USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘jewish holiday’
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Rituals, festivals, holidays

Megilah Reading

Every Purim Jews congregate to listen to a reading from a book called the Megilah which features the backstory of Purim. It’s the most outwardly religious part of Purim. The congregation is encouraged to be active and loud, reacting verbally to every single mention of the characters’ names in the story. Mordecai and Ester (the Jewish heroes) get jubilant cheers every time their name is read while the bad guy Haman is booed. The congregation is even traditionally encouraged to drink so much that they can’t tell whose names to boo or cheer.

Again, this is the religious part of Purim but the encouragement to chime in makes it stand out from other Jewish holidays in a way that fits the extra cheerful celebration of Purim. While this folklorist’s congregation doesn’t drink during the reading, it does fit the rest of the relatively lax nature of the event.

Customs
Humor
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Stamp Out the Name

One tradition of the Jewish holiday Purim is to take measures to stamp out the name of Haman, the man who tried and failed to kill all Persian Jews in the Purim story. This manifests in other little traditions but one of the most literal involves people writing Haman’s name (in English or Hebrew) on the sole of their shoes so then they walk about stamping out the name throughout their day. Sometimes this is even paired with secondary events to maximize stamping such as a footrace.

While never personally observed by this folklorist (my synagogue doesn’t do this) this tradition stands out as a humorously obvious interpretation of the idea to stamp out the man’s name and ergo very believable. It’s an ancient, international holiday; someone has to have done this. The humor is assuredly intentional and adds to the joyous vibe of the rest of the holiday.

Folk Beliefs
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general
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Rituals, festivals, holidays

Matzah Pizza: Jewish Folk Cuisine

Context: I invited the informant to my dorm room at USC to work on the project collaboratively. He sat down next to me, and we began having a conversation about the passover holiday. He told me that Passover snacks were somewhat strange, but ultimately delicious. I inquired further, since I was unaware of the specific snacks that accompanied the holiday. I began recording, and asked the informant to tell me about his favorite Passover snack.

Transcription:

EG: Oh man, it would have to be matzah pizza.

WD: Matzah pizza? What’s that?

EG: So, Passover is the celebration or annual remembrance of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. In the biblical story, one aspect of it is, when they were preparing to leave and escape from the Egyptians, they started baking bread. But, they had to leave, like rush to leave, so there was no time for the bread to rise in the oven. So, it’s all this flat stuff…

WD: Yeah, like, the unleavened bread, right?

EG: Yeah exactly. Anyways, so now we eat this thing called matzah, it’s like, unleavened bread or kind of like a cracker.

WD: But what’s matzah pizza? I’ve never heard of that before.

EG: So, the diet restricts you… or, people who strictly adhere to the diet of passover don’t eat anything that has any, like, bread related products or anything, except for the matzah, since it’s so symbolic. So, it’s hard to think of any good snacks to eat, but one thing that’s easy is to take a piece of matzah, put some tomato sauce on it, put some cheese on it,  maybe a little garlic…

WD: Oh, I see where this is going…

EG: Yeah, maybe some basil even… you put that baby in the oven and it’s a great snack.

WD: So it’s almost, like, a comfort food, huh?

EG: It is a comfort food. And it’s turned into one of those things where… where I really like matzah pizza now, and I’ll look forward to it. You know, Passover’s not, like, usually the most fun holiday, so it gives me something to look forward to.

WD: Oh, so you know that whenever Passover comes around, the matzah pizza’s comin’ too?

EG: Yeah, exactly. It’s not really something I eat normally, just around the Passover season.

Informant:The informant is a 19 year old student at the University of Southern California. He is from Memphis, Tennessee, and is Jewish-American. The informant attended high school at Memphis University School in Tennessee, a unisex private catholic school. The informant’s parents and family have been making the snack since as long as he can remember, and he’s grown a strange affinity for the particular food.

Analysis: This food is highly symbolic for the Jewish peoples, but it also integrates Italian culture into the dish. Since, around the Passover season, strict practitioners of the Jewish faith are prevented from eating raised bread, they have created alternatives to their favorite foods. Matzah pizza is no exception, as it adds new flavors to the traditional matzah cracker. Contemporarily, the dish has become a staple of the religious holiday, and Jewish peoples look forward to making and eating the dish. Although it doesn’t necessarily match the flavor quality of pizza, it has a distinct flavor that Jewish children learn to love at a young age. Not only does it provide a direct tie to the religious faith of the Jewish peoples, but it has also evolved into a type of comfort food during the Passover season. 

For another recipe for matzah pizza and other Passover snacks, see Randi Sherman, April 10, 2009, “Matzah Love Year-Round” in The New York Jewish Week, pg. 3.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Modern Passover dinner

I asked a fellow classmate if he partook in any traditions regarding a specific holiday, and the conversation was led to the topic of food:

“Every year at Passover dinner my family and I eat the same food. There will always be a traditional Seder plate which will have around 5 or 6 items on it like bitter herbs, egg, and some sort of vegetable. My Nana will also always make her homemade brisket which is what her and her parents did for Passover in Romania where she’s from. And we always have Matzah Ball soup too.”

I then asked how long this tradition has been in his life and where it started in his family:

“I have had this meal on Passover since the first Passover I can remember. And my Nana is the one who brought it to our family.“

 

Background Information: Matthew is a 19-year old male born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. Both of his parents are Jewish.

Context: Matthew shared this story with me in a conversation about holiday traditions with our families over coffee.

Analysis: Growing up in a Christian home, it was very interesting to gain an understanding of a cultural tradition, that for me, is unfamiliar and never personally experienced. It led me to think about my own traditions with reference to food and the meals my family will consistently have year after year for specific holidays or events. Attached is a picture the actual Seder plate Matthew’s family provided at Passover dinner this year (2018).

 

The seder plate at Passover dinner this year (2018)

The seder plate at Passover dinner this year (2018)

For more information of a traditional Seder plate served at Passover : https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1998/jewish/The-Seder-Plate.htm

Customs
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Elijah’s Cup

“I don’t even know how this started but ok so like over Passover which is like the Jewish holiday commemorating the Exodus out of Egypt, we have a Seder dinner to retell the story of what happened. Part of it is…something that my family does is what we call “Elijah’s cup,” which is essentially just leaving a full cup of wine at the table, and I can’t really remember but at either the end or the middle of dinner, you’re supposed to open the front door and welcome Elijah in to drink the cup. It’s something about welcoming in those who don’t have a dinner or like the less fortunate, but I’m not really sure to be honest. My family does it every year.”

Background: This was a very interesting story for me to hear because I know the story of Passover from the Catholic viewpoint but have never really understood the specific Jewish traditions of Passover, and this was one example with which I was not familiar at all. This is an interesting symbolic touch added to the dinner, which, in my opinion, provides structure to the dinner and increases the level of reverence associated with the dinner if a real object or real food is dedicated to a holy person. I can relate to this because during Catholic mass the most important part is when the bread and wine are supposed to become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and this tradition creates more respect for the ceremony when we dedicate such an intense belief to a weekly ritual, a characteristic I see reflected in this tradition of Elijah’s Cup. This interview was conducted in person as the informant lives down the hall from me. This story is important to the informant because she conducts this part of the ritual every year at Passover.

Customs
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Leaving Wine for Elijah at Passover

The informant is a 66-year old mother, step-mother, former poverty-lawyer, property manager/owner, and is involved in many organizations and non profits. She was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was four years old. She grew up in California, where she also attended college and law school. She lived in the suburbs of Chicago for a short while with her husband and family, and now they live in Pacific Palisades, California.

 

Informant: “Back when I was a kid, with your Opa [the word for “Grandpa” in Dutch] every Passover, we would leave a glass of wine—in our most ornate wine glass—for Elijah, like we do now, but we would also all go around the table after the meal and have to tell a little anecdote about Elijah.

 

Interviewer: “Can you explain who Elijah is?”

Informant: “Elijah is a Jewish prophet. It’s tradition to leave a spot for him at the table at Passover so that if he passes through he will stop at your house and give you good luck and health. So we would go around and all have to tell a short made-up story about him. And it was silly that we did this—I don’t know anyone else who did this, but I know that my dad always said that he had done it with his family at their seders growing up.”

 

Thoughts:

I’ve participated in the Elijah ritual myself, so I can speak from a first-person perspective as well as commenting on my informant’s information. In my opinion, leaving a glass for Elijah symbolizes hope, for the future and for the Jewish people—a people historically oppressed and systematically pushed down. Leaving a glass and/or opening a door for the prophet, Elijah, to come is a way of leaving the door open to positive things to come. As it is a prophet that the glass of wine is left for, this custom can also be seen as a seeking of knowledge or insight.

Customs
Earth cycle
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Tashlikh

This is a tradition practiced by my informant every Jewish New Year, in Paolos Verdes.

“Instead of going to services, family will go to our local cliff spot and we’ll take a blanket and sit and mom or dad will bring an envelope carrying all of our previous years lettesr and we’ll open them and read all of them to ourselves and become familiar with what our previous years goals were, did we meet them, and we’ll talk to each other about that. And then we’ll get a piece of paper and a pen and we’ll spend some time writing out things that we wish had gone differently, how we would have changed them, and what we wish for the new year. And then we go around and share those if we want, and we seal it. And then we’ll take a couple rocks and think about all the things that we didn’t like about this past year, and following the Jewish tradition where you throw bread, we throw the rocks and “let go” of all the things we felt sad about, or guilty for, or disagreed with in the past year.”

This is a version of the Jewish tradition tashlikh, in which Jews cast bread into the sea to symbolically cast aside their sins from the previous year. It is inscribed in a passage in the book of Micah, 7:18-20, which states “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea”. The use of letters and sharing would ensure careful thought and consideration, both personally and among the entire family. The substitution of rocks for bread could be for the ready availability of rocks on a cliff face, but it also might be more healing to throw something heavy as symbolic of sin.

 

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