JWR Pesach
April 1, 1998 / 5 Nissan, 5758


"Desert matzoh" anew

By Adam Katz-Stone

SOCORRO, NEW MEXICO — That's the thing about traveling: you discover things. Even familiar objects look different on the road, and they make us look at ourselves differently, too.

The desert here is beautiful, a good place to be during Passover. Among these vast stretches of wasteland, interrupted by the occasional upthrusts of rugged mountain peaks, the mind hearkens back to Sinai. Only this isn't Sinai, is it?

Socorro, a truck stop town an hour south of Albuquerque. The highway sign tells passing motorists all they need to know: that there are 22 modern gas stations, 20 restaurants, a dozen motels and one campground.

Jews? Not many. But in Furr's, the bigger of the tiny town's two small supermarkets, I bought a box of matzoh.

This is not exactly miraculous, not on the locusts-vermin-and-blood scale. After all, this is a college town of sorts, home to the New Mexico Institute of Mines and Technology. Home, also, to the operations center for a nearby radiotelescope installation called the Very Large Array.

About 200 scientists of the International Astronomical Union Colloquium No. 164 gathered here one Passover to compare notes. And as the spouse of one of these scientists, I tagged along for the scenery. There is every likelihood that my wife and I were the only Jews here.

So how come I could buy matzoh here? This bizarre proliferation of things Jewish must mean something.

I think of those friends, more assimilated than I, who decline to take part in the mitzvah of matzoh, even though the Ancestral Bread of Desolation is so readily available. Then I look in the mirror. OK, so I bought a box of matzoh. Whoopee. I also ate endless enchiladas, rationalizing that nobody in their right mind would call a tortilla "risen dough." So just exactly how much matzoh does one have to eat to offset all the weekends not spent in synagogue, all the Shabbat driving, all the other commandment conveniently ignored? More than I could stomach, for sure.

And who needs matzoh in Socorro, anyway? Anybody kosher enough to need matzoh just would not be in this nowhere little dessert town during Passover week, right? And it's not like Furr's had the Ol' Affliction mixed in with the crackers and Melba toast. It was right there in the Bright Orange Packages section, next to the jars of gefilte fish and the boxes of matzoh ball soup mix.

Gefilte fish? Matzoh ball soup? Here?

Well, says I to myself, it's just food after all. Some well-meaning supermarket buyer probably spotted it in the back pages of Ethnic Food Digest, without knowing anything about its religious significance.

Can it be that these bone-dry crackers serve some purpose in my life other than to organize the annual intestinal labor strike? That these curious jellied fish balls have some meaning that transcends their jellied, fishy selves?

I don't know. Maybe.

What I do know is this: I never stop to ask myself this when I see a box a matzoh at the local kosher supermarket. There is something that happens when we discover familiar objects in an unfamiliar setting. Things look different when seen in a different light — and we start to see ourselves differently, too.

That's the thing about traveling. I guess.

New JWR contributor Adam Katz-Stone, when not wandering aimlessly in New Mexico, is a writer based in Annapolis.


© 1998, Adam Katz-stone