The one blessing of this immiserated festival of de-liberation has been the slow-dawning relief that, thanks to an undercooked bat in Wuhan, there will be no demand this year for a matzah ramble.
All over the country, you can hear parents silently cheering. In Hendon, there are reports of teens hanging out of upstairs windows punching the air and shouting, yeah! You can see why.
The matzah ramble is an English invention, streaked with masochism, insularity and macabre self-mockery. I mean, could you ever imagine a French Jew inviting you to join “une matzah promenade”?
In the middle of what the Routledge prayerbook designates “the intermediate days” — a point where Jewish families, going out of their minds, face a choice between a chainsaw massacre or mass conversion — someone will chirp “lovely day for a matzah ramble”, and you know it’s going to rain.
The basic requirements are a backpack crackling with indigestibles, enough water for an Saharan hike, a map and something called a wind-cheater, which doesn’t. Plus infinite patience, the hide of an unclean animal and instant amnesia — the moment it’s over.
First step is a trip to Finchley Road Station and a ticket to zone 28 of the Metropolitan Line, to an area of Home Counties mudflats unexplored by Sir John Betjeman. Places called Goyslip and Shickmansworth, where no Jewish foot has knowingly trodden and where, once trod, cannot be extricated from the sodden bog without a call to the local fire brigade or Hatzolah.
Dismounting the train and departing the speckless station, where we are the first people ever seen without a season ticket, one turns left as instructed by the noticeboard and marches grimly ahead to cries of “I’m hungry” and “Ben’s lost his shoe”. The intended destination is a stately mansion in the care of the National Trust, which sounds civilized and welcoming. An illusion, I assure you.
These places welcome visitors to enjoy comestibles, but only those that are purchased on the premises. We are unable by religious constraint to consume anything on Passover except rabbinically sealed contents of our backpacks which are, by now, barely edible.
So we go in search of an outdoor bench and prepare our lunch, only for the heavens to open. Cheese, smoked salmon and Rakusen’s finest are washed away from trembling fingers like sins on Yom Kippur. You never knew Pesach was a penitential festival? In England, spring is the season of three cricket sweaters. The verbs “to endure” and “to enjoy” are practically interchangeable.
Those of us who make it back from Christlywood to a postcode with an NW in it will swear on their first cup of tea in the foil-covered kitchen that we will never take a matzah ramble again. But we do, year after year, like demented bats in a Chinese belfry.
Our less assimilated cousins in North London, ultras of the ultras who have never read Betjeman nor dreamed of Miss Joan Hunter Dunn on a manicured lawn, take their shambles in Regent’s Park where the grass in Passover is so thick with shemura matzah it could make a third Heathrow runway. Members of the Mallard Society cannot clean their webbed feet of unleavened-breadcrumbs. Deer in the London Zoo are offered an enema each night for matzah relief.
In the kids’ playground, boys in sidecurls await their turn on the slide with Gulf kids in white onesies. You’d be tempted to think the Prophet Elijah was on his way with peace everlasting, but then it starts to rain and the shambles ends in the usual English way.
I am advised by my next generation that things are possibly not quite as grim as they used to be, and that some public facilities have learned to accommodate the Passover peculiarities of observant Jews. A family loitering outside a Battle of Britain museum in Harrow found to their delight that kosher-for-Pesach confectionery was on sale at the museum shop and there was even a chocolate prize for winners of an Easter egg hunt.
My instant response to this outbreak of multiculturalism was something of a cold shower. It’s all very well to teach kids to tell Hawkers from Fokkers and Betjeman from Ted Hughes, but on Pesach it is our duty to hunt a broken matzah with a Greek appellation, not chase a confectionery ovoid stained with simulated crucifixion blood. Mingling traditions can only end badly. Next it will be mixed dancing. Then a bottle of mineral water in the pub. Or Zoom on Seder night. The world is going to hell on a matzah ramble.