“Getting together for Passover” used to be one of those second-nature ideas, an assumption for families and groups of friends every year about this time. This year, of course, the phrase has become bitterly ironic. With everyone more or less quarantined at home, getting together, if it happens at all, will be virtual, with makeshift seders conducted over Zoom and Facetime.
It isn’t the first time that Passover has occasioned concerns about getting together, however.
In communities such as Keidan, the 1930s were a time of increasing marginalization and tightening economic conditions. Nationalist anti-semitism in Lithuania and Poland, among other European countries, was pushing more and more Jewish families to the edge, making them dependent on charity from whatever sources existed. One important source was the landsmanshaft – associations of emigrants in the U.S. and elsewhere, who routinely sent funds back to their old home towns. The Keidaner Association of New York, for example, raised an annual “matzo fund” (“maot khitin” in Hebrew, “moes khitn” in Yiddish) to enable needy families back in Keidan to celebrate Passover properly.
But getting the funds to those who needed them wasn’t always a smooth or uncontentious process, as the essay below reveals. It appeared, in Yiddish, in “The Keidaner” bulletin of June, 1938.
The Matzo Fund – A Path to Unity
By B. Cassel
From the various articles and notices which were published in Bulletins No 20, 26 and 32, observant readers of our Bulletin have been able to get an idea about social life in Keidan.
We have thus far made no comment about the sad state of contentiousness that exists in our old home, between those elements that have grouped themselves around the “Knesset Israel” and “Ezra” societies. We have only made available excerpts from newspaper reports and letters, which accurately illustrated the groups’ unhappy situation.
We shared these reports with great sorrow, because unity is always necessary for Jews, but especially so today, when so many enemies surround European Jewish communities, like mad dogs waiting to pounce on their helpless prey. In such a time, quarrels between Jews are like a weapon in the hands of their oppressors.
The Keidaner Association in America, however, has been able to do very little about this matter. The relationship of the Association to Keidan is such that we have no direct tie to the official Jewish community. Individuals from Keidan correspond with their relatives in America, some of whom are, incidentally, members of the Keidaner Association. The association’s official contact with Keidan is expressed only in the season just before Passover, when the association sends the annual “matzo fund” to distribute among the poor in Keidan.
Usually, an official of the Keidaner Association sends the money to a relative in Keidan, and that one gives it to the local charitable society to distribute as its “matzo fund.” The charity usually sends a signed receipt with its official signature and a thank-you for the money. It was up to the relative in Keidan who received the association’s money to decide which charity there would take charge of distribution. For a while the money was given to the Ezra society; for the last several years it has been given to Knesset Israel.
But as divisions between the two societies have deepened, each would distribute the Passover charity only to its own people, denying the poor of the other society even a crumb. In issue No. 26 of the Bulletin we shared an excerpt of a letter send from the “Knesset Israel” society to a Keidaner in New York, who is not presently a member of the Keidaner Association. Speaking about the distribution of the matzo fund, the letter says:
“We affirm that everything was distributed in the fairest and most honest manner. Our society includes the rabbi, all the officials from all the synagogues, prayer and study houses, all the leading landowners, shopkeepers, merchants – in a word, the best, most respectable people in Keidan.
“And over there? In the other society? (Meaning the “Ezra.”) Understand this … our society consists of payers, of donors, of spenders. And that one? Exactly the opposite, exactly the contrary … We, thank God, don’t need a penny. We are the givers. And they …?”
From these few words of the letter it can be clearly seen that the distributors are not sharing the pie with the “Ezra-ites,” even though the Ezra group contains the larger number of paupers who need the most support (as can be seen in the report in Bulletin issue No. 32.)
Considering these relations between the two societies, when it came time to send the money for the matzo fund this year the Keidaner Association’s board of directors asked Brother Chas. Kane to instruct his brother in Keidan, to whom the sum of $150 was sent, to turn over the money to a joint committee from both societies, so that the matzo fund should be distributed to all the needy of Keidan.
And recently a receipt arrived for the $150, signed by two persons from “Knesset Israel” and two from “Ezra” and the two brothers Cohen, brothers of our Chas. Kane. In the letter from Keidan it is reported that the committee, including both societies and the Cohen brothers, have this year distributed the matzo fund impartially: “No one was turned down, and all were satisfied. There was also 23 pounds (about $115) from Africa, and $50 from the Ladies Aid Society, all of which the committee also distributed: The very poor people, that is those who were not ashamed to accept it, were given a little money for matzo; our down-on-their-luck neighbors were given money; and those who didn’t want to accept anything but were known to be in need, to them a representative was sent with funds for an interest-free loan.”
If this splitting up of the matzo fund through the joint committee brought about a rapprochement of the two parties in Keidan and will lead to greater unity, the Keidaner Association will have made a much greater contribution than just the matzo fund money itself.
It is to be hoped that we have done much more for our fellow townspeople than they even expected. God willing, it will be a good first step toward unity.
The approach may have worked. At least there was no further indication of an ongoing split between the two aid societies, in this short note, which appeared one year later, in The Keidaner bulletin of June, 1939.
The Matzo Fund
We have received an acknowledgment letter from Keidan for the $150 that we sent. The letter follows:
Keidan, April 14, 1939
To the Society of Keidan Jewish Landsleit in New York
Very honored friends,
The “Ezra” and Knesset Israel associations in Keidan, hereby acknowledge receipt of the support you sent for Passover in the sum of 150 dollars.
Considering the difficult days that the small Jewish community is now living through, your fraternal connection is a great moral and material support.
With your brotherly hand you have given dozens of needy families the ability to enjoy our Jewish holiday of liberation, Passover and prepare their tables with all that the holiday requires.
For your fraternal connection to your old home and your brothers suffering from want, we offer in the name of these families their heartfelt thanks.
We also take this opportunity to wish you long years of fruitful work in your individual lives as well as in your communal work.
In the name of the “Ezra” and “Knesset Israel” Associations in Keidan
For “Ezra” – A. Kagan
For Knesset Israel – I. Wolpert
Translations by A. Cassel