THE WEEKLY BLAB
Volume 7, Issue 26 – April 1, 2013
Happy Easter, But Where’s the Matzah?
Happy Easter to everyone! This is one of those years where Easter and Passover overlap. Since it’s Passover, I was off to the grocery store looking for some unleavened bread known as matzah, which one eats on this holiday. Passover is the holiday commemorating the liberation of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, and on this holiday, leavened bread is forbidden for eight days, as are cake, bagels, rolls, and all related items. I walked into the local Kroger and sure enough, at the end of aisle 3, were boxes of matzah. The problem? As I was walking to the cash register, I noticed that neatly inscribed on each box was “Not Kosher for Passover”. You see, the idea of kosher (which normally means no pork, no shellfish, no mixing of milk with meat, that sort of thing) is different from the idea of kosher for Passover, which in addition to the normal kosher restrictions, means no leavening or yeast, and several other more technical things.
I have to admit this was a new one on me. I’m not aware of anyone who eats matzah because they actually like it—it’s a pretty bland cracker-like thing, not really bad tasting but not good either. I suppose people must be buying it because it exists, but I’ve never met any. I have no interest whatever in matzah except when I have to eat it, so if it isn’t kosher for Passover, I have no use for it at all. Ultimately, Jill turned some up at Publix so problem solved. Since the holiday was already half over by the time we got it, we’ll probably have some left over at the end of Passover. Not to worry—Youtube has a funny and useful video on “20 Things To Do With Leftover Matzah”, which you can see by clicking here.
I was reminded of my grad school days in Columbia, South Carolina, when if you wanted some kosher food, the best local place to get it was the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in St. Andrews. The humor wasn’t lost on me—buying kosher food in a neighborhood named for a Saint, in a store that everyone called “The Pig”. If you’ve never seen one of their commercials, be sure to click here—it’s a riot.
The Relationship Between Nebuchadnezzar and the Independence of Italy
Speaking of the liberation of Hebrew slaves (and bear with me—I’ll connect to this theme further below), the other night, I was cataloging a box set of Toscanini CDs I picked up a few weeks ago. For those who don’t know, Arturo Toscanini was one of the great symphony conductors from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. From what I’ve read, he was a musical perfectionist who treated his musicians abominably, but the tremendous quality of the music he got the orchestras to produce made the musicians want to stay despite the rotten treatment.
Anyway, among the things Toscanini is noted for was conducting operas, predominantly those by the greatest of Italian composers, Giuseppe Verdi. There were a number of Verdi operas in the set (the third version of Aida I have, the third version of La Traviata, etc.), which got me thinking—do I have all of Verdi’s operas in my collection? I checked on Wikipedia, and the answer was no—I still don’t have a bunch of them, including the first two that Verdi wrote which are relatively obscure. The earliest one in my collection is actually Verdi’s third opera, the one that established his reputation as a composer—Nabucco. My copy of Nabucco is part of a different box set of CDs of operas headlined by the soprano Maria Callas, arguably the greatest female opera singer of all time. I’ve heard most of the operas in the box set, but I’d skipped over this one. So, I figured I listen to it now.
Before doing that, I went back to Wikipedia to find out about the plot of the opera since I don’t speak Italian, don’tcha know. Nabucco is actually short for the original name of the opera, Nabucodonosor, which is Italian for Nebuchadnezzar II—the famous king of the Babylonian Empire. The Bible (mainly in the Book of Daniel) tells us that Nebuchadnezzar was the king who conquered Judah and Jerusalem, destroyed the first Temple, and sent the Jews into exile in Bablyonia. On the positive side, he is credited with construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Nabucco is not exactly based on history as we know it—it’s more like a TV movie version of history, with several major characters added to the story and the ending changed. The set-up to the plot is that Nebuchadnezzar is about to conquer Jerusalem. He has two daughters: one legitimate (Fenena) and one illegitimate (Abigaille). Fenena is held hostage by the Israelites in hope of stopping Nebuchadnezzar—not a good plan, because the Israelites’ military leader, Ismaele, loves her back from the days he was the King of Jerusalem’s envoy to Babylonia. In fact, both daughters are in love with Ismaele, which causes a big ol’ problem when Abigaille shows up with Babylonian soldiers in disguise, and sees Ismaele singing a love duet with Fenena. Abigaille tells Isamele that if he pledges his love to her, she’ll petition Nebuchadnezzar to spare the Israelites and to set up a kingdom for him. While you might think this is a pretty good deal, true love in an opera being what it is, he refuses and the opera is off to the races.
I’m not going to go through the whole complicated story here, but in the second act, the scene shifts back to Babylon, where the Israelites are now slaves in exile. Nebuchadnezzar declares himself to not only be King of Jerusalem but also G-d, whereupon the proverbial lightning bolt from above strikes his crown and he’s rendered mad. Evil Abigaille grabs the crown and becomes the Queen.
In the third act, Abigaille gets the crazy Nebuchadnezzar to condemn all the Israelites to death. What he doesn’t know is that this also condemns his daughter Fenena, who has converted to Judaism and joined the Israelites. In the most famous aria in the opera (“Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate!”—“Thought, fly on golden wings”—also known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves), the Israelite slaves long for their homeland.
In the final act, Nebuchadnezzar sees his daughter Fenena being led to her death, repents for his vanity, prays for forgiveness, and promises he will rebuild the Temple and convert to Judaism if forgiven. His sanity is instantly restored, and he rallies his troops and saves Fenena. The idols are destroyed and when he tells the Israelites they are free, they sing the aria Immenso Jehova (Great is G-d). The opera ends with Abigaille taking poison but managing to sing a final aria (it’s an opera, after all) where she asks for forgiveness.
Wow—what a story! And if you remember from Sunday School or history class that the real king who let the Israelites return from exile and who restored the Temple was actually Cyrus the Great, not Nebuchadnezzar, you’re just being picky.
The opera Nabucco is known for two unusual things. The first is that it is the most difficult of all operas for a soprano to sing—lots of high notes and difficult arias. Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price refused to sing it, several others ruined their voices by singing it, and even the great Maria Callas only sang it three times (the CD set I have is her only recording of it).
The other thing that the opera is known for is far weirder. Nabucco was first performed in Milan in 1842, when Italy was a series of little states under the occupation of France or Austria-Hungary. As the story goes, when the audience heard the aria Va pensiero with its line Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!, they empathized with the Israelites, longing for an Italian homeland, and demanded an encore, which was forbidden by law. This act of rebellion was the spark, and the aria became the anthem of the Italian revolutionary movement known as the Risogimento, with Verdi becoming one of its spiritual leaders. After three wars, the Risogimento resulted in the unification and independence of Italy in 1870. Thus, from the first performance of Nabucco to Italian independence only took 28 years, but the anthem was based on an event 2500 years earlier. At Verdi’s funeral in 1901, the largest crowd ever to assemble in Italian history spontaneously broke into the aria Va pensiero. More recently, in 2009, Italian Senator and political bigwig Umberto Bossi proposed changing the Italy’s national anthem to—you guessed it—Va pensiero.
Some revisionist historians have challenged this story, saying it was actually Immenso Jehova that was the demanded encore, and have downplayed Verdi’s role in the Risogimento. What a bunch of killjoys. So what is actually true here? Who knows, but the Italians know a great aria when they hear one.
Last Time’s Trivia Contest
Questions last time focused on Men, and lots of entries were received. The fastest finger goes to Alan Gabrielli (Co-Director for SPSU-Teach), with all five correct. Here are the answers:
- Will Smith is a member of this secret organization that keeps the world safe from hidden aliens. Men in Black.
- A room or garage especially outfitted with stuff men like. Man cave.
- Expression for an unusual newspaper story. Man bites dog.
- Sancho Panza. Manservant to Man of La Mancha.
- Portuguese jellyfish. Man o’ War.
This Week’s Trivia Challenge
Today’s trivia challenge focuses on March Madness. Usual rules apply. No looking up the answers now! SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO firstname.lastname@example.org, since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!
- March comes in like a but goes out like a .
- Name of the rabbit at the tea party in Alice in Wonderland.
- Charitable organization whose motto is “Working together for stronger, healthier babies”.
- Mendelssohn wrote the music for this in 1842.
- Margaret, Josephine, Elizabeth, and Amy.