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Broken matzah

April 10, 2012

Tags: Passover, matzah, Jewish identity, poetry, interfaith relations

Broken Matzah

On the New Jersey transit train
I pulled my particularity
out of a brown paper bag:
one of four broken pieces of
buttered matzah.
Slowly, delicately
I proceeded with my dinner.

The young man across the aisle
in his dark business suit
pale skin, wavy black hair
looked to me Italian
but I admit I'm not good at that.

He seemed uncomfortable,
not so much with the chremzel
I carefully dipped into
a little puddle of sour cream,
nor even with my public
consumption of food--
probably I was brought up
to know better, but I was brought up
so long ago I've misplaced
some of my mother's niceties--

No, I think it was the matzah
that did it, it was the matzah
that singled me out,
the unmistakable display
of my particularity:
four broken pieces of buttered matzah.

Or maybe he didn't care at all
didn't notice
maybe his breathing didn't
become slightly irregular
maybe it was all
my imagination
or my breathing
becoming slightly irregular.

How like my mother I am, after all,
who trained us in our largely
Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood
not to wear our old playclothes
outside on Sundays
so as not to offend our Christian
neighbors on their way home from church.

In those days I took her at her word;
now I wonder as the train
pulls into Penn Station
if Marie Brady who lived across the street
ever noticed us in our Sunday finery,
ever thought it curious
that we dressed up on her Sabbath,
ever questioned our carefully guarded
particularity, ever saw close up
a buttered piece of matzah.

© Merle Feld, A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition, SUNY Press, revised edition 2007

Why – and how – does this poem seem appropriate for Passover?

Are you easily identifiable as a Jew? When? How? How do you feel about that visibility?

What’s the significance here of breathing? ”irregular breathing”?

What is it the mother communicates in the poem through various subtle, spoken and unspoken cues? What might you imagine her growing up was like as a Jewish child?

What signals did you receive as a child about “safety” and anti-Semitism?


  1. April 10, 2012 10:49 PM EDT
    Your poem, Broken Matzah, was incorporated into my sister's Passover Seder and after it was read aloud, the entire table gave out a unison sigh over how moved we all were. Your words create such vivid imagery and speak to one's heart. I wanted to thank you for helping to make this seder such a memorable one. I look forward to reading more of your certainly have a gift. Thank you for sharing it with others.
    - Ellen Pollen
  2. April 11, 2012 8:42 AM EDT
    Thank you so much Ellen. It means a lot to hear how words which came from my private experience reached an unknown seder table and enriched the gathering. I'd be delighted for you to try one of my books and respond to poems which you find meaningful.

    I've been thinking about this poem, written years ago, and how the subtext it makes conscious was never alluded to in my completely assimilated home growing up - my mother herself was born in NY and I never heard her directly speak of fears about her Jewishness - so I think this runs very deep.

    It also occurs to me only now that Passover of course coincided with Easter, a time when pogroms were a particular threat in the Eastern European communities where my grandparents originated.

    A final note - I've had this blog for a year now and though I've often wanted respond to the posts which readers send, as a non-tech savvy person it's only this morning that I figured out how to write back!
    - Merle Feld
  3. October 7, 2017 10:47 PM EDT
    Just read Broken Matzoh, what a masterwork of imagery. I was right there on the train with you, taking it all in.
    But today I read Gates of Shabbat and there was your poem, The First Time We Made Shabbos Together and that brought me to tears, that is a beautiful poem. The simple beauty of that moment in time, again I felt as if I were right there with you. Where will you be presenting in the near future? I live in Lagrange and am a member of Vassar Temple.
    - Gail D'Alessio
  4. October 8, 2017 9:01 AM EDT
    Thanks Gail. I have no plans for appearances near you right now but you might enjoy my books, A Spiritual Life (revised ed. 2007) and Finding Words - you can order from this site. Please email me to hear about what I'm working on now.