Did you know that Passover would not exist if it weren’t for a bad case of tooth decay? I was perusing the Los Angeles Times this morning and came across a very interesting article about the Jewish holiday we’re celebrating this week. Oh, did you think I meant today’s L.A. Times? True, the paper I was reading was dated April 4th but instead of the 2007 edition, I was reading the one that was published in 1907. I had been wondering how the Jewish community in L.A. celebrated the holiday a hundred years ago so I took a little Passover dip into the archives. Here’s how one local journalist described the holiday in 1907:
Commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian bondage and their preservation from the Angel of Death that smote the Egyptian homes, the festival of the Passover was known as the Pesach. As it happened, the period of the Passion of Christ came within the celebration of the Jewish Passover.
The eight days of Passover begin on the fourteenth day of Nisan, Zionist calendar. The first two evenings are Seder nights, when the family gathering resolves itself into a love feast, at which prayers are chanted by the master of the house, and every person present responds to the blessings by partaking of unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
The youngest child in the house then asks four questions, and the master replies by reading anew the story of the deliverance. The last two days are observed strictly, while the intervening four days are termed “half holidays.” In orthodox homes, new tins, dishes, knives and forks are used during this period.
Most of the descriptions of Passover still rang true although I can’t say I ever heard the seder referred to as a “love feast!” The article then veered into a discussion of how the holiday was celebrated in Asia Minor among the Jews who had been living there for generations.
There is one place where, one may imagine, the unleavened bread is made much after the manner of that early time when the Jews fled from the Egyptians. This is in Asia Minor, where some of the people are very primitive in their customs. The earthen dish in which the bread is to be baked over a fire to twigs on the ground is cleansed so that not a particle of the leaven remains in it.
Associated with the Jewish festival of the Passover, there was formerly a rite of propitiation during pestilence. It consisted of sprinkling with blood the entrance to the house or tent.
I believe Asia Minor refers to an area that’s now part of modern-day Turkey. In 1907 there were still plenty of Jews living there but that was about to change. While Jews had been living relatively peacefully in the Ottoman Empire for quite some time, nationalist leaders started coming to power in the region beginning in 1910, whipping the population into anti-ethnic frenzies. All sorts of abuses were heaped on the Jews in Asia Minor from excessive taxation to blatant persecution and by the early 1920s most Jews had emigrated out of the area. I wonder if they still bake their matzah on the ground in earthen dishes.
But the article that really caught my attention appeared on the facing page under the headline, “Pharaoh Had a Toothache.” In this preposterous account of some recent finds by German archeologists, the author makes the claim that Biblical history might have been very different had it not been for some major dental problems at the top of the Egyptian hierarchy.
A learned Egyptologist, who has studied Menephtah’s mummy, declared that the Pharaoh who ruled when the children of Israel were delivered from Egyptian bondage suffered excruciatingly from toothache.
The acute agony he endured so angered Pharaoh, so “hardened his heart,” as the book of Exodus has it, that is was necessary to inflict ten plagues on his realm before he would consider to let Moses and the Israelite hosts go.
In a word, had there been good dentists in Egypt in those days, there would be no Jewish Passover now.
The Egyptologist writes in the Berliner Tagliche Rundschau that he has minutely examined the mummy of Menephtah, who, archeologists declare, ruled Egypt when the twelve tribes departed from it. Menephtah’s teeth at their best were very bad. Few remain and these are much decayed. They are full of cavities in which exposed nerves must have throbbed, throwing Egypt’s ruler into a savage temper, just that frame of mind in which a despot would order his slaves to make bricks without straw or build a pyramid.
Besides the major stretch in historical logic evident in the article, I was also surprised by the identification of Menephtah as the Pharaoh who ruled during the time of the Exodus. Who? Since most of my biblical knowledge comes not from the rabbis but rather the movies of Cecil B. De Mille, I remember only too well Yul Brynner’s portrayal of the ruthless Rameses II in the classic “The Ten Commandments.”
I thought that maybe research about the Pharaohs had evolved between 1907 and De Mille’s film fifty years later, but it turns out that many scholars still believed that Rameses’ successor Menephtah was the Pharaoh in question. Menephtah was Rameses’ 14th son but the only one to ascend the throne. His mother was not Nefritiri (who I can only picture as the lovely Anne Baxter) but another one of Rameses’ many wives. In all, experts estimate that Rameses had over 100 children (you go, Yul!). They also believe that it’s possible the Pharaoh of the Exodus was Menephtah’s son, Seti II (named after his grandpa who was played in the movie by Sir Cedric Hardwicke—an English actor who looked about as Egyptian as Queen Elizabeth). Scholars know that Seti II’s reign began in peace but ended disastrously and abruptly which would make sense in terms of the Pharaoh’s encounters with Moses and the Ten Plagues. Oh well, let’s just call it a day and proclaim Yul Brynner as the definitive Pharaoh who sparred so beautifully with Charlton Heston’s Moses. “So let it be written, so let it be done.”
We had a lovely seder last night at our friends’ Deborah and Gary’s house. Coming from an orthodox background where we didn’t even get to the food until after midnight, I enjoyed discussing much of the Passover story instead of speedreading through the Hagaddah. Leah had just returned from a trip to France yesterday afternoon and passed out shortly after Dayyenu since for her it was about 4 in the morning. She attended a Sephardic seder at her French grandparents’ Parisian apartment on Monday night and regaled us with descriptions of some of their Passover customs that are so different from our Eastern European traditions. Besides passing the seder plate over everyone’s head, a Sephardic custom I’ve heard about, Leah swears that at one point in the seder everyone went to the windows of their 5th story apartment in the tony 8th arrondissement and hurled lettuce leaves out of the window. What? I’m sure there is some explanation for this but I couldn’t help but think of the mostly Gentile population dodging through the streets of Paris as the city’s Jews pelted them with greens from above. Between that and the shoddy dental care provided to many French citizens, no doubt causing Pharaoh-like rages, it’s no wonder anti-Semitism is on the rise.