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What's a Matzo?

by on April 15, 2015 6:30 AM

Jewish gentleman that I am, I tried to find a box of matzo at a State College supermarket last week.

I found an entire shelving unit stocked with matzo balls, matzo meal, matzorella sticks (kidding!) and all manner of other Passover foodstuffs, but not the holiday's staple item.

So when I got to the checkout line, I asked. The kid working the register didn't know from matzo.

"It's a Jewish cracker," one of his co-workers explained.

(Sounded like the makings of a joke to me:

Q: What do matzos and kibbutzniks have in common?

A: They're both Jewish crackers.)

Sounding embarrassed, the way one does when using an unfamiliar word, the kid called out, "Do we have any matzo?"

No one knew.

So we asked a more senior person at the service counter. They had had matzo, he said, but they were out. OK, whatev.

The checker finished scanning the rest of our groceries. "Have a good Easter," he said.

"Uh, you know how I just asked you about Jewish crackers?" I muttered. "Jews don't celebrate Easter."

I doubt the kid heard me. Just as well. I didn't want to give him a hard time. He probably was on customer-friendly autopilot when he wished me a happy Easter.

This little encounter surprised me, though. I grew up in and around New York City, where everyone except the DiPaolas down the street was Jewish (or so it seemed). I didn't grasp how un-Jewish the rest of the world was until I moved to the little Gold Rush town of Sonora, California.

I've never been an especially observant Jew, but once I became a father I decided to expose my progeny to some of the traditions I had grown up with. So I went in search of a Hanukkah menorah.

At most of the shops I visited, they not only didn't have menorahs; they didn't know what they were. At the five-and-dime on Sonora's main drag, the manager, who also happened to be the mayor (small towns), was incredulous.

"A menorah?" he exclaimed. (He looked like a white mouse.) "You're not going to find a menorah in Sonora!"

Mayor Mouse was right. I wasn't. There was no Jewish community to speak of in Sonora. There certainly wasn't a synagogue.

State College, on the other hand, has both those things (Penn State has the fifth-highest percentage of Jewish students among public universities nationwide), so I wasn't ready for the cluelessness of the kid in the supermarket. I suppose, though, that if you are not part of the university community hereabouts, you can get through life in Central Pennsylvania with very little exposure to matzos, menorahs and people who don't celebrate Easter.

In fact, 10 years or so ago one of my students told me, a propos of who knows what, that he had recently seen his first Jews at DelGrosso's Amusement Park in nearby Tipton. I asked how he knew they were Jewish. He described their black hats, beards and side locks.

We in the pedagogy biz call these teachable moments. You know, I said, not all Jews look like that. Take me, for example. He seemed genuinely surprised.

Readily identifiable Jews, which is to say, the ones often referred to as ultra-Orthodox, are almost as strange to us secular types as they would be to the matzo maven behind the supermarket register.

Not long ago I strolled across the Brooklyn Bridge and traversed the Jewish part of Williamsburg en route to the hipster part of Williamsburg. Here I was, among my co-religionists in a neighborhood less than 10 miles from the hospital where I was born, and I felt like a total foreigner.

Then there was the story in The New York Times last week about ultra-religious Jewish men who refuse to sit next to temptresses -- I mean, women -- on airplanes. I love this issue. The dominant ethos of our time is respect for difference. But how much should the dominant culture bend to accommodate religious beliefs that are so far out of the mainstream?

Times readers were generally unsympathetic. Charter a plane, some said. Stay home. Buy two seats. Ask the airline to accommodate your 12th-century seating needs when you book the ticket, not once you've boarded the plane.

Many of the commenters began by saying, "I'm Jewish, but...," which reminded me of my favorite Jewish joke:

Moshe is shipwrecked and stranded for many years on an uninhabited island. Finally, a ship comes to the rescue. Before sailing away, though, the ship's captain, curious about Moshe's life on the island, asks the castaway for a tour. So Moshe shows him his house, his garden and his two synagogues.

"I don't understand," says the captain. "Why would you build two synagogues?"

"Well, this is the one I go to every Shabbos," Moshe says, "and the other one, I wouldn't set foot in!"

Translation: We Jews are a diverse and disputatious lot. Some of us are indistinguishable from our Gentile neighbors – apart from our cravings for a little matzo on Passover.

 

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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