matzohIt’s Passover (woo hoo!) and Jews (and US Presidents) all over the world are sitting down to seders to commemorate the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

This is a tradition that’s been passed down for millennia, but certain aspects of Passover aren’t quite as old as you’ve probably been led to believe.

Take the Afikoman, for example. Wikipedia describes it this way:

Afikoman… meaning “that which comes after” or “dessert”) is a half-piece of matzo which is broken in the early stages of the Passover Seder and set aside to be eaten as a dessert after the meal.

Based on the Mishnah in Pesahim 119a, the afikoman is a substitute for the Korban Pesach, which was the last thing eaten at the Passover Seder during the eras of the First and Second Temples and during the period of the Mishkan. The Gemara states that it is forbidden to eat any other food after eating the afikoman, in order to keep the taste of matzo in our mouths.

In some families, the head of the household hides the afikoman for the children to find. In other families, the children “steal” it and ask for a reward for its return. Either way, there is usually a gift of money or candy made to the children at the table before the seder continues.

Wikipedia is quite correct about how it’s actually done, but the etymology and history… not so much. Believe it or not, the tradition of the Afikoman only dates back about a century.

It was March 30, 1915, or if you prefer, the 15th day of Nisan, 5675 — the first night of Passover that year. The Cohen family of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Moshe and Miriam, with their daughter Esther and sons Samuel, Alfred, and William) had traveled all the way to Coney Island to participate in a seder to be held at the home of Rabbi Leo Bronfman, the husband of Moshe’s eldest sister, Yetta.

The family crowded into the Bronfmans’ dining room and began the ceremonial meal. After the four questions were asked by young Alfie (who had until this point embarrassed his parents by fidgeting throughout the ritual), he asked if he could be excused to go to the bathroom.

And so, the gathered crowd of Bronfmans and Cohens waited. And waited…

Nearly half an hour passed, and finally Rabbi Bronfman threw up his hands and announced that they’d waited long enough, and young Alfie would simply have to miss out on his share of the last piece of matzoh. He got up to fetch the unleavened bread, but quickly returned, saying that it was gone. Alfie had stolen the last piece of matzoh!

Moshe Cohen leaped to his feet and headed to the bathroom, saying something about teaching that spoiled little thief why this night was different from any other night, but he returned without Alfie. Apparently, the boy had slipped out the window and run off.

It wasn’t until two hours later that Esther Cohen found her little brother sitting on a bench on the boardwalk. Reportedly, when she asked him why he’d run away, the boy replied that “Tante Yetta’s house was smelly.”

It didn’t take long before, despite Rabbi Bronfman’s efforts to silence the embarrassing story, the tale of Alfie Cohen the Matzoh Thief was featured in the Daily Forward. A song about Alfie was even a hit in the Yiddish theatres of the Lower East Side. You think Burt Bacharach wrote Alfie? Nope. All he did was slow down the tempo and change the lyrics.

I can’t find the song anywhere now, either in Yiddish or English, but I still remember a few lines my grandmother used to sing:

What’s going on, little Alfie?
Are you just living for the moment?
Why did you run away with the last matzoh?
I didn’t mean to be cruel
I don’t want to be a fool
But my auntie’s house is smelly, smelly, smelly
And I can’t eat in a smelly house.

It’s all true. I wouldn’t lie about something like this.

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