Last year, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio extended his greetings to Jewish residents celebrating Pesach, telling the audience of Zev Brenner’s Saturday night radio program: “I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone, on behalf of myself, Chirlane and the entire City of New York, a Happy Passover holiday, or as we say in Italian: ‘A Zisen Pesach.”
What really jumps out of his graceful greeting is both his humorous etymology—attributing the word zisen to Italian—and the fact that zisen is not a word a Yiddish-speaker would normally associate with the holiday of Pesach. Most Jews of Eastern European descent would certainly recognize the term as Yiddish. Needless to say, it is not the “Hebrew” side of Yiddish that it derives from. It is actually German, and means “sweet” or “cute.” Growing up my grandparents used to call me zis and every year on Rosh Hashana would wish me a zis yor.
More importantly, Pesach, despite being considered the other “start to the year” in the Torah, was never associated with the word “zisen” in Europe. The proper greeting is a koshern Pesach—literally have a kosher Pesach—not a zisen Pesach. But, Mayor de Blasio isn’t wrong. The phrase has really been adopted in recent years.
That zisen is not linked with Pesach is not an original thought. Philologos, a pseudonymous language columnist for The Forward, wrote a 2008 article titled “A Sweet Passover for All,” where he examined three different hypotheses as to why zisen and Pesach were linked. The first hypothesis, brought by a questioner, argued that linking the two phrases may have come from Passover food providers, such as Manischewitz. According to this theory, the advertising campaign proved so effective that the expression became a common parlance. The big problem with this idea is that there is no proof that such a campaign occurred. However, it is not the craziest thought. A look at Chanukah shows an example of a marketing campaign creating a new cultural/quasi-religious association with a product. In his landmark work, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Foods,” Gil Mark’s notes in the late 1920s, the Histadrut, the Israeli labor federation, decided to champion the jelly doughnut as a Chanukah treat rather than latkes. Latkes were cheap, relatively easy to cook and most importantly, frequently homemade. On the other hand, Sufganiyot (spongy dough, taken from the Talmud, sphog, meaning sponge) were difficult and frequently store bought. If Sufganiyot became a “Chanukah treat,” Histadrut members would be the beneficiaries. A successful advertising effort created a lasting association for jelly doughnuts and Chanukah.
Philologos went on to interview Ruth Wisse, professor of Jewish and Yiddish literature at Harvard, who suggested that the greeting is part of a merging of holiday greeting. Since zisen is frequently used for Rosh Hasanah, people just grabbed on to the word for Pesach as well. A similar transfer has happened with the word “freylakhn” (Happy) which is the traditional Yiddish greeting for Purim “freylakhn Purim.” While the article doesn’t mention it, both of the new greetings—zisen and freylakhn—are more joyful and upbeat, which people may prefer for a holiday.
Finally, Philologos suggests a third approach. Many Yiddish speaking Jews were no longer concerned with keeping Pesach in a Halachic context. According to this theory, the no-longer-observant Jews may have felt it hypocritical to wish friends the traditional “a Kosher Passover” greeting, when they many not be interested in keeping the Halachic obligations. As a result, these people developed a more generic greeting for the holiday.
Any and all of these reasons could be correct. My own personal experience holds a simpler explanation. Every year after Purim, Jews around the world start preparing for Pesach. Homes are cleaned and food is prepared while children are taught songs (such as Mah Nishtanah), stories and interpretations they will discuss at the seder. As the marker of our freedom and arguably the single most effective way for Jews to recognize and remember the trials and tribulations of our ancestors, the seder has always been one of the yearly cornerstone events in Judaism. In America, it has penetrated popular culture to the degree that the White House now hosts a seder each year.
For most of us, the seder means that families gather together and share in an intense experience. Religious and family customs are discussed and celebrated. The practices of relatives long gone are frequently lovingly remembered and reenacted. What the seder really manages to do—in a way that is looked on with envy by other cultures—is bring together different generations at one table, and link them to the original seders that took place the night before the Jews left Mitzrayim. Stories, songs and tradition are handed down and lifetime memories are created. Could there be a better definition of zisen?
By Rabbi Marc Spivak, Congregation Ohr Torah West Orange, NJ