Passover, or "Pesach" in Hebrew, is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt. Celebration of the holiday is centered on a night of ritual called a seder, which includes blessings over special foods, a retelling of the story of the Exodus, and a festive meal. On Passover, Jews traditionally refrain from eating leavened bread, and instead eat matzo, a thin, crisp, unleavened bread, in memory of the Israelite slaves, who, according to a tradition, did not have time to let their bread rise as they ran from Pharaoh towards freedom.
Making use of this symbolic, unleavened bread, Askhenazic Jews developed the matzo ball, or, in Yiddish, "knaidel": a small dumpling made of seasoned matzo meal bound together with egg and some kind of fat, today often vegetable oil or vegetable shortening, but in the past usually schmaltz (poultry fat). In Europe, dumplings were first seen in Italy; they later made their way to Central Europe, and ultimately became popular among the Ashkenazic communities who lived there and elsewhere. These Jews referred to dumplings as "knaidlach" (singular "knaidel"), deriving from the German Knödel (cognate to the English "knot"). During most of the year, Jews made dumplings from bread, flour, or cheese, but during Passover, they substituted matzo, and eventually soup with these dumplings became a central dish at the Ashkenazic seder.
Up until the twentieth century, matzo balls were made from crumbled pieces of matzo and they were eaten almost exclusively at Passover. But in the early twentieth century, the Manischewitz company introduced packaged ground matzo meal and promoted matzo balls as a year-round food in order to promote sales of the product. With the promotion of convenient pre-prepared matzo meal, the matzo ball reached mass popularity and became an iconic Jewish food.
This kit examines literary, culinary, and cultural representations of the matzo ball, in order to explore its enduring status and importance within modern Jewish communities and its connection to Jewish identity.
At right: Matzo ball soup as served at a delicatessen. Photo by Laurel Natale, from pexels.com.