Illustration (Image credit: Wix)
Thinking ahead was not a priority.
When I first started traveling, a combination of inexperience, youthful exuberance, and possibly a slight dose of stupidity enabled me to venture out one day into a new city unarmed. Certainly I was prepared with a tourist’s guide, local currency, and a list of every kosher restaurant located within the closest two latitudes - but I forgot one essential!
Any traveler who has negotiated strange territory without the minimal emergency provision of at least one kosher candy bar can tell what a regrettable experience that is. The splendor and excitement of visiting historical landmarks and feasting on the beauty of centuries-old works of art fade as the insinuations of hunger begin to appear. The beauty of a familiar kosher candy bar wrapper assumes a greater priority and becomes a more compelling art form than anything else.
The duel between the ethereal beauty of radiant works of art and the requirements of the physical took hold of me when I was wandering in an unfamiliar district in Paris. Though I had never been there before, at least not in my present incarnation, I knew for certain that this quintessentially genteel French arrondissement would not contain within its imposing boulevards or circuitous ivy-draped lanes anything kosher.
My desperation and rapidly dwindling blood sugar spurred my creative instincts and yielded a glimmer of hope. A fancy emporium containing imported edibles might contain some product that was kosher!
It didn’t take much effort to find a shop with a collection of the world's finest — and certainly costliest — imported food. Among the collection of choicest items of scintillating, sculptured chocolates wrapped in gold mesh, wines with their provenance etched in crystal presentation decanters, and caviar costing more than my plane ticket was a familiar sight. A presentation at the center of the high ceiling wooden paneled room filled with antique marble inserts contained the very best that this store had to offer.
In the middle of the crystal, caviar, and competing shades of amber reflected from the procession of haughty wines was a familiar box. Center stage of this carefully choreographed collection that was designed to tease the taste buds and empty the pockets of the most dedicated connoisseur was a box of matzah.
This box of matzah, in all its unpretentious glory, looked exactly like the one that one finds on their kitchen table. Seeing it there, so unexpectedly, was as good or even a better surprise than meeting an old dear friend. Years later, I still cannot figure out what a box of matzah was doing there. The incongruity of the matzah in this venue still piques my interest. After all, our tradition and palates clearly regard matzah as the quintessential symbol of the hungry and the humble. It is only our spiritual sensitivity that enables us to recognize matzah for its true worth. Curiously, some Frenchman got it right, if only by accident.
You never know where matzah will show up!
I didn’t actually buy the matzah. Somehow seeing it was enough to curb my hunger. Who knows how deep or how high a soul satisfying encounter can uplift oneself above the confines of physical necessity?
There is custom to preserve a piece of the afikoman matzah as a segulah (a protective charm of sorts) for a safe trip. Though the splendiferous Kabbalistic reasons for this eludes me, I still pack a piece of carefully packaged afikoman whenever I travel. I don’t need to know how or why it works - I believe that it does.
Maybe it is because one who has ever tasted a piece of matzah, Leshem Mitzvah (for the sake of the commandment), is never lost. As long as his soul has savored a piece, there is always the chance that he will find himself, even if one is so lost that he doesn’t even know it.
A Path of Matzah Crumbs
An American soldier of Spanish descent was delighted to see the round flat cakes that were distributed to the Jewish soldiers in his platoon during Pesach. They looked just like the flat round cakes that his mother baked in the spring for just about a week. It was his family’s tradition to eat these cakes, and he was positively astounded to discover the Judaic connection to them.
It was the discovery of these flat round cakes called matzah that inspired this non-Jewish American soldier to investigate his remote family roots. He found that his family was indeed of Jewish origin, and the only pathway that remained connecting his family to the fractured memory of their Jewish past was a pathway strewn with matzah crumbs. A prominent journalist embarked upon the discovery of his Jewish roots fueled by the precious few remnants of Jewish customs that survived his parents' conversion to Christianity. His parents luxuriated in their prominence and participation in the Christian society that they chose for themselves. But that did not stop his father from eating matzah when he returned from Church services each Sunday.
Considering his father’s lifestyle and commitments, his culinary habit could not be more curious or strange. A mere curiosity, or perhaps his soul’s intransigent refusal to comply with his attempt to abandon his roots? His soul’s way, perhaps, of preserving an irradiant anchor that would remain an incongruent flicker of light to help his son find his way home. It is curious that after generations, Jews who have abandoned all semblances of Mitzvot and make no pretense of eating kosher still cling to certain eating patterns. These patterns somehow give their souls enough nourishment to retain in some invisible niche deeply embedded in their being an invisible tie, which is potent enough, despite its seemingly fragile composition, to help them return home.
They seek out Jewish-style cooking even when the actual ingredients are completely treif. Restaurants that make no pretense at being kosher — and certainly not kosher for Passover — display a box of matzah in a prominent spot. Curious for sure.
Portuguese Christians who have lived on the outskirts of Lisbon for centuries were discovered in the 1930s to still maintain the custom of descending deep into their cellars and baking matzah, safely hidden from the prying eyes of their neighbors. The custom of baking matzah while wearing white clothing and reciting special prayers has remained a cherished practice, along with their practice of Christianity.
Their interminable brand of Christian and Jewish practices leaves an observer unable to decide if they are "good Jews" who are "bad Christians," or are "good Christians" who are "bad Jews." It is not certain if they are still even halachically Jewish. Yet still they persist with an unfathomable persistence in clinging to the Mitzvah of baking and eating matzah.
Their taste for matzah, one of the few hidden yet discernible expressions of their historic ties to conventional Judaism, has endured and even outlived their halachic definition of Jewishness, revealing the awe-inspiring ability of a seemingly humble Mitzvah to transcend the natural progression of time and place.
Long after even the conscious reasons for observance of a Mitzvah have been forgotten, they remain an indelible lifeline whose radiance reverberates with a scintillating cogency even after centuries. There are descendents of these Portuguese Christian families who have undergone conversion to Judaism and are living in Jerusalem today. Who can fathom the power of a Mitzvah?
Aficionados who delight in morsels of culinary history say that Roman Pizza was imported by Roman soldiers from ancient Israel. These soldiers added tomato sauce to matzah in order to enhance its taste, and when they returned to Italy they brought with them the matzah and sauce that they reincarnated into Roman pizza. Today Roman pizza still is a flat, dry bread with tomato sauce and no cheese. Perhaps the latest kosher for Pesach products like pizza pies are not the blithe aberrations that they seem to be. Maybe our generation's proclivity for kosher sushi, vegetarian bacon, and parve cheesecake has a message deeper than simply easing the path for people who were accustomed to eating non-kosher and now want to conform to the laws of Kashrut. Perhaps these innovations are meant to prepare us for the changes in our long established ways of looking at the ordinary and mundane elements in our life. According to a tradition, during the time of Mashiach the chazir (pig) will “return” and become kosher. The parameters of the physical world as we know it will be refined and uplifted to a higher dimension. Even the animal that has for centuries been uniformly identified in the Jewish mind as representing the ultimate treif will become kosher.
The newly defined dimensions and capabilities will enable us to attain greater mastery over the physical world, and will reveal a greater symmetry between the physical and spiritual spheres. We think of our history and the progression of our souls through the generations as a linear trek, starting at a beginning and culminating at an end. Maybe our perception of a beginning and an end are wrong.
Our lives and our deeds are really circular - they go round and round. It is a great comfort to know that a soul, no matter how far it has strayed, nor how deeply buried it is beneath the ravages of the pendulous Galut (exile) that has robbed it of its identity, always has a chance of being found.
Does the soul recognize and attach itself to tastes and smells long after the body has abandoned any memory of or conscious tie to a particular taste? Does this affinity transcend our selves, our cells? Our lives, like matza, go round and round. If ever we — or an ancestor — experienced the taste of matza, perhaps we can expect that this soul will be given another chance. Isn’t that what Pesach Sheni, the second Passover for those who missed the first, is about?
Darla Chavkin Stone's features have appeared in magazines, news publications, and research journals in the US, England, Israel, Mexico, and on the web. She is the editor of "Explorations In Soular Space"