This News Briefing Was Different From All Others

Paul Bass PhotoAt all other press conferences, the mayor answers questions. At this press conference, the mayor opened a box of matzah.

Why, at this press conference, did Mayor Toni Harp (at right in photo) open a box of matzah?

Because someone gave her the box of matzah.

Why did someone give her a box of matzah?

Because the press conference took place at City Hall on Monday afternoon. At sundown Monday begins the Jewish holiday of Passover. On Passover Jews refrain from eating regular “leavened” bread for a week, and eat the yeast-less matzah instead, to commemorate the exodus of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The holiday traditionally begins with a seder at which people ask questions. All night we ask questions, beginning with: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Then we try to provide answers of both immediate and more global and spiritual significance.

Who gave Toni Harp this box of matzah?

Rabbi Mendy Hecht (pictured) and Vice-President Mark Shiffrin (to his right, at left in top photo) of the Orchard Street Shul near the Hospital of St. Raphael campus of Yale-New Haven Hospital. That shul pretty much died along with the westward exodus of New Haven Jews away from the Legion Avenue area during urban renewal. Thanks to a miracle—maybe not on the order of Hannukah or Passover, but a milestone nonetheless—people like Shiffrin have brought that shul back from the dead, beautifully restoring the original building and regularly holiday Sabbath and holiday services. (Read about that revival here, here and here.) The organizers never forget how, as a state senator, Harp was instrumental in getting them the original money to rebuild the shul. (In fact they’re honoring her at the shul’s 100th anniversary dinner on May 18.)  So they brought her matzah on Monday. And not just any matzah!

Why is this matzah different from all other matzah?

Because it’s “shmurah” matzah. That’s Yiddish for “the really good stuff.” Fresh-baked under watchful eyes in strict accordance to Jewish law and just in time for the holiday, shmurah is sort of the Sally’s apizza of matzah: delectable super-thin crust, slightly burned (just enough to add flavor). And yes, it does taste good with tomato sauce. Hecht and Shiffrin actually brought six boxes of the stuff for Harp on Monday.

What is the mayor going to do with all that matzah?

She can bring it Monday night to the seder she’s attending at the home of her economic development chief, Matthew Nemerson. That may make her the hit of the evening.

Do non-Jews often end up at seders?

You bet. The holiday mixes a deeply Jewish story and set of rituals (including wonderful songs and tuneful prayers) with a universal message that has always led to sharing with non-Jews. Rabbi Hecht (whose grandfather Maurice led services at the old version of the Orchard Street Shul) touched on that message at Monday’s press conference. He said the story of the Jews’ liberation from slavery reflects how people “always have the ability to become ‘free’—whatever is holding them back. Passover teaches the world we have the ability to break out of those clutches.” He also spoke of how matzah is cooked quickly, without rising first. “This doesn’t have time to be puffed up with hot air,” he said of the shmurah matzahs he handed the famously low-ego mayor. The matzah reminds us to “keep our ego in check,” not just on Passover, but year-round, Hecht said.

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posted by: Pantagruel on April 14, 2014  8:37pm

Shmurah! Begorah!

You can put lipstick on a matzah and it’s still a matzah.

Now, chocolate coated matzah. Another story.

posted by: Walt on April 15, 2014  8:43am

I do not know Jewish practices,  but the idea of a politician,  whether of   the same faith or not, taking over the altar (correct term?)  to get publicity irks me, most especially on an important religious holiday

Seems insulting to the religion   to   me, but may be OK under Jewish procedures,  Is this customary?

posted by: Tell The Truth on April 15, 2014  8:57am

NHI:  the comment concerning the chocolate covered matzah is meant to be racist. Why would you print this? You’ve ignored my comments for less. The racial undertone is offensive and it should be removed.

[Editor’s note: I honestly believe the commenter is expressing a preference for the taste of chocolate-covered matzah and a dislike for the taste of plain matzah. I don’t see any ill will here.—Melissa]