Yorkshire and the north of England has a long history of Jewish people, with records of a Jewish community in York as early as the 1500s. Leeds’ own history of Jewish communities are not as long, with records dating back to the 1800s. As it is currently pesach, I thought that I could give some information about the holiday and spotlight a couple of pieces of the collection here at Leeds Museums and Galleries that are interesting.
Pesach, or Passover, is a Jewish holiday that occurs from the 15th to the 22nd of the Hebrew month of Nissan. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar one, so compared to the calendar we usually use, Jewish holidays appear to move. So this year, Passover is between the 5th and 13th of April, but next year, it will be between the 22nd and 30th of April. Passover is an important holiday for many Jewish people and it celebrates the emancipation of the Jewish people from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaohs. The story of pesach goes like this…
In the time of the Pharaohs, the Jewish people were enslaved and very poorly treated. When G-d saw the suffering of his people, he instructed Moses to tell the Pharaoh to release the Jewish people from slavery. Moses tried to do so, but the Pharaoh only punished the Jewish people more, requiring them to work harder. Moses grieved for the suffering of his people and appealed to G-d again for help. G-d told him to hold out hope, for he will make sure that the Pharaoh will release the Jewish people. Then, Moses went to petition Pharaoh again and G-d sent the Ten Plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go. Moses continued to plead for the Jewish people’s freedom and the Pharaoh continued to refuse until the tenth plague. Moses told his community to bring a ‘passover offering’, by sprinkling lambs’ blood over the lintel of their homes so that the last plague would pass them over. In the tenth plague, G-d killed the firstborn child of every Egyptian person but passed over the homes of the Jewish people. This happened on the stroke of midnight of the 15th of Nissan. The Pharaoh caved and begged the Jewish people to leave Egypt and they did so quickly, worried that Pharaoh will renege on his promise. They left with such haste that they didn’t have time to allow their bread to rise. The Jewish people crossed the desert quickly, but Pharaoh did go back on his promise and sent an army after them. When they caught up, Moses was again, inspired by G-d and parted the Red Sea to allow the Jewish people to cross, but closed it up on the Pharaoh and his men.
So, annually, we celebrate the exodus from Egypt during pesach. During this eight-day holiday, we do not eat leavened bread or cakes, or chametz in Hebrew. There are four holidays during Passover, two at the beginning to celebrate leaving Egypt and two at the end to commemorate Moses parting the Red Sea. On these days, people don’t work and don’t drive. We do cook and have lavish meals, often with the family or wider community. On the middle four days, we still do not eat leavened bread but we do go to work.
Here at Leeds Industrial Museum, we have some items in our collection that are very interesting, but one of my favourites is a collection of Hebrew type blocks. These blocks would have been used to print posters like the one below.
This is a large poster which is advertising Lloyd Rakusen and Sons Grocers who are still a well-known Jewish grocery company. Rakusen makes the best matzah crackers I have ever had, and I always look forward to eating them at Passover, instead of bread. The Hebrew print blocks are not currently on display because of the condition of the blocks, but we are hopeful that in the future we will be able to highlight them and the extensive history of Jewish trade and industry in Leeds.
So, if you know any Jewish people this holiday, wish them a Happy Passover or Chag Pesach Sameach! (Ch-ag pay-sach sah-may-ach).
By Aleks Fagelman, Assistant Community Curator at Leeds Industrial Museum
Editor’s note: Aleks has chosen to write G-d throughout this blog, because: ‘Jewish people don’t write ‘God’ fully, because it would count as a representation of him and that’s not permitted in the religion. I’m not religious, so it doesn’t really bother me at all, but it seemed prudent to do whilst we were talking about Passover’.