Putting Down the Trowel and Picking up Matzoh: Pesach for an Archaeologist

Posted by on Apr 18, 2013

Putting Down the Trowel and Picking up Matzoh: Pesach for an Archaeologist

I was reluctant to go. When our social program coordinator, offered up the opportunity to spend Pesach (Passover) Seder at an Israeli family’s home it took some convincing.  

I suspected I would spend the evening intruding on a family while they shared this special night together and struggling to pick up every 10th word of their fast-paced Hebrew. Upon hearing my plans, almost every Israeli I knew gave me the most exaggerated look of pity, and it started to feel like a sin that I wasn’t about to share the evening feasting with someone. I began to regret not jumping on the opportunity.

Mark and Craig, two of my fellow TAU students, were placed in the home of Yafit, a woman who specializes in pottery restoration and is a member of the ceramic lab in TAU’s Archaeology department. “Why don’t you just come with us?” they offered. Now I felt like even more of an intruder. I debated with myself until the day before. Finally Craig convinced me and called Yafit to confirm another spot at their generous table. I was going.


Everyone welcomed us with kind smiles: Mark, Vanessa, Craig, and Yafit's family

A kosher bottle of wine and a cab drive later we were outside the apartment building. We hesitantly walked up the stairs as three other young people appeared behind us carrying trays of food. We all paused before the same door. A sign read, ‘Welcome Kregg, Mark and Melissa!” I considered changing my name for the sign was so delightful. I shed half a kilogram (no one measures in pounds here) of my feeling of intrusion.

Yafit’s daughter, Shir, and her son, Guy, greeted us. In rapid succession I had seven more faces and names of the family to remember. Everyone welcomed us with kind smiles, another kilogram gone, and we were quickly ushered to the long dinner table to begin the festivities.

I had never been to a Pesach Seder before, and the Seder dinners in the U.S. that I have attended were more about the wine than anything else. Yafit’s brother prefaced what was about to commence with, “We don’t do things too traditionally here; we focus on the parts where you eat.” I had unconsciously fasted that day so these were the most beautiful words I could hear.

Hebrew and Wine

Mark displaying one of the more traditional looking Hagada (Seder’s reading)

We were each handed a copy of the Seder’s reading. Some looked very official—your standard Bible-looking book—while others looked like children’s books. Others like a gossip magazine you pick up in the grocery line and I found the juxtaposition of holy words and glossy advertisements odd. I received a copy of the reading with the Hebrew and English texts flanking colorful woodblock-prints. After Hebrew and English speaker alike struggled to find our place in the book, wine was poured and we were off running.

The sound of the liquid filling the glass was like the shot of a starter’s pistol. Yafit’s brother took the lead and started reading the Hebrew text so quickly my finger, educated in Biblical Hebrew, could barely follow. Hurdles were met. What are these antiquated words and verb forms??

I smiled at my familiarity with these unused pieces of language and yet my struggle to keep up with basic Hebrew conversation. The reading jumped from mouth to mouth around the table and I was able to keep up with the meaning of most words with the help of brief synopsis from Yafit’s husband and brother. Each lap would end with a communal sip of wine. Songs were easier to pick up and join in on with wrong notes drowned out by those more familiar with the tunes.

Traditional Feasting

Traditional Feasting: Yafit giving a brief on the foods presented

Small bowls of what looked like appetizers were arranged on the table. If you are familiar with Judaism or Christianity the list will sound familiar. The traditional meal served to commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper on Maundy Thursday is taken from the Passover custom. Matzos representing the unleavened bread of the Israelites in Egypt, bitter herbs (maror) to symbolize the bitterness of slavery, and an apple/nut/cinnamon mixture (charoses) commemorated the mortar used by the slaves are all integrated into the Pesach reading and feast to retell the story of the Exodus. A piece of roasted lamb embodies the paschal sacrificial offering. Hardboiled eggs, parsley, and wine are then eaten to symbolize life, hope and redemption respectively.

Fish was served with a delicious homemade sauce, and delicious food was piled on the table. THE MATZO SOUP. I could write a whole blog about the matzo soup. I moved to Israel from a neighborhood in Boston that abuts what I would label as the ‘Jewish Quarter.’  This place is full of little Jewish joints boasting delicious matzo soup. I had yet to have it since coming here and was missing it very much. Yafit’s homemade version took the cake. Her cake took the cake as well, this woman can cook.

After Thoughts

Dinner ended and we sat and talked and played card games until the dead of the night. A night I expected to drag on in painful silence flew by as Yafit’s family made us all feel like we had come over for every Jewish holiday in years past. Her daughter even graciously ushered us home. Next year I will bring two bottles of wine to wherever I end up on Pesach and maybe practice singing the four questions before I show up, too.

So take this advice: when an Israeli invites you over for a holiday dinner, GO! And don’t eat anything for two days before.

A huge thanks to Yafit and her wonderful family for taking the three of us in for a night!