“Rhapsody in Schmaltz”: Matzah and Michael Wex

\'There are those who say that God gave us cardboard so that we could describe the taste of matzoh, but taste is what matzoh is not about,” Michael Wex writes in his new book, “Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It.”
April 14, 2016

'There are those who say that God gave us cardboard so that we could describe the taste of matzoh, but taste is what matzoh is not about,” Michael Wex writes in his new book, “Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It.” 

“Rhapsody” is Wex’s provocative meditation on the crucial role food plays in keeping Jews Jewish. At the heart of his argument lies Passover, a holiday whose central ritual revolves around a meal that is festive and reflective, concrete and symbolic.

For Wex, the matzo is the ultimate Jewish food, in its originality, its longevity and its symbolism. “An aftertaste of oppression at a feast of deliverance,” is how he describes it.

In focusing our attention not on taste or — heaven knows, flavor — the matzo is the ultimate “brain food” — it forces you to think. In the excerpt below, Wex describes the starring role matzos play at the seder table, and how a dry cracker proved crucial to shaping and maintaining a people.'

While few contemporary seders are as momentous as the first, those that follow the traditional ritual are largely devoted to reinforcing the attitudes and beliefs that that seder was there to encourage. A sacrifice designed to distinguish Israelites from Egyptians has developed into an annual all-you-can-eat, semi-open bar symposium on the Exodus and its meaning. Like any proper symposium — the word means “drinking together” in Greek — it starts off with a glass of wine, after which the chief symposiast, generally known as Dad or Zeyde — Yiddish for grandpa — points to the three matzohs stacked before him and declares, in an Aramaic that he might not understand, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” For the next few hours, you’re his. 

Michael Wex. Photo by Zöe Gemelli

The length of the seder depends on the leader’s frame of mind, the size of the group, and the number of timeouts needed to threaten or cajole increasingly restive children, whose levels of boredom-stoked hunger rise in proportion to the adults’ interest in reciting and discussing the text of the Hagaddah, the ritual GPS — “Raise glass here”; “Dip finger in wineglass now” — that is part program, part menu, part interpretive overview of the Exodus. Hagaddah means narrative, and the ritual that it both embodies and describes is devoted to explaining why you’re going to eat that matzoh, even as you start to despair of when. You look at it, you hold it up, you point to it and discuss its history — but it’s a long time before you get to eat it. And even then, you don’t just cram it into your mouth; if you don’t follow the proper procedure — an olive’s worth from each of the top two matzohs in the stack, eaten as you lean to your left after Dad has made the blessing — you might as well watch the hockey game. The matzoh is the climax; the endless waiting and arguing and rehearsal of minority opinions the casuistic Kama Sutra that gets you there.

The matzoh is followed by an equally obligatory appetizer of bitter herbs, anything from Romaine lettuce or arugula to the traditional, if halachically suspect, horseradish, strong enough to call forth tears, but not so potent as to raise any gorges. The chosen herb is dipped into charoses, a paste of walnuts, apples, cinnamon, and wine meant to remind us of the bricks and mortar with which the Egyptians embittered our ancestors’ lives. One final appetizer follows, a party sandwich that fulfills the commandment in Exodus 12:8 about eating matzoh and bitter herbs together. Finally — at ten, ten-thirty, or even later — the menu blossoms into a lavish, less over-determined supper that my family always started with hard-boiled eggs in salt water — a little treat for the kids — after which the second half of the Hagaddah is recited.

This primal Jewish meal has more to do with discussion than digestion; you’re meant to feed your head, not stuff your face. The real treat isn’t dinner, which is only standing in for the Paschal sacrifice that can’t be offered before the Messiah arrives; the gustatory high point is the matzoh. Tension is supposed to build, the participants are supposed to get more and more anxious, more and more involved in the story, attaining release only when the leader distributes the matzoh, recites the usual blessing over the bread and follows it up with a special, seder-only benediction, “On the eating of matzoh.” Then, and only then, does mouth meet matzoh, and longing — fulfillment.

It doesn’t matter what it tastes like, we’ve been jonesing for it, especially since matzoh is otherwise banned on the day of the seder, and bread — if you can find any — has been off-limits since midmorning. It isn’t really nourishment that we crave — we invented Yom Kippur, we know from not eating — but a Jew loves matzoh like it was sweet jelly roll:

Matzoh is forbidden all day on the eve of Passover, as our sages have told us: “He who eats matzoh on Passover eve is like a man who has sex with his fiancée in her father’s house” [Yerushalmi Pesokhim, 10:1]. Our sages have decreed that anyone who has sex with his fiancée while she is still a ward of her father is to be flogged for his willful disregard of proper standards of behavior: in displaying his lust, he shows himself lecherous and lewd, unable to restrain himself long enough to hear the Seven Blessings with her beneath the wedding canopy. So does he who eats matzoh on Passover eve display his lust and his gluttony, his inability to restrain himself and wait until nighttime and the seven blessings that must be pronounced before eating matzoh … and he is likewise to be flogged for his willfulness.

It is hard to imagine how something so lacking in the usual attributes of good eating — things like taste, texture, and aroma — could arouse such passion, but matzoh is more than mere food; it’s the essence of Judaism — what Yiddish calls dos pintele yid, the irreducible nub of Jewishness — wrapped up in a biscuit. Mordechai Yoffe, the late sixteenth/early seventeenth-century author of the passage just quoted, is expressing the standard idea that even the coarsest, most uncouth Jew can see through the fripperies of moistness and flavor to the real essence of this Diana Prince of the bake pan. Lust he might, but for the freedom of yidishkayt, of Jewishness, in all its crunchy, nutlike splendor. The matzoh-hound looks past the matzoh’s workaday exterior to the divine spark that makes it what it is; instead of the crudest imaginable cracker, he sees an edible image of his soul, a crispy, immediately tangible version of his spiritual genome, and nothing’s going to keep him from it. Without matzoh there would be no Jews, the Torah would have stayed in heaven, and no one would ever have heard of kosher. 

Michael Wex is the author of fiction and nonfiction books and a speaker on Yiddish language and culture. He lives in Toronto.

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