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Study and Theory/

Caleb Castel

Take out the Matza / Italy

Netzer Sireni, end of the 80s

There is a common custom with many Jewish families in Italy, even the most assimilated of them, to meticulously safeguard a collection of stories, anecdotes, tunes, jokes, which are the sole property of my family, transferred from generation to generation, without the pretentiousness of nobility, but rather as a pleasurable asset.


I remember one incident of those stories, one of the many in my family, Castelbolognaisi, from the town of Modena in northern Italy, and here it is for you:

Prior to the unification of the country, Modena was one of the many principalities which were dispersed throughout Italy, headed by a Duke. When in 1796 Napoleon conquered Italy, he also reached the gates of Modena. The army of the Grand Duke, which had perhaps two dozen soldiers, did not dream to stand in the way of the huge French armies.


There was just one problem: how could they explain to the French that we were indeed surrendering? And what would happen, heaven forbid, if they opened fire? The officer turned to his soldiers: “Are there any French speakers amongst you?”, a rhetorical question: the soldiers of the Grand Duke were ignorant farmers who spoke in a local dialect and hardly knew Italian, not to mention foreign languages. The embarrassment was great.

And suddenly from the ranks a Castelbolognaisi predecessor stood up: “I know!”

He hung a white rag on his gun, marched with courage towards the French generals and opened, with dizzying speed, with the following words:

“Comme ci, comme ca”

Take out the matza

Bitter herbs, the sandwich

The laid table

Ai fo ci mania

The Afikoman”

In the Modena dialect, and finally We eat the Afikoman!

Wonder of wonders the French understood, smiled, shook his hand. No blood was spilt. Our forefather for the rest of his days was famous and admired as one who knew French.


The story is probably fiction but it is interesting to note that it seems possible that a Jew could have served in the Dule’s army, which was not customary at that time, and secondly: how did a Jew manage to extricate himself from a difficult situation by a practical approach, without being influenced by words and ceremonies.

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