There are a lot of things that an average Jew living today does not know about matza. For example, do you know that one of the best ways to transport several sheets of matza from place to place, in a city, say, is to place them inside a pillowcase? Ah…that is what I am talking about, such a vital piece of information, and not at all as well known as it should be! You are in a bewildered state, I can tell…Why would anyone want to do such a thing and to know that it can be done in the first place…? Yet for those who grew up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and the 1980s, knowing how to smuggle matza correctly was genuinely vital.
Matza was indeed transported in pillowcases — from the place where it was baked (mostly, a small facility next to a local synagogue) to the place where it was consumed (mostly, home). Why pillowcases? Impressionable souls in the West always suspect ‘persecution by the Soviet authorities to be an explanation of any peculiarity of this kind. I would love it to be politics. I would love a pillowcase to become a new banner of political freedom and Jewish liberation. There is something in me, however, that resists this explanation. The real explanation is more prosaic, in my view. It is the deficit. Cardboard boxes, like you would have now, were simply not available. Plastic bags were not used. The idea of ‘permanent revolution’ failed but not the idea, and the reality, of permanent deficit. That was fully implemented under the Soviet system. So, the question is not ‘why a pillowcase?’, it is more like ‘what else is there?’
Today, under conditions of religious freedom and reasonable prosperity, Jews can pack and transport their matza in a more normal way. And not only that they can hold an actual Passover celebration. In Jewish communities of the Western world (including North American and Western Europe), about 70-80 percent of Jews hold a celebratory Passover meal (Seder). In Eastern European Jewish communities the proportions are lower but still considerable — probably in the range of 40-50%. In Israel, the practice of holding a Passover Seder is close to universal: over 90% of Jews hold it. There is little variation in relation to this when it comes to gender, age, level of education, income or origin: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, undereducated and overeducated, Ashkenazi and Sephardi tend to participate at similar rates.
In Israel, there is rather a modest variation by a degree of religiosity: over 80% of the self-described secular Jews hold a Seder. In the USA, the variation is greater, but only the most secular are significantly below the American Jewish average of 70%; about 50% of American Jews who do not identify with any of the religious denominations hold a Seder. Interestingly, in the very secular corner of Israeli society — the Soviet/Russian immigrants — Seder is held by over 50% of people too. Such are the insights from the recent surveys of Jewish religious observance in Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, the USA and Israel. And something else: Passover is the most celebrated of all Jewish festivals. Further, it is observed more than various Jewish customs and traditions that are not festivals, such as lighting candles on Friday night, eating kosher or attending a synagogue.
Why is that so? What makes Passover the most popular? On this issue, like on so many others, social science does not have an answer. It has ‘schools of thought’ instead. One school of thought says that the celebration of Passover has become an ethnic, not so much religious, custom. For many Jews, it is now divorced from faith and proper observance. Having a meal with the family, with a dose of ritual, does not require faith or real proficiency in religious practice. So, for the ‘ethnocentric school’, Passover Seder for Jews is like Christmas meal is for Christians, I suppose.
Alongside the ethnocentric school of thought, there is an economic one. The Passover Seder is a dead easy thing to do, which does not compete with other pleasures of life — say the economists. All people care about is essentially the pleasures of life. And secular, or highly secularized people, care about secular pleasures. Observance of Sabbath laws stands in the way of cinema, museums, restaurants, beach, French lessons, shopping, swimming, you name it. Giving up all that requires some faith. The same goes for eating kosher, especially in the context of the Diaspora. Eating kosher limits what you can eat and makes you think every time your purchase or cook or eat food — which is three times a day. You lose out by eating kosher. You waste time — unless, of course, you believe that it is strictly necessary. So, for a secularized Jew, observance of any festival and custom is in inherent conflict with the more pleasurable activities. Jewish festivals and customs that have a better chance of preservation are those where the conflict is minimal. Passover is such a thing, say the economists. It happens once a year, it is basically a meal with the family — that is why it is so central. Not much is lost by observing it in some form.
Who is right? Both schools of thought have their attractions, and there is a grain of truth in each of them. But they are both imperfect. First, they cannot explain the entirety of the ‘Western Jewish experience’. There are other festivals that could be ‘made ethnic’, such as the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana), and there are other customs that are really not that demanding — lighting candles on Friday night. So, why not them? Why specifically Passover? — neither the ethnocentric nor the economic schools of thought have given a satisfactory answer. And there is an additional problem: both ignore the Soviet Jewish experience. Passover was the only Jewish festival that had some presence in the Soviet Jewry that was otherwise devoid of all Jewish knowledge, ethnic or religious. Why was that?
Personally, I credit the matza. I was born and grew up behind the Iron Curtain. In the Soviet Union of the 1970s Jewish communities had zero Jewish traditional knowledge. Synagogue attendance was miserably low, as I wrote elsewhere, and even those who attended treated it as a social club. The departure of tradition was gradual. Gennady Eistrakh, a social historian of the Soviet Jewry, provided curious descriptions of “detabooization” of the non-kosher food. This process is intuitively perceived by Western observers as a result of either voluntary secularization or political oppression. Not so. Deficit of goods and food shortages played an important role. One cannot be too picky about food when there is no food. If one refuses pork, what is left to eat?
At first, Jews came up with ways to justify deviations from the laws of kashrut. Eistrakh describes how special frying pots were kept for pork only. They were not used for anything else apart from the pork so as not to contaminate other utensils! Yet, the “contaminated” pork was good enough to eat!
At some point in the early 1940s, my great-grandfather managed to purchase a piglet and tended to the animal all through the spring and summer. My great-grandmother was of two minds about it. When the time came to slaughter the grown-up pig, the decision had to be taken — to sell or to eat? My great-grandmother refused to eat it. My great-grandfather said: “I raised the pig myself, which makes it clean; I will eat it.” So, in this way, being pressed down by secularization, political oppression and constant food shortages, Soviet Jewry went from “justified deviations” to simple deviations to a new norm. Under a new norm, the very meaning of Jewish traditional “do” and “don’t do” is lost completely.
What accounts for the survival of some traditions under these extremely tough circumstances is tangibility. The reason Passover was still “held” by the Soviet Jew, in my view, was the tangibility of matza. Matza is an extremely concrete, physical “something” that you make and eat. Making and eating this extremely concrete thing does not require any explanation, any real knowledge. In appearance and taste, it is highly unusual, given your other foods. It is both concrete and unique. Think of any other Jewish tradition, festival or not: nothing passes the test of tangibility and ease in the effortless way that matza does. I came across a piece of matza for the first time when I was about 5. My grandmother gave it to me without explaining anything. We then sat next to each other and she read me a book. I asked what “this thing” was, and she enunciated. “Matza,” stressing the last syllable. I thought the burnt taste of this new thing — “matza” — was delicious and the unusual look was magical. I asked for more and she seemed surprised that I liked it. Nobody knew what it symbolized. Nobody knew what Passover was even about. Nobody knew that matza had to be consumed exclusively and bread should be avoided altogether. Matza, when purchased, was dumped into a bread tray in the middle of the table, with bread next to it. Baking it, smuggling it, eating it was the one and only thing you did around Passover — the exact dates of which were also not known. How would they have even become known? Who would have kept a calendar? It is not like you could have googled them…
It took me seven years to have another contact with the Jewish tradition. When I was 12, I was taken to a synagogue for the first time. For the Yom Kippur service. When the prayers finished, I had a sense that something tremendous had happened, something out of this world. And that my life would never be the same after witnessing this. I expect to feel something similar when Elon Musk dumps the first humans on Mars, to give you a sense of proportion. Yet — there was nothing concrete, as tangible as a piece of matza, to anchor this emotion. I remember thinking, “How, on earth, do I take it with me from here..? what do I take?” The “what do I take?” question does not exist with respect to Passover. It has been answered. A piece of matza.