How Americans used to prepare for Passover

How will it be to celebrate Passover alone this year?

‘EVEN DURING the dark days of the Holocaust, we find accounts of brave Jews who went to incredible lengths to obtain matzah.’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘EVEN DURING the dark days of the Holocaust, we find accounts of brave Jews who went to incredible lengths to obtain matzah.’
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Even prior to the US Civil War, matzah was prepared as the essential element of Passover. All regions in the US had their own bakery, as matzah could not be transported from New York to the rest of the country.
One of the first drawings of matzah being baked in the US can be found in the journal of artist Frank Leslie. To complete his assignment, the artist went downtown in New York to Division Street and sketched his illustrations. In his six drawings you can follow the process of matzah making: from flour to “riding the dough,” in which the rabbi is carefully checking as the dough is flattened and made ready for baking.
During the Civil War, matzah was baked in San Francisco, home to hundreds of Jews who had failed at panning gold as well as merchants whose stores provided clothing and equipment for the new arrivals who came by boat. Levi Jeans were born in this fashion, created by the eponymous Levi Strauss.
A most unusual preparation for Passover is documented in Prof. Robert Levinson’s outstanding book Jews in the California Gold Rush. Levinson explains that Jews celebrated Passover at the end of the winter when they were panning for their nuggets. There was still snow on the ground then and so it was difficult to get through the passes.
From one store owner, the author actually found an order for matzah sent a year in advance. A friend took the request to San Francisco and returned before Passover, the following year, with the matzah.
Also during the Civil War, a military Seder was conducted by the Yankee soldiers in West Virginia. A participant picked a native weed for the maror. One soldier present recalled, “That weed burned like fire and I had to have some locally brewed liquor to clear my throat.” Haroset was advertised as being “a great mixture of apples and nuts, which makes the taste of joy.”
When I found out that at the end of the Civil War Yankee Jews sent matzah to Confederate Jews in Savannah, Georgia, I was touched by this act of “hessed.” How did this act unfold? After the famous Union general William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground in the summer of 1864, he marched to the sea where he captured Savannah in October of that year.
A community of Jews had been living there since 1733 and they prayed in one of two synagogues, the oldest the Reform and the younger the Orthodox. The local matzah baker had been working since 1853 but had to stop plying his trade during the war. He was unable to procure the flour needed and his sons and other assistants had been drafted to fight in the war.
The Jewish community did not know what to do. Noted New York Rabbi Samuel Myer Isaacs heard about the problem and alerted a rabbi in Philadelphia. Together they raised the funds needed to pay for the baking of the matzah and shipping costs to Savannah.
The matzah was baked and placed in barrels in March 1865 and shipped to Savannah. The order had been stopped along the way at one point by a Union cutter, but when the Yankee Merchant Mariners saw the cargo they let it pass through. The Savannah Morning News announced that the matzah had arrived and that local Jews could come and pick up the “matzah cakes.”
Fifty years later, preparations for Passover in New York were quite different. Jews had left the Eastern European countries and come to “breathe free in the new world”. Prof. Andrew R Heinze, in his Adapting to Abundance, offered a clear picture of how the Jewish holidays were celebrated by those who caught the spirit of the USA, the spirit of abundance.
The Yiddish papers in the first decade of the 20th century were filled with ads that were meant to excite the readers as they prepared for Passover. Moe Levy, a very successful merchant penned the following in April 1906: “On Passover, the man is a king, the woman is a queen and the children are princes and princesses. When the king sits on his Passover cushion and his royal children ask him the four questions and the queen smiles and becomes full of delight, one feels then a rare pleasure.”
The ad continues and makes its point, “One feels then a rare pleasure and wants to pour a sixth glass and toast ‘to life’ to Moe Levy and Co. who clothes all well-dressed Jews and their children with the best and finest clothes in honor of Passover.” Apparently, new clothes made them free on Passover!
The year is 1991 and my wife, Rita, and I have been working feverishly to prepare a Haggadah with a Yiddish translation for the Russian Jews who would be attending the Sedarim of the Conservative-Masorti congregations in Israel, US and Canada. A very educated Russian Jew had composed a most readable translation. My wife, who had learned Russian after our visit to refuseniks in the summer of 1988, reviewed the translation and said it was ready to go.
I had hired a talented Jerusalem artist, Sharon Binder, to draw the illustrations in color for the Haggadah. Rabbi Mike Graetz of Omer prepared a commentary on the Haggadah in English, which was then translated into Russian. We hoped that the Haggadah would be printed by late March so copies could be sent to the US and Canada.
But just like the coronavirus, the Gulf War began and because of the missiles fired over Israel by Saddam Hussein, we were in a state of lockdown. The manuscript of the Haggadah was at the printer and an initial proof had been prepared, but we could not go and pick it up. There were no PDFs- nothing like that yet.
When there were a few days with less rocketry, I sneaked over to the printer and picked up the proof. My wife then checked it carefully and after two days gave it back to me with corrections. This time, at night, I secretly made my way to the printer, a specialist in Russian and Hebrew.
I stayed there for several hours until all corrections had been completed and I told the printer to begin printing. His question was how many to print. We had money for 2,000 copies. Three days later, the Gulf War ended and the printer worked quickly to get the Haggadah completed.
Rabbis came from the US and many other countries on an Israel Bonds mission to help Israel in the wake of the destruction caused by the missile attacks. I gave the Conservative rabbis copies to take back. They were subsequently used in 20 Sedarim in synagogues in the US and Canada.
How will it be to celebrate Passover alone this year? I will have the matzah and make my own haroset. Maror is ready and someone can buy the parsley for me. The egg and the shankbone I assume I can prepare. I have two Haggadot: my American Heritage Haggadah and my Masorti Haggadah. Looking out on the metropolitan landscape of Jerusalem, I will do my best. Happy Passover!