud. Some of my brethren will await Elijah. Some will await moshiach. I will pray for the import-export entrepreneur who will start selling Pessah bread in my neighborhood. Next year, as my personal liturgy will henceforth read, on the Upper West Side!