How smart were our forebears?
Without a single pad, pod or phone, indeed back when the only angry birds were the ones wondering who got the worm first, our elders figured out a way to keep children awake and excited for a whole night of religious discourse. They invented an app called the afikomen.
That little bit of matzo, hidden during the Seder, works miracles second to only the parting of the Red Sea. Not only do the kids look forward to the hunt all night, they later think back on it all the days of their lives. And by “all the days,” I mean all the days and nights, and some of the really boring afternoons at work, too. I sure remember the time I hid the matzo in the refrigerator. Was I 8? 9? 10? Don’t know. But I do know that this engendered at least as much conversation as why we say “we” and not “they” were taken out of Egypt. Because at the time, “they” — the other cousins — were pretty convinced I’d cheated.
Ask folks to conjure up an afikomen moment, and up pop long-forgotten (or, alternatively, still painfully fresh) rivalries and triumphs. “I wish I still had it,” Melissa Gold said, thinking back not on the actual afikomen, but on the ribbon she got for finding it when she was 8 (she’s now 36.)
“My uncle’s a rabbi, so he gets all of these prizes. This one was a little octagonal piece of matzo with googly eyes on it, and it said, ‘I Found the Afikomen.’ I loved it.” It was especially sweet, says Gold, now a restaurant publicist in Falls Church, Va., because her sister hunted the afikomen the way Hemingway hunted elephants: “I think she had kids just so she had an excuse to continue the tradition — and win. She’ll let her kids win at board games, but she’s full throttle when it comes to looking for the afikomen, which is why I held on to the ribbon for so long.” For the record, Gold added, her sister says she saw it first — but too bad: “She didn’t get her hands on it.”
Menachem Engel, an investment manager in Newton, Mass., understands the intensity of that memory. He comes from the family tradition where the children, not the adults, hide the matzo. At the end of the meal, Grandpa would start trying to bribe one child, and then the next, to tell him where it was hidden, because the Seder can’t end until the afikomen is eaten. “My grandfather would say, ‘If you tell me where it is, I’ll give you a prize and I won’t give it to anyone else,’” Engel recalled. “It’s like the prisoner’s dilemma.” If no one tells, everybody wins. But if one kid caves, that one wins and everyone else loses. This taught the cousins to look out for each other — in part because if anyone blabbed, “the other kids would beat you up!” Engel said. But then, one Passover, his brother told: “He must’ve been 7 — that’s 25 years ago — and we still talk about the time Ari sold out the other kids.”
His betrayal has become as oft-told as the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. (And even Pharaoh didn’t steal his cousin’s sliver dollars.)
Usually it seems to be the afikomen accidents and injustices that get woven into family legend. Author and prosecutor Jill Starishevsky always remembers the time she put the tinfoil-covered matzo in the perfect spot: “The good news: No one found it where I hid it, inside the VCR. The bad news: The tinfoil demagnetized the VCR, and it never worked again.”
Over at the home of Jeff Levine, now communications manager of The Culinary Institute of America, Mom accidentally ate the afikomen. “So, I guess technically, that Seder still hasn’t ended,” Levine said. Nor has the one attended by Stafford “Doc” Williamson, where he, 30-something at the time, was the youngest in attendance. When he couldn’t find the afikomen’s hiding place… no one else could remember where they put it. Then there was the time Rena Resnick’s brother Joey hid the matzo and fell asleep, fully dressed, before anyone found it. The next morning, he revealed its hiding place: inside his shoes.
Rabbi Peretz Hochbaum, director of Camp Kaylie in Wurtsboro, N.Y., had cousins who hid the napkin-wrapped matzo in a pile of laundry. “It was a piece of linen hidden in the linens,” he said. A long night.
Josh Goldsmith, a guide at Jerusalem’s Genesis Land, remembers an equally meta-matzo moment: “I must’ve been 8 or 9. We were at a Seder at the rabbi’s house in Grand Rapids, Mich., and I was the only kid there.” As such, it was his job to “steal” the matzo and hide it — which he did, in the rabbi’s own suit pocket. “At dessert, he put his jacket back on and asked me to play ‘hot and cold,’” Goldsmith said. This proved existential. “He’d walk to one side of the room, and I’d say, ‘You’re very hot!’ And then to the other, ‘You’re hot over there, too!’” Finally? “We had to tell him.”
Every year, the afikomen gets hidden, but every year it reveals something, too: how old stories hold together families, and even a people. Hide your matzo well, and it just may keep showing up for generations.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book “Free-Range Kids” (Wiley, 2010) and the founder of a blog of the same name.