April 6, 2006
PASSOVER: Prague’s Matzah Metamorphosis
An anonymous source breathes heavily on the other end of the receiver, softly intoning that the only way to get the goods is from an inside contact.
Through friends, I discretely discover my intermediary, who leads me through several dark corridors for an encounter with an angry man.
His gruffness is unmistakable: He is the Czech version of the infamous "soup Nazi" from "Seinfeld," a man so demanding of his customers that he would ban them for life if they showed any signs of sauciness. I am trembling, fearing that if I cross him, all is lost.
The problem is, I don't want the whole box; I don't need that much. This angers my ersatz dealer.
"Well then what do you want?" he asks, irritated.
I make a pathetic gesture indicating that I will take half. He sniffs disapprovingly, but cajoled by a front woman, he surrenders.
For the final score, I have to come back in a few hours, go deep into a Prague basement, find a waiter whom I only know by first name, and pay an exorbitant amount for the rest of my booty.
It's all very hush-hush, and, of course, Kafkaesque. And it's not cocaine or heroine I am trying to obtain, although I feel as if embroiled in the drug deal of the century.
It's matzah I'm after, plus gefilte fish, and for years this is the kind of ordeal one had to go through if one was in Prague for Passover and was not a member of the Prague Jewish community.
And this was the best of times, meaning the matzah was there and I was able to buy it.
The great matzah hunts of years past reflected the growing pains of a tiny Jewish community in a post-communist country, where the availability of kosher foods was severely limited and foreigners were long kept at arm's length.
This year, the rumor is, everything has changed.
There is a new community board, a new rabbinical presence and the matzah, like the freedom it represents, will now reportedly be available to all.
But before I put that to the test, some reflections on past panic-stricken searches for unleavened bread. In my first Passover in Prague, 2002, I called a rabbi who works outside of the official community, Ron Hoffberg, formerly of New Jersey, now the representative of Conservative Jewry in the Czech Republic.
He laughed at my naiveté: "Matzah? Get real. They don't sell it here at the stores and the community has it, but it's only for the community."
I had no idea what that meant. I am a Jew, why can't I buy matzah?
A Czech co-worker confirmed Hoffberg's warning. I was doomed to a matzah-less Passover, along with the other foreign Jews in Prague.
But that was a different time, when the community of some 1,500 was so inwardly focused that tourists' knocks on the door of its headquarters were often met with a harsh rebuffs.
"Go away, this is not the museum," was the retort I once got from the guard of the beautiful Baroque building in the heart of Prague's Old Town. I thought he would hit me with a flyswatter.
The second year, in preparation for more matzah derring-do, my colleague contacted a sympathetic rabbi.
Still unable to show what locals said was an "American face" for fear of revealing my outsider status, my Czech co-worker kindly agreed to fetch the matzah.
However, she was stopped by what she described as "some old crones" at the matzah pickup point who were not sure she qualified.
She dropped the rabbi's name, and they reluctantly handed it over.
Fast forward to 2006: "Now it's all over and everyone can get matzah, as well as lots of other kosher stuff. We have a fully stocked store," says the cheerful Rabbi Menachem Kalcheim, an Israeli assistant to the country's chief rabbi, Karel Sidon. "And if we run out of matzah, well, we'll just run to Vienna to get more. No problem."
He even has an English-speaking assistant at the rabbinate to take calls from matzah-hunting tourists.
Kalcheim explains that for years, the community was afraid to sell to outsiders because as a nonprofit organization it would take a loss if it overbought.
As for stores, a spokeswoman for Tesco, the leading purveyor of foreign imports in Prague, explained that although it had stocked matzah about six years ago, it didn't sell very well, so the store stopped buying it.
When my day of reckoning -- and shopping -- arrives, the security guards at Kalcheim's store are ready for all matzah seekers, shyly smiling and pointing them to the refurbished community store.
It's still only a corner with some closets, but now there's a frozen section with enough chicken and beef to keep a kosher refrigerator well stocked.
The friendly attendant also can offer matzah packages for $2 each, as well as gefilte fish.
Kalcheim says that the community will subsidize the cost for families, as the country's average monthly salary is $700.
While my matzah purchase was pleasantly painless, my other long-dreamt of treasure, macaroons, were sold out. Kalcheim insists I take his.
Instead, I begin calling the Chabad rabbi.
Will he take pity on me? Probably. Because as an American, he is one of few people in the Czech Republic who even knows what a macaroon is.