This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
If you‘re ever looking for descriptions of life in the shtetl, the most informative source is the work of B. Gorin (1868-1925). Though he was best known as the author of the first history of the Yiddish theater, Gorin was also a great writer with a special eye towards traditions and customs, both in Europe and in America. He devoted one volume of stories, “Forgotten Songs” (1919), to the Jewish holidays. The chapters about Passover are chock full of tidbits about old Passover traditions. Here are just a sample:
1. Among tailors, shoemakers and hat makers, business was best during the weeks before Passover
Since Passover is a spring holiday, Jews celebrated not only the renewal of the earth, but spiritual rebirth as well. They would order new clothes in advance and wear them for the first time the day before Passover. When children wore a new outfit, people would notice and wish them “Tiskhadeysh,” meaning “Wear it in good health.” According to Gorin, the older women would add: “Farnits gezunt” and “gezunt zolstu trogn” – all variants of the same good wishes. Christians had a similar custom: They would celebrate Easter by wearing new clothes and bonnets.
Because not everyone could afford to buy an outfit every year, clothes for children were frequently bought in a larger size, so that they could grow into them and wear them for three or four years. This often had a comic effect, as young children walked around wearing garments that were several sizes too large.
2. Smoking cigarettes on Yom Tov brought people together.
Gorin recounts an interesting scene about smoking on Passover, when smoking is allowed, but lighting a match is not. You could therefore often see the following scene: A man would walk by smoking a cigarette or a pipe, and someone else would stop him in order to borrow his lit cigarette to light his own. Then others would stop the second man, and on it went. In this way, Passover managed to draw Jewish strangers together in a way that didn’t happen the rest of the year.
3. Everyone, regardless of age, would play with walnuts
Playing with walnuts was a popular Passover pastime. According to Gorin, it was played as follows: The first player would roll a nut called the “rosh,” the first one. Then, everyone else would roll theirs, and whoever’s nut was closest to the “rosh” won them all. The rules are similar to the Italian game of bocce.
4. The poor earned money by baking matzos
One of the most beautiful pre-Passover traditions is taking part in a “podrad,” a cooperative enterprise that enabled the poor to bake matzos for the community and, in this way, earn a few rubles and do a mitzvah. This tradition still persists in Hasidic circles. Gorin mentions seven roles assigned to the podrad participants: A water pourer, a flour pourer, a roller, a kneader, a perforator, someone who sets the matzos in the oven and the person who chooses the matzos from the bench.
In Yiddish literature, the podrad is usually portrayed as lively, happy work. But Gorin describes it differently: “The workers needed to take frequent naps because the job wasn’t easy. They had to stand on their feet 14 hours a day and roll the dough again and again until their hands swelled up and all their limbs ached.”
5. The grandmothers, not the parents, were the ones to make sure that their kids and grandkids celebrated Passover
Gorin also describes Passover in the New Country, on the Lower East Side of New York. Several of his stories describe the generational gap between the immigrants and their children. Often, the new immigrants were eager to leave their Jewish customs behind, but the traditional grandmothers would ensure that their children and grandchildren prepared for Passover and conducted seders.
The young ones were captivated by the legend of Elijah the Prophet, his stories, and Elijah’s Cup at the seder. They stayed up late, waiting for Eiljah to enter. Although the grandmothers often complained what a “goyish” country America was, they also acknowledged, listening to the haggadah, that the Jews in Russia really were enslaved since Jews never knew what terrible future might await them. In America, on the other hand, you could sleep soundly. There were other problems, but relatively speaking, it was certainly not as bad as it was in Europe. One story ends as follows: “It’s been so long since they’d had such a happy, enriching holiday. And yet, the memories of their hometown hovered over them, darkening their joy.”
For Gorin, Passover ties us not only to the history of Jews in Egypt, but also to the more recent history of the Jews in the shtetl and in turn-of-the-century New York.