Friday, April 10, 2009

"The Word That Wasn't There"

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.

Muh. Tzuh.”

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'.”

Muh. Tzuh.”



“That’s it.”


“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

mutzuh farfel.

Farfel. That doesn’t sound like a word even to me.


Jess Kiley said...

Funny, well these words need to get back into the colloquiam ;)

First stop again this morning, I see bright things for your future.

Jess Kiley said...

Colloquium. Don't know how you do it Earl.

Kerri said...

And here I was expecting the story to end by your saying "matsa" and him replying "why yes, of course. It's on aisle 4, my fine sir."

A. Buck Short said...

You know what I miss about the really small, cramped grocery stores and deli’s they used to have? Those metal rod grabbers the owner-counterman used to get something out of reach for you off of the top shelves. Man, I always wanted one of those. Not to extend my capabilities, just as a labor-saving device, so you wouldn’t have to get up as much. You could just reach. Sort of the analogue equivalent of today’s TV remote. Now you have to invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act to get one. Then again, I also wanted a pony.

GUA, I just thought it was efficacious recycling of the unused broad A in matzoh into colloquium. Go Green :)

EP, I so enjoy it when you take something and just run with it. Sort of like this:

I always thought Matza would be a terrific name for a small but jaunty Israeli sports car. Of course, I’m the same guy who went around identifying the Pontiff’s glass-enclosed Popemobile as a Toyota Basillica. Don’t you ever wonder who comes up with these automobile names? Like that truck, the Chevy Avalanche. Do we really want a truck named after a natural disaster? I suppose you could also lump the AMC Gremlin, Dihatsu Charade and Dodge Swinger into that category, the latter only after getting a look at newspaper photos of individuals rounded up in wife-swapping raids.

And, of course you’ve also seen the lists of products that just translate unfortunately: Chevy Nova (Spanish for “won’t go”); Mazda LaPuta (Spanish “the whore”); The Mazda Putanesca would be the whore with olives and anchovies); Nissan Moco (Spanish for “booger”). I’m hoping for an upgrade to the Kia Mucosa. Not to mention the looks my brother got driving our Buick LaCrosse to Montreal.

My beef with the “broad A” broad and just fairly-well-endowed “U” transposition is the same as yours, but in a different language. Could the word Maaaatzarell-ah be Anglicized any further by those voiceover announcers, as if you didn’t already know it’s a Kraft Foods product? Sucks the ethnicity right out of it, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s that everybody where I grew up was from Southern Italy, but as far as I know it was always Mutzurell, or at the very least Mutzarellah. The only way these guys could make it sound more Episcopalian would be to add the word “pie.”

Finally, if you’re looking for an unleavened bread product that will truly desiccate the hell out of your Passover palate, my vote’s for that Norwegian Flatbrød. You can still have it with herring.

Keith said...

I was working at gas station in south Texas when someone came in and asked if I knew where they could get a Reuben.

The only Reubens I'd ever heard of were Hispanic males. I tried to infer from his intonation whether Reuben was an item or a "service" ("I'm in the mood for a good "reuben", if you kow what I mean?" *wink*, *wink*).

I hesitantly asked, "What's a reuben?" Thank god it was a sandwich.

Jon88 said...

Is this a Canadian thing? I've never heard anybody say "mutzuh."

Or maybe it's all of us on Long Island and in NYC that have strayed.

Joe said...

And yet I, a guy who clearly has "Goy of the Month" practically stamped on my forehead have no issue walking into a Kosher market and loading up on chicken -- Koshering does wonders for chicken, especially free-range ones, but I digress -- and Kosher-for-Passover Coke.

Remind me to tell you about my All Gentile Seder.

Anonymous said...

I think the setup works better when it doesn't come across as implausible - it's never pronounced "mutzuh"

You're the first person, Jew or not, I've ever seen try to advocate as such.