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Endnote: Every Matzah Another Face; Pesach, Matzah, and Cotton Candy

Riki Goldstein

“I met Rabbi Paysach Krohn. He said he’d been looking for me to tell me this story — he felt it was mamash calling my name”

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

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he Story Behind the Song

For Reb Shayale, every matzah was another face in the oven

The story in Michoel Schnitzler’s song “Ah Matzah in Oiven Arein” from his newest album Mimini Michoel, comes alive with his inimitable heartbreaking Yiddish lyrics. Year after year on Erev Pesach, an elderly man, Reb Shayele, stands next to the fiery matzah oven, pushing the long sticks of matzos in and out. Elevated and emotional at the singing of Hallel, shouting “Lesheim matzos mitzvah” with energy and vigor, he refuses to part from his exhausting work despite the entreaties of the younger, heartier men. Back in Hitler’s hell, he was forced to pile Jewish corpses into the ovens — his own relatives and landsleit among them. Reviled by the bitter cruelty of his task, the younger Shayele often wished he could exchange places with his loved ones. Now free, and a great-grandfather many times over, he insists on feeling the heat of the oven and maneuvering the heavy sticks with the matzos mitzvah. As he remembers the Kohanim, the Leviim, and the Yisraelim whose holy bodies he was forced to incinerate, he recites, as he inserts the holy matzos representing Klal Yisrael: “Kohein, Levi, Yisrael — Gevald, oy gevald, Tatte please be mochel me, precious Yidden, please be mochel me…” In place of matzos, he sees faces.

Michoel Schnitzler says that the song landed in his lap before Pesach last year. “I was in the airport, returning from Miami to New York, when I met Rabbi Paysach Krohn. He said he’d been looking for me to tell me this story — he felt it was mamash calling my name.” (Probably because the story is in the same genre as many of Schnitzler’s other heartrending ballads, such as “A Brother’s Heart” from his 2014 Yoh, Du Kenst! Album — a shocking story about a father who is reunited with his son, whom he thought was killed by a kapo in the concentration camps, when his other son is a match as a kidney donor. Turns out the kapo didn’t kill him, but actually saved him and adopted him.)

When Schnitzler heard the story of Reb Shayele, “I went to Pinky Weber to sit down and work on a composition for it, and soon we were both crying over Reb Shayele’s tragedy and tikkun.” Listeners can’t help but be moved by the emotion in the song, but the most significant response came from a grandchild of Reb Shayele Ungar a”h of New Square, the gabbai of the Skverer Rebbe, who called to tell Schnitzler that the story was retold in the song exactly as his grandfather had told it to him. For in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us…

What Was Pharaoh Wearing on Pesach Night?

Just ask your kids — or any adult who was a kid not so long ago. Rebbe Alter, a cheder rebbi in Jerusalem whose children’s songs have enlivened Yamim Tovim for a generation, says that this song came into being one year when he taught his class parshas Bo. The pasuk says that Pharaoh got up at night, and Rashi comments “from his bed.”

“As I left my classroom and met the rebbi of the next class, we both came out with this: “Paraoh b’pyjama be’emtza halaylah.” We got one boy to dress up in pajamas and a crown and go search for Moshe and Aharon, while the entire class gave him false directions. The kids loved it. All that was left was to find a tune, and I soon hit on the catchy “Baruch Elokeinu Shebaranu Lichvodo.” The funny thing is that more than once, people have come up to me to ask if I was aware that my “Paraoh b’Pyjamas” tune has been adopted for “Baruch Elokeinu.” 




Pesach, Matzah, and Cotton Candy

As a young child growing up on the West Side of Manhattan, there really wasn’t a lot to do on Chol Hamoed Pesach. There was no Great Adventures, no Uncle Moishy concerts, and who really cared about going to the auto show? Sometimes, if we were really lucky, Pesach came out during the run of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

About 15 years ago, I received a phone call from my old friend Rabbi Raphael Wallerstein, who I had known since growing up on the West Side. He was putting together a fundraiser for his yeshivah, and he wanted to book some entertainment. We arranged a show, the event was a success, and the following year, he called me again. Then in the middle of the conversation, he mentioned that he was in touch with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but he realized that there would be no way that he would be able to come close to filling 20,000 seats in Madison Square Garden.

I asked him, “How many seats do you have to sell to break even?” He replied, “Approximately 6,000 seats.” I told him that in my estimation, if he did it on Chol Hamoed and made sure there would be all-male performers, he would sell more than 6,000 seats the same day the tickets went on sale.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “I’m not sure of anything,” I replied, “but if you don’t do the show, I will.” The next thing I knew, we were in Madison Square Garden, signing the contract and preparing for the show. Besides for the circus, we also added the beloved Avraham Fried, the amazing Dedi [Israeli singer Dedi Graucher] and everyone’s favorite uncle, Uncle Moishy.

Ten thousand seats went the first weekend that tickets were on sale. In fact, every single ticket, including the boxes and the suites, were sold: 20,000 seats in all.

As soon as I told Dedi about the performance, he said, “Ding, I’m coming in on an elephant!” And for the next two weeks, he called me every single day with a different elephant joke. “Ding, the people are gonna go crazy when I come out standing on top of the elephant!” (We weren’t so sure the elephants agreed with him.)

The day finally arrived and Dedi made sure to get there early so he could practice getting onto the elephant. We walked backstage, to the elephants’ “dressing rooms,” and all of a sudden, I see Dedi turning white and becoming quite nervous. “Ding, zeh me’od gadol! How am I supposed to get on top of that thing?!”

I replied, “Dedi, are you chickening out?” He absolutely did.

Showtime finally arrived, but everyone came early to watch the preshow, where people could actually interact with the talent…. And baruch Hashem, the show lived up to its Ringling Brothers title, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Avraham Fried was in top form, Dedi was terrific, and Uncle Moishy got the kids screaming.

It was a real kiddush Hashem too. The show was written up in the next day’s New York Times and lauded by many as the first kosher circus ever. The paper noted that there was even kosher l’Pesach cotton candy for sale.

For all those who missed that momentous event, it was recorded on DVD and is still a favorite in Judaica stores. And Ringling Brothers? They also remained in the Pesach spirit of avdus l’cheirus — they closed down, freeing all those enslaved elephants.

Chag kosher v’samei’ach!

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 703)

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