Friday, April 3, 2015

Passover: Hardships of the Past

"My Father's Shtetl Passover Table" by Chaim Goldberg (1917-2004)
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. 
On Passover I think about our grandmothers and great-grandmothers and all the work they did to prepare for the festival, especially during the early years when Jews were new immigrants to the US. Women cleaned their houses compulsively. They put away every-day tableware, cookware, and dishes and washed and prepared their Passover equipment. They had to learn or invent recipes that followed the special added dietary laws of Passover in addition to the rules of kosher food they followed the rest of the year. Often, they were already struggling to feed and care for large families living in poverty. Obviously, some Jewish women still observe all of the dietary laws on Passover and every day; they still struggle with poverty; and so on, but I think the past was really more difficult.

I also think about how lucky these ancestors were to get to America, and how glad I am to live here. Scarcities of food in early spring were a yearly burden to Jews in rural Europe. Passover came at the most difficult moment of the year for people living close to the land. Around the Equinox (that is, at Passover), months have gone by since the fall harvests. Markets offer no fresh vegetables, as none are yet growing. A household larder might still have a small store of produce that was carefully put by last fall, like dried fruit and root vegetables. In early spring, there would also be fewer eggs available, as most hens probably hadn't started laying. Meat would also be seasonally expensive, though for people living on the edge it's virtually always unaffordable.

With all these scarcities, Passover requires Jews to give up bread, which for most people in poor villages such as shtetls provided most of their nutrition. So Passover in the past demanded a very stringent commitment to abstain, not like anything we do now with our supermarkets full of special products that are created for the holiday -- if we decide to abstain at all. Needless to say, the social and communal pressure to remain faithful to dietary laws was also far stronger in the shtetl than in most modern communities. The consequence of deviation from the rules could be overwhelming.

In Eastern Europe, Jewish people experienced all these difficulties. Furthermore, Christian antisemitism and government persecution threatened them more at Easter time. Christian belief was that Jews killed Jesus, and Christians in earlier times often identified the Jews that were alive and living in their neighborhoods as responsible for this atrocity. Since the crucifixion was the central theme of Easter, and Easter and Passover almost always fell during the same week, the worst attacks of antisemitic violence often took place at Passover. Sometimes attacks were fueled by the false accusation that Jews used Christian blood to make matzo.

As a result, Passover in Europe became a season of fear and worry that a pogrom would break out or that any Jewish individual could become the target of accusations and violence. The "blood libel" and other anti-Jewish customs associated with Holy Week and Easter throughout European history are the subject of much research and many books; I've only done a very brief summary here.

Negative experiences from our Jewish past rarely come to the surface during modern Passover celebrations. We do think about the Holocaust, and we think about the many dangers to surviving Jews in modern Europe and Arab countries, and about rising antisemitism in many parts of the world. However, most of us happily ignore the real hardship of giving up bread if it was your main food. We may never have known of the old seasonal scarcity of food, and would rather forget the old season of violence that our ancestors endured.

Chagall: The Exodus
Remembering these things is an important part of my identity as a secular Jew. For me, the idea that all Jews stood at Mount Sinai when Moses gave them the Ten Commandments, that all Jews suffered in the Holocaust, that all Jews have a common past, has a symbolic value even if I do not have a strong religious sense to go with this symbolism.

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