Passover week on East Broadway. With many shops closed, the street feels hushed, reverent, almost. In the shop, Jews keeping Passover buy only black coffee. Through the windows, we see families walking by, all nicely dressed in subdued colors. Police officers patrolling the streets on tall well-groomed horses lend a sense of ceremony. In the evening, men in black suits and wide-brimmed black hats pass up and down the street, gathering others to form a minyan, the quorum of ten men required for public worship. Each tiny storefront shul hums with its own life.
Last Wednesday, as the neighborhood was in the thick of Passover preparations, a friendly local was kind enough to talk to me about the holiday. I was in the middle of making a latte when Jamie tapped me on the shoulder—“Go talk to Danny. He’s outside.”
I had never met Danny before, but when Jamie told him about the Pushcart Journal, he immediately offered to explain the Jewish holidays. We sat down on the two chairs outside the shop.
“Tomorrow night is the search for the chametz,” he began. “We want to eradicate every piece of leavened bread in the house.” During the eight days of Passover, observant Jews will eat only unleavened bread or matzah in remembrance of the fact that the Jews left Israel in such haste that they could not wait for their bread to rise. Eating matzah also serves a symbolic purpose—a breaking down of the ego, a humbling of the self.
“If you walk down Grand Street on Friday morning, you can smell the chametz burning in the trashcans,” Danny continued. “I don’t know why we do it there, but that is the designated spot.”
Friday night is the Seder, a meal rich with ritual and symbolic significance—“You know, we make kiddish and drink the first glass of wine, wash our hands, then dip a vegetable in salt water, to remind us of the tears shed by our ancestors in slavery…” I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to slow Danny down. I don’t think he realizes the depth of his own knowledge, gained from a lifetime of shared ritual. Danny continued, “We eat bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of slavery…We lean to the side while we’re eating, because as slaves we had to be rigid and now we can relax.” I scribbled in my notebook, but could only manage to catch about half of what he said.
When he finished, he asked, “is there anything else you need to know?”
“Yes,” I wanted to say. “All of it. Again.” But I thought I’d better let him get on with his day, and get myself back to the shop. Danny gave me his email address, and offered to be a resource for future Jewish holidays—“anything you need to know.” When I took his picture, he posed solemnly.
My explanation has been far from comprehensive, but if you see Danny walking around, I’m sure he’d be more than happy to talk to you. I also found this site pretty useful. Next year, I’m definitely doing the Pre-Passover Nosh and Stroll tour offered by the Museum at Eldridge Street. Saturday will conclude Passover with a final celebratory meal and a glass of wine.
Pictures and story by Emily Strasser, Seabrightly.