Taste of Freedom: Passover - #109

BURT WOLF: Most of our holidays and celebrations were developed to mark the cycles of nature and they have taken place in traditional forms for centuries.

They bind the past to the present and predict the future. They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.

But when these ceremonies arrived in America, they started to change. No longer controlled by convention these ancient celebrations began to evolve. They had gotten their first Taste of Freedom and they would never be the same.


BURT WOLF: During the forty years from 1880 to 1920, three and a half million Jews passed through Ellis Island in New York Harbor.  Almost half came from Eastern Europe where Jews were being suppressed.  They found asylum in America and for most of them it was their first taste of freedom—the first time that they could openly celebrate their religious holidays without fear of oppression. And the holiday that was and still is observed by more American Jews than any other is Passover—the celebration commemorates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. It’s an opportunity for families to pass on the story of the Exodus from Egypt and to embrace their freedom.

RABBI WOLK ON CAMERA: Passover is the story of a journey. It is a journey from slavery into freedom, a journey from Egypt to Canaan, to what became the Promised Land. The story begins approximately 3,000 years ago when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, and a man by the name of Moses, out walking in the desert one day heard the voice of God, or assumed he heard the voice of God, and God said, “Moses, I want you to go to Egypt, go see the Pharaoh and tell Pharaoh, let my people go”. Rather presumptuous, Moses hesitated but then he did it, and went to Egypt, went and saw Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s reaction was what you would expect. “Sorry, Moses, not a chance. Those people are my slaves. I need them. They’re my workers”. As a result, Moses brought a series of plagues, ten plagues against the Egyptians. The plagues can be considered as miracles. The plagues can also be explained scientifically. For instance, the first plague, the Nile turns to blood. What was this? Perhaps a bacteria, the red tide, but that then caused another plague in which the frogs that obviously were no longer happy living in the Nile, because who wants to swim in polluted waters, went on to the land and began to die and then were attacked by the gnats and by the flies and this created disease.

And so there was a causal aspect to all of these plagues. Well, Pharaoh still wouldn’t let the children of Israel go until the tenth and final plague, the plague in which the first born Egyptian sons died. And this began with the Hebrews placing some of the blood from a lamb on their door posts. And God then went over, or passed over the Hebrews’ homes, which is where the name Passover comes from, and smote the Egyptians. When Pharaoh’s son died in the process, Pharaoh then said to Moses, “you can go”.

BURT WOLF: And they did ---as fast as they could.


BURT WOLF: On the first night of Passover, Jews hold a Seder. Seder is a Hebrew word meaning “structured or ordered”. Families gather at the Seder meal and retell the story of Passover.

Hanna Levy is an Israeli-born composer who began her career when she served as a performer in the Israeli army. Her parents were from Holland and moved to Israel in 1940. Her husband, Benjamin is an artist from Yemen. They raised their four children in this apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan.

The story of Passover is read from a book called a Haggadah, which means “book of legends”. Haggadahs can be a work of art. Each country has its own approach to the Haggadah.

HANNA LEVY ON CAMERA: Our particular Seder, we do a lot of music.  Since I'm a musician, I sit at the piano. We have our traditional songs that we all grew up on in Israel.  And, of course, we taught to our children and we do some of it, of course, in English, too, because we always have non-speaking Hebrew guests at the table. What really is important about Passover, aside from the fact that it brings the family always together and it's a strong tradition, and strong traditions is what keeps families together, is to remember that whatever happened then, is something that is always relevant and they say in every generation a person is supposed to see himself as he personally left Egypt.

RABBI WOLK ON CAMERA: The Seder really is told through visual effects, and we have a Seder plate that is in front of everybody that has certain symbols.  Each symbol represents one aspect of the Passover story. For instance, there are three matzos.  The matzos is the unleavened bread that did not have time to rise because the Hebrews left in haste.  Then there's a shank bone, which was the sacrifice, the Pascal sacrifice of thanksgiving for freedom.  There is moror, which is a bitter herb, it's usually horseradish, and that represents the bitterness of slavery. There's a little bit of parsley, which represents springtime, but the parsley is dipped into salt water, and those are the tears of oppression.  There's an egg, which is the symbol of mourning. It's a roasted egg and that's placed on the plate as well.  And then there's haroset. It symbolizes the mud brick that the Hebrews used when they had to build buildings and were slaves to Pharaoh. 

BURT WOLF: During the evening four cups of wine are poured for each person. They represent four divine promises: freedom, deliverance, redemption and release. Christ’s Last Supper was a Passover Seder and the central messages of Easter are the same as the promises of Passover.

In the center of the table is a special cloth that holds three pieces of dry flat bread called matzos. At one point in the ceremony a piece of the matzos is removed from the cloth and broken in half—one half remains on the table, the other, known as the Afikomen, is hidden somewhere in the house while the seder continues.

RABBI WOLK ON CAMERA: Afikomen is a Greek word.  It means dessert.  It might also mean I've had enough food. That is a possible interpretation, since it comes at the end of the meal and you've been eating for hours.  Or it might mean, I want to go to sleep, which after you've eaten a lot of food is a normal response.  It could be any of those roots, but it is a Greek word.  The Afikomen is half of a matzos that's been hidden; children go to find the Afikomen.  Whoever finds it has a little prize.  One of the pragmatics of the hiding of the matzos is that the children stay awake, because no one wants to sleep through the meal and through the service if they have an opportunity to have a prize, and so this is a little bit of baiting is that the children stay awake. But there is another aspect to the Afikomen.  We break the Afikomen, and that perhaps says to us that our world is still broken. Our world is not whole, and it’s little children that will put it together again.

BURT WOLF: The Seder table has a large cup of wine set aside for the prophet Elijah, who is expected to appear on Passover night and announce the arrival of the Messiah, who will bring peace to the world. At the end of the service, the door to the house is opened, allowing the spirit of the Prophet to enter and take a sip of wine.


RABBI WOLK ON CAMERA: The major dietary rules concern themselves with avoiding any food items that might ferment; in other words, food items that have yeast in it.  You would stay away from bread, you would stay away from cake, you would stay away from many grains.  You can't drink beer at Passover, because that's a fermented liquor.

BURT WOLF: The food that replaces the bread is the matzos, which symbolizes the “bread of affliction”—the unleavened dough that the Jews brought into the desert as they left Egypt.  The people who have the most traditional approach to the making of matzos are in the Hasidic community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York. Beryl Epstein is a rabbi who takes visitors on a tour of the area.

RABBI BERYL EPSTEIN ON CAMERA: I like to say that I've become the visitor's representative to really see what's going on inside the community.  There's been so many movies about Hasidim, Yentl, Chosen, a Stranger Among Us, Fiddler on the Roof, that depict Hasidic life from the outside.  But they don't really give, let's say, the real story, what's going on inside the Hasidic community.

You have to understand that the main place in Jewish life is not the synagogue.  It is the home.  The home is where the education takes place.  Home is where the couple, husband and wife, strive for peace, in their home. And the woman is called the Akeres Habayis, the foundation of the home.  So really the women are the foundation of Jewish life. The synagogue, the man needs to go there to elevate himself.  But a woman is Godly to begin with.  So that is why it seemingly looks that the woman is de-emphasized in the synagogue, because actually her emphasis is the foundation of Jewish life, which is the home.

A Torah is a Hebrew Bible Scroll.  That's the first five books of Moses.  There are 304,805 letters in a Torah. When the scribe writes a Torah, he has to look into a Torah scroll, or book.  He has to say the letters, look at the letters, say the letters, and then write the letters.  So that, every letter and every word will be permeated with his intention, because it has every action that a person has can be either a meaningless act, or a very meaningful act.

Rabbi Clapman, he’s a very interesting guy. He lectures all over the world. And also he makes all his own ingredients.  He cuts his feather.  He takes the raw hides, from the skins and prepares them himself in his basement.  And he also makes his own ink so that and that's very rare for a scribe to do it.  But he wants absolute control, because any process that is out of synch or not done properly would invalidate the Torah.

It's fascinating looking at the Torah.  You cannot see that there's any lines on the Torah.  But actually there are engraved lines.  According to Jewish law, there has to be those lines just made with a piece of metal in order that every line starts at the same point, and also Hebrew letters are written not like on English, on a line at the bottom.  But they are always written from top down, just like the flow of Godliness into the world is from above below. 

BURT WOLF: Passover matzos making in Crown Heights takes place in the Shmurah bakery.

RABBI BERYL EPSTEIN ON CAMERA: Shmurah means, "guarded."  And it's guarded from the time the wheat is harvested from moisture.  See, that which a Jewish person is forbidden to eat on Passover is flour and water mixed together with no other ingredients will become bread in after 18 minutes. 

The process of making matzos at the matzos bakery is that first flour is poured into the mixing bowl, then the well water is poured into the mixing bowl.  And they are mixed as fast as possible.  Once he's finished mixing it thoroughly, it is now taken to a table where it's handed out to woman all around a table who are eagerly awaiting that matzos to roll it out as thin as they can similar to a pancake. It will come out to about 12 or 14 inches round.  It's then hung on a long rod about eight feet long.  And then taken into the matzos oven, where it is laid flat and cooked on both sides at one time, at about 30 seconds, and then taken out of the oven.

They're very strict about every aspect of the matzos bakery. Every tablecloth, which is brown paper, the mixing bowl also is changed.  So, every 18 minutes, it’s a new matzos bakery because anything from the previous 18-minute matzos would contaminate the next 18-minute matzos.  So it really is an amazing process of dedication that in no way, shape, or form should there be any speck of chometz, or bread leavening, associated with the matzos itself.  And therefore, actually the more burnt the matzos is the better, because that means even more well done.

Shmurah matzos is worked, so to speak, dedicated by people who love the mitzvah, and who want other people to love the mitzvah. "Mitzvah", actually means, "Commandment."  But it also means, "connection," so that when a person eats the matzos, the goal is to actually overcome and get out of our own personal Egypt, which is freedom from our own desires so that we can serve God with a full heart.

BURT WOLF: At the moment the Hebrews got word that it was time to begin their escape from Egypt they were in the process of baking bread but they didn’t have time to let the dough rise so they took their unleavened bread and raced into the desert.

RABBI DANIEL WOLK: And that's the beginning of the journey.  The journey would then be a journey for 40 years, with some difficult moments along the way.  Not long after the Hebrews were freed, they encountered the Red Sea in front of them and the pursuing Egyptian armies behind them, and then in that wonderful picture we see the waters of the Red Sea splitting, the Hebrews go through, the Egyptians with their chariots and heavy armor are swept under.

RABBI DANIEL WOLK ON CAMERA: And we again call this a miracle.  It's also possible that it was low tide and that's how the Hebrews were able to cross, and it's also possible that this is symbolic.  That the Hebrews realized that if they just sit by the shore and don't move on in their lives, they're going to be extinguished.  And when you move forward, obstacles, water, your life parts and you can go ahead.  And maybe this is as true today as it was then, only those who move forward can find their life to be productive.  And so that becomes the journey of Passover.


BURT WOLF: In 1980, Sarabeth Levine started selling marmalade that she made from an old family recipe. Today, Sarabeths’ preserves are sold in over 500 stores throughout the world. She has three restaurants, including one in The Whitney Museum of American Art, a fully automated jam factory and her own bakery where she makes macaroons, which are traditionally served at Passover. The name macaroon comes from an Italian word that means “paste”.  And it was Italian Jews that introduced the flourless cookie to the Passover menu.

The zest of an orange goes into a pot of syrup made from sugar and water.  The seeds of a vanilla bean are mixed in.  Unsweetened chopped-up coconut goes into a standing mixer.  The sugar syrup goes in.  Then the whites of four eggs are added.


BURT WOLF: Half the batter is scooped onto a parchment covered tray.  The remaining batter gets mixed with some frozen chopped raspberries – more flavor, more color.  Then the raspberry macaroon batter gets scooped onto a parchment covered tray.  Both trays go into a preheated oven for about 25 minutes.

When they come out, they cool and are ready to eat.  Chewy and moist - these are definitely not to be passed over. 


RABBI DANIEL WOLK: When the Jews came to this country, I feel that one very major aspect occurred, and that was the desire to have freedom for all peoples.  As the Jew began to assimilate, more and more, and become very much a part of the fabric of America, and become very well accepted in America, we then became all inclusive.  The seders became interfaith seders, interracial seders, in recent times of course there's been much more emphasis placed on the feminist movement, freedom seders. Once we became free, we felt it was our duty to extend those freedoms to others, and to make the generic aspects of America our own, and these are represented by the diversity of Seder experiences.

BURT WOLF: A Passover Seder is usually a family affair held in someone’s house, but it can also be a more public event in a restaurant. The Passover feast offered by Famous Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse in New York is a unique example. In truth, there is no famous Sammy. There isn’t even a Sammy and the place is really not on any recognized list of New York steakhouses.

STAN ZIMMERMAN ON CAMERA: I opened the restaurant in 1975.  And it's been a true experience since then.  I know one thing that I might be the owner, but my customers are the boss. 

BURT WOLF: The dining room looks like the set for a low budget bar mitzvah movie.

DAVID ZIMMERMAN: I call it Jewish wallpaper. It tells a lot of history about the place.  People put up their business cards, their pictures.  There's no frames.  People bring it in and we just tape it to the wall. If you need a good doctor, you can pull it off the wall.  It's very funny.  And people put up their pictures; could be them when they were a baby.  And then we write something.  Call me when I'm 21 or something like that. Available in 2009.

STAN ZIMMERMAN: Passover is an event.  It's something special.  It's like being at grandma's house or great grandma's house.  I remember when Passover was in the Bronx where I was born. My mother used to say to the neighbors, "What are you doing for Passover?"  And the neighbor would pick her face up a little and she say, "I'm going to my sister's house."  And my mother would say "Great.  Could I borrow your table and chairs?" 

BURT WOLF: At Sammy’s, each table is set with a bowl of pickles and roasted peppers and a syrup dispenser filled with liquid chicken fat. The traditional dietary laws that govern Jewish cooking forbid the mixing of meat and milk or milk-based products, which means that butter and meat can’t end up on the same dish. The substitute for butter is the chicken fat known as schmaltz. We started off with chopped liver mixed with schmaltz, fried onions, radishes and a little salt and pepper.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Would you consider this a weapon of mass destruction?

CANTOR ON CAMERA: I’m going to ask those of you who can, out of respect for the holiday, to rise.

BURT WOLF: Everyone at the Seder table, who can read, reads from the Haggadah, but children are given a special role. The youngest child, capable of taking on the task asks the four questions and in so doing the story of Passover is retold. 

YOUNG GIRL ON CAMERA: Leavened or unleavened bread, but on this night only unleavened bread.

BURT WOLF: After the Seder, more food—matzah ball soup, steak, potato pancakes, mashed potatoes mixed with schmaltz and for dessert macaroons. And to wash it all down--you’re choice of vodka, Manischewitz wine or seltzer. Now I understand why Alan King once said that when he makes a reservation at Sammy’s, he also makes one at the cardiac care center at St. Vincent’s hospital. 

Saliou Diouf is the chef at Sammy’s. He came to the United States from Senegal and has a great appreciation of the Taste of Freedom.

The Pilgrims who came to America to escape oppression in England compared their flight to the Exodus. In the American South, slaves sang of the Exodus as they dreamed of winning their own freedom. And whenever the story of the Exodus is told at a Passover Seder, the objective is always to highlight the parallels between the story of Passover, the people present at the Seder, and our modern struggle for justice, and freedom from oppression. For Taste of Freedom, I’m Burt Wolf.