When written, it’s matzo. Or matzoh, for those inclined to press the “h” into unnecessary service.
But here’s the thing. It’s pronounced
That’s all you need to know.
I’m in Toronto, in my mid-twenties, living alone. I had started with two roommates, but each in turn had gotten married. While I remained a longshot for a date. (It’s funny. Every time I lost a roommate, I wondered how I’d be able to pay my now increased rent. And on both occasions, my concern was assuaged by the unexpected arrival of supplementing or better paying jobs. I took this as the definition of “lucky.”)
One day, I go shopping for mutzuh. It’s the Passover season, so why not? As religious obligations go, eating mutzuh for eight days is not exactly a surrendering commitment. It’s a minimal hardship. It makes crumbs, but that’s about it.
I walk into my local supermarket. Not a mega, not a convenience store, something in between. It serves the neighborhood, of whose ethnic composition I am vaguely unsure.
I go up to a teenaged employee. Vigorous, friendly, and blond.
“I need to get something. Maybe you can help me find it.”
“Sure,” he replies. “What are you looking for?”
“It’s a Passover thing. You only eat it during the holiday.”
“It’s called mutzuh.”
There’s a short hesitation.
“I beg your pardon?”
Another hesitation. Accompanied by confused blinking. I try to explain.
“It’s a kind of a cracker.”
“Crackers are on ‘Aisle Six’.”
“It’s not a regular cracker. It’s a special Passover cracker.”
“What do you call it again?”
Limited skills prevent me from accurately describing the look now inhabiting the young store employee’s face. Every time I repeat the word “mutzuh”, he stares at me, clearly concerned that I am losing my faculties. He’s imagining that there’s this short-circuiting “haywire” thing happening in my head, compelling me to lapse into meaningless gibberish.
It must be like a Twilight Zone experience for him. He’s standing in a store in his apron, confronted by a customer, who’s speaking English…then he isn’t…then he is again. And he thinks he’s making perfect sense!
The boy feels alarmed at what might be coming next. I could start drooling at any minute. Or race to the “Produce Department” and start throwing fruit.
For me, it’s getting more and more frustrating. I know the word mutzuh; why doesn’t he? I try saying it slower, as if my deliberateness will liberate him from his confusion.
He tries it himself.
“Muh. The ‘uh’ sound, like in puck.” I know he knows puck. He’s Canadian.
He gives it a shot.
“Good. Now 'Tzuh'. Puck again, only with a 'Tz' in front of it.”
“Great. Now, 'muh'. 'Tzuh'.”
“Yes!” It’s magnificent. A quintessential “Rain in Spain” moment. We’re “this close” to dancing.
“Do you have any?” I ask, as our euphoria dies down.
“Do we have any what?”
“I don’t know what it is!”
The kid’s starting to lose it. He’s right, of course. Just because you can pronounce a thing doesn’t mean you know what the stuff is. Or where to find it in the store.
My problems are compounding. Separate from the frustration of not being able to be understood, and even more anxiously felt, is an engulfing sense of ethnic paranoia. The longer this takes – and it’s taking quite a while – the more certain I am that this neophyte employee will finally lose patience and hit the secret “Jew Alert” button.
Suddenly, a powerful spotlight will beam directly on me. The Anne Frank “Wee-ah-Wee-ah” sirens will start blaring throughout the store. And as a crowd of questionable tolerance gathers, a yarmulke, tallis and tephilin (religious paraphernalia) will drop from the ceiling and I’ll be required to demonstrate how they work. It was terrifying. I can’t do tephilin!
Dreading repeating the word mutzuh one more time, I left the store without getting any. I borrowed a box from my mother.
And to this day, I am incapable of requesting anything of a religio-ethnic nature in any supermarket of any size.
Not gefilte fish.
Not the “shank bone” for the seder plate.
And definitely not
Farfel. That doesn’t sound like a word even to me.