by Ben Faulding
“It is altogether proper that matzah is called the bread of affliction, because it has been afflicted more than any other foodstuff on earth. It is born in a searing-hot oven and then completely ignored for fifty-one weeks of the year while people walk around shamelessly eating leavened bread and crackers. Then, Passover rolls around, and it is smeared with various substances, ground up into balls, and, in the morning, fried up into a counterfeit version of French toast. Everyone eats it and nobody likes it, and there’s always one last box that sits untouched in a cupboard for months afterward, lonely, broken, and utterly unloved.” –Lemony Snicket.
Ironically in the split-faithed Faulding household, this was not the case. Every few months, during my family’s regular pilgrimages to Costco, we would by the bread of affliction in bulk. One shrink-wrapped package containing five one pound boxes of Manischewitz’s second most popular product. The uniform perforated texture was ideal to be eaten year round with toppings of butter, avocado, peanut butter and jelly; for lunch, breakfast and sometimes to break the monotony of an inactive Sunday afternoon.
Also ironically, this purchase was often at the behest of my father. My father, the tall broad-shouldered black man, would often make sure that this oversized cracker was a constant presence in our pantry. He was a culinarily inclined man. It was him who cooked most of the meals in our household; one of the many ways our Jewish/Black household bucked stereotypes. Experimentation was his thing he’d try recipes from a variety of different sources, but usually fell back on his old standbys.
I never thought it strange until my twenties when I was informed by my traditionally observant Jewish friends that Matzah was not to be eaten year-round, but in its specific time, pesach. I wonder if this was because of their relationship to the bread of affliction, or because their matzah was the hard, round, hand-cooked kind; nearly inedible.But there was my father, still keeping it on his shopping list; wheat thins, orange juice, tooth paste, matzah. Black history was always discussed in my home and more thoroughly in my parents’ liberal circle of friends. I was well-versed in the the slave songs of antebellum south, where at least one of my ancestors escaped.The exodus is a constant theme in old slave songs. The irony being that many slaves found strength in the christian religion that was forced upon them, and then dug even deeper to it’s Judeo roots.
The similarity between the African-American and Jewish experience is a long-storied one. They both follow the narratives of enslavement, oppression and ubiquitous unpopularity. If the hardships of the Jewish experience could be isolated into one digestive moment, it would be during the “tzafon” section of the Passover seder, during which we eat the afikomen. We almost reluctantly force feed ourselves the last of the Jewish sacrament. Plagued by full stomachs and a waning attention span, we finish the seder with one last moment of masochistic consumption.
I could guess that my father’s love of matzah was in his roots, but Steven Faulding’s silent demeanor made his mind nearly impenetrable. I learned not to question his motives or even ponder them. His mind was a mystery, even to his children. This peculiarity rendered some of his external behaviors quaint and endearing, but nonetheless subject to speculation.
I would love to ask my father about his affinity to matzah, but sadly he’s no long here. He passed away two years ago. On the hebrew calendar, it was the 14th of Iyar or Pesach Sheni, one month after pesach. On this day Jews in Israel who were unable to fulfill the mitzvah of the Korban Pesach had the opportunity to redeem themselves and make the pilgrimage again. In some Jewish traditions it is a custom to eat matzah again. The fluke connection will forever be bittersweet to me. It is viewed as a time for second chances. For me, that second chance to question him is no longer available, but will always be a time to remember one of the more endearing quirks of my cantankerous, mercurial, matzah loving dad.