Passover! Pesach! Every spring we celebrate with loved ones as we recall the Exodus from Egypt during our Seder, the festive meal of the first and second nights of Passover. This was just what one family had done, once upon a time.
Haskel and Gittel and their parents lived in a small house on the edge of the Black Forest. On the third day of Passover, Haskel and Gittel’s mother sent them into the woods, pails in hand, to collect berries. Haskel grabbed the shank bone as well. He pushed the dry bone into his pocket, planning to throw it away now that the Seders were over. So as not to lose their way, Haskel scooped up a handful of matzah farfel as they left the house.
“We’ll use these to mark our trail through the woods,” he assured Gittel, “so that we can find our way home.”
Haskel and Gittel set forth to collect the berries. Birds had beaten them to it, however, as the bushes were bare. The children walked deeper into the woods to find enough berries to fill their pails. Haskel dropped pieces of matzah farfel as they walked. Time passed, and the children grew tired, hungry, and thirsty.
“Haskel, let us return home,” Gittel suggested, even though their pails were not full. Looking down, they were stunned to find that the hungry birds had eaten their trail of matzah farfel. Haskel and Gittel were lost.
The children continued walking, hoping they would find their way out of the woods. Birds chirped overhead as Haskel and Gittel continued to wander, when a new sound, the sound of water spilling and tumbling over stones, encouraged them.
“Gittel, there is a brook ahead!” Haskel and Gittel ran in the direction of the brook, relieved to have a drink and rest. As they approached it, a most unexpected surprise caught their attention: They saw before them a house made out of gingerbread! There were cookie shingles on the roof, sugar-glass window panes, and wafer shutters. Candy clay flower pots on either side of a peppermint porch held colorful gum drop flowers.
The children reached the door and saw it was a graham cracker, taller than them! They gently pushed it open and entered the house. Inside was as magical as outside! The sunlight shone through the sugar-glass windows, and the walls were dotted with jelly beans. Out of place and in the shadows on the other side of the room was a dismally drab fireplace with a hearth of stone. The biggest wood-burning oven that Haskel and Gittel had ever seen was ready for baking and warmed the cottage uncomfortably. Appetizing scents filled their noses and excited their stomachs, and Haskel and Gittel spotted before them a table set for two! Steaming bowls of barley soup were on the table, as were platters full of their favorite wheat and rye breads, spelt flour waffles and syrup and oatmeal cookies.
The children stood with jaws dropped. Hungry as they were, they couldn’t eat anything, not a bite. None of this was kosher for Passover. Just then a voice behind them made them jump.
“Welcome to my cottage, children,” spoke a grim woman with a false smile. “Please eat. I’ve made all of your favorites. After you have eaten and rested, you can return home,” offered the woman.
Haskel and Gittel did not know it, but the woman had put a spell on the food, one that would turn Haskel tasty and Gittel into her slave forever the instant they took a bite. This woman was a witch.
Haskel and Gittel cautiously went to the table and sat down. There was not one thing they could eat, because all of it was chametz (food that is forbidden during Passover). The witch carried a pitcher of water to the table and let it fall with a crash, spilling water all over the floor.
“Boy, go to the pantry and bring me some towels,” she urged Haskel, pointing to the pantry door. He did so, but as soon as he was in the pantry, the witch snapped her fingers and the pantry door slammed shut! There was no doorknob, only a hole where the doorknob should be.
Gittel screamed, “Let my brother go!” but the witch stiffened and shrieked “No!” She pointed to the cottage door, and with a second snap of her fingers, that door slammed shut, too.
Haskel, through the hole in the pantry door, shouted, “Let my sister go!” but the stubborn witch shrieked, “No!” With a third snap of her fingers, the witch turned the cottage back into the dark and dirty shack it really was. The only things which remained were the oven and the hearth of stone. The gingerbread house was gone. The witch commanded Gittel to begin cleaning.
“I will cook you,” the witch told Haskel, “as a meal for myself.” She shuffled to the pantry door, put her hand through the hole, and tried to grab hold of Haskel’s arm. She wanted to feel how delicious he would be. Haskel took the shank bone from his pocket and placed it in her hand. The witch cried, “You are nothing but a bone! You will not make a good meal!”
Then the witch considered Gittel.
“Open the oven and see if it is hot enough!” the witch ordered, advancing towards the girl with a plan to cook her instead.
“I cannot open it! It is too heavy!” pretended Gittel.
The witch reached the oven and opened it herself. At that moment, Gittel shoved the witch into the oven and shut the oven door with a smash! Instantly, the witch’s spells were broken, and the shack disappeared. Haskel and Gittel stood in an empty clearing in the woods, free! At that moment, they heard their parents’ desperate voices, calling their names. Without delay, Haskel and Gittel grabbed each other by the hand and ran towards their parents, crossing through the brook to safety on the other side. ✿
ABOUT THIS STORY
Who are Haskel and Gittel?
Haskel and Gittel are none other than Hansel and Gretel, the brother and sister who had not only a witch to fear, but their own parents as well. Our Haskel and Gittel differ in that they are not purposely put in harm’s way by their parents.
Are witches common
in Jewish folklore?
The subject of witches has interested people since ancient times. It is no surprise, then, that there is discussion of witches and witchcraft in the Bible and the Talmud, among other Jewish texts through the ages. Belief in witches, however, has not been as prominent in Jewish religion and culture as it has been in other religions and cultures.
What are the dietary
rules of Passover?
The Torah forbids Jews from eating “chametz” during Passover. Chametz describes leavened food, and the Talmud identifies the grains which can become chametz: Wheat, rye, oat, barley, and spelt. Leavening can result from these grains becoming wet and not immediately baked, or from the use of yeast, baking soda and baking powder (among others). Different communities of Jews have various regulations as to what else is and is not kosher for Passover.
The witch’s gingerbread house and the meal she prepares are all chametz. Haskel and Gittel do not eat any of the food because they are observing the dietary rules of Passover. Their observance of Passover keeps them safe from the witch’s spell!
Where is the Black Forest?
The Black Forest is in southwestern Germany and is associated with the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, including, and perhaps especially, “Hansel and Gretel” (due to their particularly German-sounding names).
The Jewish Population of Germany in the 21st Century
Present-day Germany in the decades since the Holocaust has seen a growth in Jewish population and immigration and in Jewish culture. Germany currently has the third largest and fastest growing number of Jewish people in Europe (following France and the United Kingdom). In the Black Forest region of Germany, too, there is a Jewish community. The towns of Freiburg and Emmendingen have a Jewish museum and sister cities in both the United States and Israel. ✿
Laura Ann Milhander has a background in Jewish Studies and both Jewish and secular education. She and her husband, Rabbi Kenneth Milhander are the parents of four children and live in Orange County.