As Passover approaches, supermarket shelves will be stocked with matzoh, gefilte fish, and kosher wines. Observing Passover in North Carolina has not always been as convenient as today’s easy trip to our local Publix or Harris-Teeter to stock up.
When Judith and Jacob Mordecai settled in Warrenton in 1792, they had to write their family in Richmond requesting that they send them matzoh. A story passed down describes a seder held in Chapel Hill at the end of the Civil War. The story is plausible as families from Richmond and Wilmington, which had Jewish communities, sought refuge in North Carolina Piedmont towns. The midwestern federal regiments that occupied Chapel Hill included Jewish soldiers, and in other Southern communities, Jewish Confederates invited northern Jewish soldiers to join their seder tables. Confederate private Louis Leon of Charlotte wrote in his Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate that Jewish soldiers were given a Passover furlough. In 1865 Union troops foraging for food entered the Wallace home in Statesville but found not bread but only matzah, which tasted to them like military hardtack, dry and tasteless.
When we visited homes to conduct interviews for our multimedia project, Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina, we were often shown vintage photographs of families gathered around the seder table. Many dates to the 1920s, ‘30s, or ‘40s. They were set in a kitchen, a dining room, or even a hallway, any place that could hold a long table. At the head was the family patriarch, sometimes bearded and often wearing a sizeable rabbinic yarmulke. Along the table were the stylishly dressed younger generations, with the women often holding infants and toddlers in their laps.
During World War II local Jews opened their homes to Jewish soldiers from the many camp towns across the state. Every congregation hosted community seders for the soldiers. In Fayetteville A. M. Fleishman marched the soldiers in file to his home, where he led two seders. At Camp Butner, north of Durham, Sara Swartz led a cadre of housewives who prepared soup and kugel for hundreds of Jewish soldiers, with kosher food flown in from New York. The kitchen help included German prisoners of war. As they chopped vegetables, Swartz felt fear, but another held a friendly conversation in Polish. The Sisterhood of Goldsboro’s Temple Oheb Sholom prepared a seder for nearly 1,000 soldiers, including camp commanders. For the homesick soldiers, the appeal of hospitality at the Weil home was not merely the Jewish soul food but the opportunity to “to meet your lovely niece” or “most attractive cousin.”
This year’s seder, whether real or virtual, will also be memorable, and it will take its place in more than two centuries of North Carolina Jewish remembrance.