The Monday before Pesach 5781 (March 22, 2021), the Jewish community of Hong Kong received distressing news. The community’s shipment of Kosher for Pesach dry goods had yet to arrive at the local Koshermart and would hopefully arrive by Wednesday, just three days before Shabbat. Jewish people across Hong Kong were panicked. The threat of a matza shortage was far more terrifying than the mask and toilet paper pandemic shortages of the previous year. My friends started to half-jokingly plan alternatives: One woman noted it was time to break out the rolling pin. Another sent me a text with a recipe for DIY matzot, noting that she could try to get grains and a mill.
My friends did not know that this was not the first time that the Jewish community of Hong Kong had faced a matza crisis. In 1951, a shipment of matzot from Australia was delayed, and the Hong Kong Jewish Club arranged to bake matza locally under supervision. The story was big enough news to make the local newspaper. (South China Morning Post, 22/4/1951)
In 1951, like 2021, the answer to delayed matza shipments was not to encourage people to make matza at home or even in the synagogue themselves. In the 1950s, and perhaps even earlier, Jewish families in Hong Kong were purchasing matza produced in far away factories. Today, even though we can purchase challah from the Jewish Community Center, many of us living in Hong Kong make it at home every week, and yet we can hardly imagine making matza ourselves.
Pesach in Asia
The stories of missing and delayed matza shipments reveal the precarity of the Jewish diaspora in Asia. How do we maintain traditions and fulfill mitzvot when we live distanced from large Jewish populations? As the COVID pandemic has made travel even more difficult, we feel this isolation even more acutely.
For those of us in Hong Kong, food helps to bring our Jewish community together. Last year, during Pesach, although we could not eat in each other’s homes, my friends and I furiously texted each other with photographs of the food that we had made. One friend sent images of cakes and cookies; another shared pictures alongside the recipe for her mother’s famous matza lasagna. I sent pictures of Jewish Food Hero’s potato kugel that I made from the Feeding Women in the Bible, Feeding Ourselves Cookbook.
When we bring memories of Jewish foods to life in our Hong Kong kitchens, we feel connected to the greater Jewish world. These connections are made real by the technologies and networks of shipping by sea and by air that bring us almost everything we could possibly want whenever we want it. Our local Koshermart in Hong Kong stocks kosher and Jewish food products from Israel and New York. During a holiday like Pesach, jars of gefilte fish, cans of macaroons, and bottles of U-bet chocolate syrup help us feel closer to home. But when shipping networks fail us, we are reminded of how isolated we actually are.
Memories of Making Matza in Kerala, India
In December 2019, my family took what turned out to be our last holiday before the global pandemic. We travelled to Kerala, India, where we visited several synagogues. One of our stops was the Paravur Synagogue, about 38 km or an hour’s drive from Kochi’s Jew Town Road. The synagogue was likely built in the 12th century and renovated in the early 1600s. It sits at the end of a street once known as the Jewish street. Today, shadows of mezuzot on door lintels are left as reminders of the people who once inhabited the houses. Jews no longer live on that street, and the recently restored synagogue is now a museum.
After we toured the synagogue, my family decided to sit down and rest in the front courtyard, and we came upon a teenager yelling “Abbaaaaa!!!” into the cavernous synagogue building. When he turned around and saw us, he pointed to his kippah and said, “I’m Jewish.” “I know,” I replied, “I heard you calling your father in Hebrew.” Soon his father joined us, and next his mother and aunt. The boy’s father had grown up in the synagogue in the neighboring town, while the mother and her sister were from Paravur. The adults had made Aliyah when they were just a little younger than the teenager. It was his first visit to India and the family’s first trip back together since migrating.
I asked the sisters questions about the synagogue building, its surroundings, and the community. Where was the mikvah? Did they remember attending services? Where did they play when they were little girls? Standing in the courtyard of the synagogue, their memories came to life, and all of a sudden the mother pointed to a place in the center of the courtyard: “Right there” she said, “That is where we used to set up stoves to make matza for Pesach.” The sisters then proceeded to tell me how women and girls would gather annually to make the matzot. “Did you always keep Kosher?” I asked. “Yes,” the mother proudly answered “We kept kashrut for all those years.”
This year as I anxiously awaited the arrival of matza in Hong Kong, I was reminded of those women and their stories. I cannot imagine living a Jewish life in Hong Kong without kosher wine from Spain and Shabbat candles from Israel, and yet the Jewish community of Paravur produced and maintained a Jewish life for hundreds if not thousands of years without shipments of Lieber’s and Gefen. While the Paravur Synagogue was likely to have first been built in the 12th century, Jews probably arrived in Kerala even earlier. They came to the southern Indian coast as traders, and were connected to global networks of trade, but the communities that developed were disconnected from other parts of the Jewish diaspora. Moreover, communities in Kerala were distanced from each other. In spite of (or perhaps because of) this isolation, they diligently kept kosher and annually observed the mitzvah to eat matza.
Women and the Mitzvot of Pesach
Today, factory-produced matza have become so prevalent that we rarely think about who produces matza; instead, we focus on who participates in the mitzvah to consume matza. Texts teach us that women are obligated and/or allowed to participate in the many mitzvot and customs of Pesach. Although women are exempt (not excluded) from several time-bound mitzvot, the rabbis of the Talmud noted that women are required to eat matza and drink four cups of wine on the first night of Pesach. As with Channukah or Purim, women are obligated to observe these essential mitzvot of Pesach because they took part in the miracles. Moreover, women are obligated in the mitzvot of Pesach, not simply because they were there, but because they were actors and leaders in that story. Yet although women are central players in the story of Exodus, the Talmud notes that a woman, if she is with her husband, is not required to recline unless she is an important woman.
We can debate what is meant by the idea of “an important woman,” and such debates illuminate why it is essential that Jewish women study texts. Texts can help us become important women; they can empower us to claim our rightful places in religious and ritual practices. But texts do not always record our histories and experiences. My conversation with the two women in front of the Paravur synagogue is a reminder that the seder, Pesach, and indeed the survival of our communities and traditions are made possible through the labor of women, and that this labor is not always recorded in texts. A woman’s labor is part of what makes her important.
The Gender of Pesach Labor
Mitzvot often require the labor of women to be fulfilled, and yet this labor is rarely recognized in written texts. Female labor is not recorded in tractate Pesachim of the Talmud or in our haggadot, and it is rarely acknowledged at our seder tables. When female labor is not discussed or not recorded it can be easily forgotten.
Every year during Pesach, we take matza from a box without giving much thought to how it was made. Historian Jonathan Sarna notes here that before matza production was mechanized, Jewish communities in the United States produced their own matza, with women working alongside men in the synagogue. This practice changed with the mechanization of matza production. In 1888, Manischewitz opened its first matza factory in Cincinnati, Ohio. Initially, the gendering of labor mimicked the matza-making practices of the synagogue, with women kneading and rolling the dough while men ran the baking machines. Later, a rolling machine was introduced to the production line, and women were out of a job. Indeed, look for a video online of a matza factory today, and you will find a production line of only men, supervised by a male rabbi.
Texts remind us that women are obligated to participate in the mitzvot of Pesach because they are part of Jewish history; for women are an essential part of the Exodus story. Yet the mechanization of matza production has erased the historical memory of the role women have played in producing matza, the central ritual food of the Pesach seder.
The destruction of the second temple in 70 CE created a unique opportunity for the Jewish people to develop the home ritual of the Pesach seder. Pesach transforms the home, historically a female space in most cultures, into a ritual space, and women are given equal rights and responsibilities to participate in the requisite rituals of the seder. In many homes, women play a central role in creating the ritual space and preparing its implements. Even though we can now buy matza in a box and horseradish in a jar, women still organize the labor-intensive cleaning and cooking associated with Pesach. This female labor creates memories through the taste of food — a grandmother’s matza kugel or an aunt’s matza ball soup — but it is rarely recorded and memorialized in texts.
By Tuesday evening in Hong Kong, we received notice that the matza shipment had landed. We no longer had to wonder what Pesach without matza would even look like. But this possibility also serves as an opportunity to ponder what Pesach, and indeed our Jewish communities, would look like without the labor of women.
This year, as Jewish women sit down to Pesach seders around the world and rightfully take their place in retelling the story, eating matza, and drinking four cups of wine, as outlined in the pages of the Talmud, we can also reflect on what stories have been left out of our recorded histories. How do we reconcile the stories of women on the page and off the page? How can we better incorporate erasures and memories in our Pesach seders? How can we make all women “important women” by recording their work and their stories, and most importantly how do we empower all women to feel important enough to be required to recline?
The Gemara comments: And now that women have been included in the prohibition against eating leavened bread, they should also be included in the obligation to eat matza, even though it is a time-bound, positive mitzva, in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. As Rabbi Eliezer said: Women are obligated to eat matza by Torah law, as it is stated: “You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat with it matzot” (Deuteronomy 16:3). These two commandments are juxtaposed to teach that anyone included in the prohibition against eating leavened bread is also included in the obligation to eat matza. And these women too, since they are included in the prohibition against eating leavened bread, they are also included in the obligation to eat matza.
A woman who is with her husband is not required to recline, but if she is an important woman, she is required to recline.
Telling our female stories
It is a mitzvah to retell the story of the Exodus at Pesach. Think about stories related to women in your family that you might also retell at Pesach. What is the relationship between food and memory, and how are these memories gendered? Consider recording some of these stories and even keeping them with your haggadot.
Questions for discussion at the Passover Seder
1. What are the differences between production (making) and consumption (using or eating) during Pesach? What is recorded in texts? What is embodied, or passed down orally? How are the different layers of production and consumption gendered? How do the ways in which these stories get recorded contribute to the gendering?
2. What are the differences between leavened hametz and unleavened matza? Why do you think baking challah is typically gendered female while the production of matza is gendered male today?
3. What do you think this means: an important woman is required to recline?Who is an important woman, and why does she get to recline? What empowers a woman to feel important? What gives an important woman the time or privilege to recline? How does the labor of other women allow us to be free in our daily lives or during Pesach?
Please respond to share your views in the comments below.
Here are a few kosher-for-passover vegan recipes from the Jewish Food Hero Kitchen