Jewish Journal

Did you know?  Little-known facts about Passover and Judaism to share at the seder table

by Rafael Guber

March 29, 2007 | 8:00 pm

An early ad for Passover goods at J. Lefkofsky.

An early ad for Passover goods at J. Lefkofsky.

Have a Haggadah

"And the daughters you shall let live" (Exodus 1:16).

When the Egyptians decided to kill the Jewish male babies, women played an important role in God's plan for Jewish redemption. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the most popular haggadah in the United States in the first quarter of the 20th century was arranged, edited and translated by a woman. Before feminism, before Maxwell House, there was Lillie Goldsmith Cowen.

Mrs. Philip Cowen, as she preferred to be called, was the wife of the first publisher of the Jewish weekly newspaper American Hebrew. She worked with him side by side, editing and typesetting that publication from the time they married in 1887 until his retirement in 1906. In 1904, she published the Cowen Haggadah, the first mass-produced adaptation of the haggadah in modern American vernacular. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold all over the world and were distributed to American Jewish servicemen in both World Wars.

The great matzah machine controversy

"They bake the dough, which they brought out of Egypt, into loaves of matzah" (Exodus 12:39). The use of machines for baking matzah has had its detractors and supporters over the last 150 years. Like most passionate Jewish arguments, this one still continues.

Two of the parties to the controversy in the 1850s were Rabbi Shlomo Kruger of Brody, who was also known in rabbinic literature as the "Maharshak," and Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson of Leopold, a town now known as Lviv.

Kruger argued that the use of the machine would create additional financial hardships for the poor, who subsidize their meager income by baking matzah for Passover. Rabbi Nathanson pointed out that Jews did not prohibit the use of the printing press because it put scribes out of work.

Cohen's Bakery on Cherry Street in Lower Manhattan had one of America's first steam-powered matzah baking machines. Jew and non-Jew alike applauded the new marvel and a New York journalist wrote that while previous machines were considered irregular by "doctors of Jewish law, with the march of improvement it has been allowed."

Today, most Orthodox and many Conservative Jews favor the round, handmade shmura matzah for the seder, and both handmade and machine-made matzah for the rest of the days of Passover. Many Jews who descend from German communities make it a point to eat only machine-made matzah for the first seven days of Passover, arguing that machines are more reliable in this instance and more likely to produce a consistent product in compliance with Jewish law.

The grape debate

"I will free you from the hard labor of the Egyptians, rescue you from their bondage, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm ... I will gather you in to be my people" (Exodus 6:6-7). Wine at the Passover seder is associated with freedom. Slaves, after all, were not permitted to drink wine. In fact, the four cups of wine are associated with four expressions of freedom and redemption.

Ironically, when the 18th Amendment went into effect in January 1920, Prohibition threatened to eliminate this important symbol of religious freedom from Jewish ritual life. Jews found themselves embroiled in a battle both with the U.S. government and with each other.

While wine would be permitted for Jews during Passover, the new law required obtaining special government permits to make and, in some cases, import wine. These permits became a major target for organized crime. Congregations that existed only on paper applied for permits, which received substantial negative press and became a source of concern and embarrassment for the Jewish community.

Much of the attention was focused on a few small immigrants synagogues, which were ostensibly Orthodox in practice. As a result, the blame for this public Jewish humiliation was laid squarely at the feet of American Orthodoxy.

These concerns led to American Jewry's first major interdenominational crisis. Reform and Conservative rabbis volunteered to give up their wine-making permits, claiming that grape juice could be substituted for wine without violating Jewish law. Orthodox rabbis agreed that under certain circumstances grape juice could be substituted for wine, but stated that wine was preferred for healthy adults.

Things got worse when some members of the Reform movement asked that exemption permits be abolished, saying in effect, "Let the Orthodox drink grape juice." Orthodox Jews accused Reform Jews of betrayal.

Eventually, calmer voices on both sides prevailed. Ultimately, Jews from across the religious spectrum came forward to seal the breach. With the end of Prohibition and the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, American Jews once again banded together to face their common enemies.

Passover in the (New Mexican) desert

"Therefore it is our duty to thank, praise, pay tribute, glorify, exalted, honor, extol, bless and acclaim the one who has performed all these miracles for our ancestors and for us."

In February 1918, 25-year-old Jacob "Jack" Yellen found himself far from his New York City home in the high desert of southern New Mexico. Born in Poland and brought to America as a boy, Yellen's aspirations as a Vaudeville producer and lyricist were cut short by World War I. He became a field representative of the Jewish Welfare Board for Work and was part of a group of dedicated young men and women around the country providing for the religious and personal needs of tens of thousands of Jewish men being trained to fight the kaiser's army.

Yellen's experiences and skills as a producer were put to use during his assignment to Camp Cody, headquarters of the Army's 34th "Sandstorm" division, which had spent most of the previous two years chasing Pancho Villa and his army back across the Mexican border. When possible, Yellen held Friday evening services, produced and sang in camp shows, and generally acted as chaplain, counselor and older brother. His devotion and enthusiasm earned him the respect of the camp's non-Jewish officer corps.

When Passover arrived on March 28, Yellen organized and led a seder for the camp's Jewish soldiers. About 60 enlisted men were present, along with many distinguished guests. Yellen managed to procure candlesticks, matzah, bitter herbs and paschal lamb, all served in the mess hall decorated in blue and white. Grape juice was substituted for wine.

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