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Matzo — the Passover bread of affliction and freedom — is a timely symbol in 2024

Although matzo sold in supermarkets is typically square, the round matzo is believed to be the earliest form of this unleavened bread that is eaten during the Passover holiday as a symbol of both suffering and freedom.
Ronaldo Schemidt
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AFP via Getty Images
Although matzo sold in supermarkets is typically square, the round matzo is believed to be the earliest form of this unleavened bread that is eaten during the Passover holiday as a symbol of both suffering and freedom.

In Jewish homes around the world, as the sun sets on Monday night, the Passover Seder begins. This ritual marks the ancient Jewish exodus from Egypt, leaving behind a life of slavery and heading toward a new beginning.

The most well-known symbol of the holiday is an unleavened baked good known as matzo. It's made of only flour and water. It's as flat as a sheet of cardboard. And it's a reminder of how those Jews fled so abruptly that they did not have time to let their bread rise.

In Jewish tradition, matzo is called "the bread of affliction" — of suffering — and also the bread of freedom. Those are two main themes of the story of Passover ... fleeing oppression and finding liberation.

Indeed, in many religions, bread is a symbolic food. It represents abundance and plenty as well as the imperative of sharing food with those in need.

The Christian Bible, for example, tells of a boy who came to Jesus with just five small loaves of bread and two small fish, which Jesus used to feed over 5,000 people.

"Let all who are hungry, come and eat" is a line in the Passover Haggadah, the book that is read at the Seder before the holiday meal.

That's a timely commandment. According to the World Food Programme, "an estimated 42.3 million people across 45 countries will be in emergency or worse levels of acute food insecurity in 2024." Climate change is a leading cause, says the U.N. agency, but the main reason for record levels of hunger is conflict.

"The idea that someone doesn't have enough to eat because they're in a war zone is intolerable," says Rabbi Steven Exler of the modern Orthodox Bayit-Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, New York. "Human starvation has no sides. In Jewish ethics of war, no non-combatant should not have enough to eat."

The lack of bread in so many crisis spots today is a sign that hunger — and even famine — may loom.

And when bread is available, even in times of suffering, it can provide comfort, a taste of the way life was before the crisis and perhaps a promise of a better future.

In Israel: the symbolism of a broken matzo

At the start of the Passover Seder, a piece of matzo is broken in two. In the most traditional of homes, this matzo is round.

It's an act that has many interpretations.

"The idea of taking something that's a perfect round and breaking it in front of everyone," says Rabbi Craig Axler, who leads the Reform congregation Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland, is a reminder that "we are still living in a world of brokenness and this is the bread of affliction."

"That's a symbol of our broken world," agrees Udi Goren, a Jewish Israeli who works as a photographer and tour guide. His cousin was killed on Oct. 7 during the Hamas invasion of Israel and the body has not been recovered.

During that attack Hamas killed over 1,200 people and took more than 250 hostages to Gaza, according to the Israeli government.

"My daily life in the past six months has been about grief and despair. A catastrophe of colossal magnitude," says Goren. He has bread to eat but his spirit, he says, is broken.

He is one of many Israelis who are mourning their dead and fearing for the lives of the remaining hostages.

The hostage diet was meager, according to accounts from freed hostages. Sharon Alony-Cunio and her 3-year-old twin daughters were released on November 27; her husband is still a hostage.

In an interview with the Associated Press, she says that their rations included "dry pita" and "sometimes moldy pita." She added: "A lot of the times, the girls were just crying, saying 'I'm hungry.' "

Sharon Alony Cunio cries as she poses for a portrait in the ruins of her home in Kibbutz Nir Oz on January 15. She and her family were kidnapped by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, 2023. Cunio and her 3-year-old twin daughters were released in November, but her husband, David, remains captive in Gaza. She recalls that meals during captivity would include canned food and a sometimes moldy piece of pita.
Maya Alleruzzo / AP
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AP
Sharon Alony Cunio cries as she poses for a portrait in the ruins of her home in Kibbutz Nir Oz on January 15. She and her family were kidnapped by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, 2023. Cunio and her 3-year-old twin daughters were released in November, but her husband, David, remains captive in Gaza. She recalls that meals during captivity would include canned food and a sometimes moldy piece of pita.

In a March 27 interview with NPR, Luis Har, who was held hostage in Gaza for 129 days before being freed by an Israeli raid, recalled, "There was one [guard] who made sure ... that we would have provisions for food... Usually it was canned meat, 'luft' mostly. Do you know what luft is? It's a kind of canned meat. Which was usually pretty disgusting. It's not ... particularly tasty. Sometimes peas, sometimes corn. What we did get almost every day was a pita. One pita for each person."

Luis Har, shown here in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 27, was taken hostage during the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and freed by an Israeli special forces operation in February. In captivity, he says, "Every time we fell into depression, we overcame it with stories. We started to say, where are we going to travel to today in our minds?" The daily food rations included a piece of pita and canned goods.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Luis Har, shown here in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 27, was taken hostage during the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and freed by an Israeli special forces operation in February. In captivity, he says, "Every time we fell into depression, we overcame it with stories. We started to say, where are we going to travel to today in our minds?" The daily food rations included a piece of pita and canned goods.

In Gaza: the loss of bread, the return of a bakery

After the Oct. 7 invasion, Israel responded with an assault on Gaza; the death toll has been over 30,000, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and the prospect of famine looms according to the United Nations.

In Gaza, when the war began, at first there was bread.

And then some months later, there was more than just bread. NPR reported in early March that, in spite of the war, a baker in the city of Rafah decided to make cakes so people in Gaza could still celebrate life — for a family whose child who wanted a sweet treat, for a couple getting married.

"We Gazans love life. People are pushing themselves to hope because there are no other options," said baker Abu Hani, who used solar panels for refrigeration and flour from the black market.

His unlikely dream of making cakes during war was short-lived. As NPR reported: "On March 10, one day after this story was published, residents of Khan Younis discovered extensive destruction to Batool Cake's main branch in that city, which stored supplies and equipment for the bakery's other branches."

As the Israeli bombardment continued, as people were displaced and supplies of flour were exhausted and aid deliveries were delayed, it became a daunting task just to obtain a loaf of bread or to make one at home.

A boy prepares bread to eat outside a tent sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 8.
Mohammed Abed / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
A boy prepares bread to eat outside a tent sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 8.

Some people baked bread using animal feed.

Majed Al-Shorbaji ate this bread for months. Born in Gaza, he had been living as a refugee in Italy since 2019 but returned to Gaza in September 2023, to visit his father, who had a heart attack. Al-Shorbaji was unable to leave after the war broke out.

He says he ate bread made from animal feed for months. "I ate this bread so many times. At least 20 to 30 times. It tastes like dirt, like wood. It's really bad but there's no other solution,' he says.

For months after the war began in Gaza, Majed Al-Shorbaji ate bread baked from animal feed. "It tastes like dirt, like wood. It's really bad but there's no other solution,' he says. Born in Gaza, Al-Shorbaji had been living as a refugee in Italy but came home in September 2023 to visit his father, who had a heart attack.
/ Image from Majed Al-Shorbaji
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Image from Majed Al-Shorbaji
For months after the war began in Gaza, Majed Al-Shorbaji ate bread baked from animal feed. "It tastes like dirt, like wood. It's really bad but there's no other solution,' he says. Born in Gaza, Al-Shorbaji had been living as a refugee in Italy but came home in September 2023 to visit his father, who had a heart attack.

In early April, Al-Shorbaji was in southern Gaza. He had fled from the north in hopes of finding a way out. He says he left ten family members behind; his parents, three sisters, two brothers, his brother's wife and their child. He says he repeatedly asked the Italian consulate to get him and his family out of Gaza but that they denied his request each time. He's now trying to raise money using GoFundMe to get his family out of Gaza.

Freshly baked flatbread at a bakery in Gaza City on April 14, 2024.
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AFP/Getty Images
Freshly baked flatbread at a bakery in Gaza City on April 14, 2024.

He says, "It's been very long since we have eaten bread."

There is, however, a glimmer of hope in Gaza. In Rafah this past week, long lines of people waited for bread baked by a bakery that reopened with the help of the World Food Programme, after being closed for six months.

Interviewed on video by Reuters, a young father who was able to obtain a bag of bread said, "Our feeling after bread became available: It brought some sense of relief to be able to feed these children, fill the hunger and be able to move on to the next day and maybe God willing bring more."

Generous bakers in Ukraine

A baker at work in the community bakery run by Ihor Yershov, a pastor, and his wife, Yevheniia Yershova, near the war's front line. They make and give away 1,000 loaves of bread a day.
/ Yershov family
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Yershov family
A baker at work in the community bakery run by Ihor Yershov, a pastor, and his wife, Yevheniia Yershova, near the war's front line. They make and give away 1,000 loaves of bread a day.

In the small town of Kurakhove, Ukraine, just over 10 miles from the front line, the Yershov family turned an abandoned kindergarten building into a community bakery that hands out bread for free.

Due to constant shelling, the windows of the building are boarded up with plywood and the ceiling has partially collapsed. "It makes no sense to make repairs here, but it makes sense to make bread," says Ihor Yershov, an evangelical pastor.

Ihor Yershov says fresh bread is especially important to those living on the front line. "When we would drive into villages with freshly baked bread, people would smell it and cry," says his wife and fellow baker, Yevheniia Yershova.
/ Yershov family
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Yershov family
Ihor Yershov says fresh bread is especially important to those living on the front line. "When we would drive into villages with freshly baked bread, people would smell it and cry," says his wife and fellow baker, Yevheniia Yershova.

Together with his wife Yevheniia Yershova, he has been running the bakery since 2019. Originally, it was located near Mariinka, a town in eastern Ukraine that has been destroyed by the Russians. In April 2022, after the start of the full-scale invasion, when the city lost electricity and five shells hit the premises, the Yershovs moved most of their equipment to Kurakhove.

However, even here, the 25 bakery workers are not safe — sometimes they have to hide among bags of flour during shelling to keep out shrapnel.

But they will not give up their baking. "We have no other choice," says Yevheniia Yershova (the spelling of her last name reflects the female gender).

"Bread means life," adds her husband.

With the financial help of their church, charities and local authorities, the Yershovs bake about 1,000 loaves of bread a day and deliver them to 10 settlements, some of which are about half a mile from the front line. The roads there have been destroyed by shells, there has been no electricity or water supply for two years, and, of course, there are no stores anymore.

When money runs short, the family chips in.

Yershov says the people who stay have no way to cook food from the humanitarian aid packages, so fresh bread is especially important to them. "When we would drive into villages with freshly baked bread, people would smell it and cry," Yershova recalls.

Among the several types of baked goods, there is a special one, as the Yershovs call it "legendary" – homemade bread where the dough is first mixed in a machine but then shaped made by hand.

"Bread is a piece of love that you can pass from hand to hand. Bread brings warmth and home comfort," adds Yershov, noting that in addition to the symbols this bread carries, it also adds purpose in life and is a lifeline for the bakery's employees, who work and receive their salaries in a place where there is almost nothing left for them.

"Now there is fighting, and it's not that far to Kurakhove," says Yershova. "We are already thinking again about where to evacuate the bakery."

Begging for bread in Afghanistan

Loaves of bread in a bakery window in Kabul in 2022. The women who wait outside in the hope of getting some bread are suffering from the unstable economy, brought on by events of the past five years: conflict, pandemic closures, droughts.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
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NPR
Loaves of bread in a bakery window in Kabul in 2022. The women who wait outside in the hope of getting some bread are suffering from the unstable economy, brought on by events of the past five years: conflict, pandemic closures, droughts.

One morning this past week, Baas Bibi was huddled outside a bakery in a relatively upscale area of west Kabul, begging for bread. She was wrapped in a large, tattered scarf and wearing plastic shoes. The Taliban have cracked down on public begging, leaving women like Bibi in a desperate game of cat-and-mouse to try to get bread.

"My name is Baas Bibi, I'm 60 years old and a widow," she says. "My husband died maybe 10 or 12 years ago. I have six daughters and a son and his wife who lives with me, and their children. I have another two sons who live with their wives.

"Nobody in my family works except me. Look at my hands: they're swollen. My son who lives with me is a drug addict. He even sells his clothes, our kitchen utensils, for drugs." She says she earns money by cleaning houses and making pillows and cushions to sell.

Baas Bibi is among the millions of Afghans who face a lack of food, according to the United Nations. The U.N. has struggled to raise the money it needs to care for Afghans. And getting food to those in need is a challenge as aid groups have sometimes pulled out of the country, say charity workers interviewed by NPR. They claim that the Taliban have tried to dictate the terms of their aid distribution.

Women in burkas sit outside a bakery in Kabul in this photo from 2022. Impoverished women from hilltop slums around Kabul were flocking to bakeries in the city, silently waiting to see if someone will purchase bread for them.
Diaa Hadid / NPR
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NPR
Women in burkas sit outside a bakery in Kabul in this photo from 2022. Impoverished women from hilltop slums around Kabul were flocking to bakeries in the city, silently waiting to see if someone will purchase bread for them.

"I stand here [in front of the bakery] all day," says Baas Bibi. "I'm scared of the Taliban. I'm scared they'll detain me. So far, thank God that hasn't happened. The Taliban haven't helped us so far, even though they say they do."

"In Ramadan [the Muslim holy month] I was hiding behind this tree. When people were distributing bread, I was asking them from there [behind the tree] to give me some.

"During Ramadan, my stomach didn't even meet a potato. I just had water and dry bread. Sometimes, people give me some leftover food."

On Eid [the Muslim holiday following Ramadan], we had nothing to eat. Other people were wearing new clothes and they were happy. I went to the mosque and begged people for money. I collected 170 Afghanis [$2.30] and I came here and bought ten pieces of bread. I bought some potatoes and some oil.

"Last night, we slept hungry, me and the kids. I tell the children, wait, wait, I've asked our neighbors for some food, just wait. And then they fall asleep.

"This morning, I went to my sister's house. I told her that I'm vomiting, my ears are buzzing, I think my blood pressure is low, please give me some bread. She gave me some dry bread. I ate it quickly with water. It made my tooth bleed.

"I'm wondering if a day will come, by God, that I'll have my own bread, for me and my kids. We make bread over wood fire."

The 108 bakeries of Darfur bake bread during war

A bakery in the state of Darfur before the civil war began. The photo is from 2019.
Ashraf Shazly / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
A bakery in the state of Darfur before the civil war began. The photo is from 2019.

In a way, bread was a catalyst for the civil war in Sudan, which is being described as the world's greatest humanitarian crisis.

In late 2018 and 2019, prices for bread and fuel were skyrocketing. Public protests began. An alliance of two military forces ousted the country's dictator but then did not deliver on a promise to institute democracy.

Civil war began on April 15, 2023, between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the rebel paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

NPR has reported that "nearly 18 million across the country are facing acute levels of hunger. The coming lean season in May, could bring 'unprecedented levels of starvation,'according to Eddie Rowe, the World Food Programme's Sudan director."

In the region of Darfur, bread is a popular food — a puffy, pitalike bread. It's used to scoop up fava bean dip, tomatoes, meat and cheese at breakfast and other meals. "It's really delicious and you can tear it apart so easily," says Leni Kinzli, head of communications for the World Food Programme Sudan. "You take the bread, dip it in everything."

But the price of bread is high. And people in Darfur are running out of money — government employees are no longer being paid, farmers may have lost their land due the conflict, traders may have limited items to hawk. People are selling off their belongings to buy food, says Duncan Riddell, a humanitarian manager with the Norwegian Refugee Council, a nongovernmental organization that has been awarded the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award for its work to help the displaced.

This year, the council has launched what they're calling a "Bread Support Program" — providing financial aid to 108 bakeries in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur State, so they can cut the price of bread in half.

A Sudanese man walks out of a bakery in Darfur's state capital Niyala on October 11, 2019.
Ashraf Shazly / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A Sudanese man walks out of a bakery in Darfur's state capital Niyala on October 11, 2019.

With the subsidies, ten small round loaves would cost the equivalent of about $1, according to Riddell. So a family may be able to afford bread for two meals a day instead of one, or every day instead of every couple of days, he says.

The World Food Programme is a supporter of programs that focus on local food production.

"Obviously bread is a lifeline for people," says Kinzli of the World Food Programme, who notes that much of the flour imported to Sudan comes from another war zone — Ukraine.

"Any activity that can help the Sudanese people get access to food would be a good thing," says Alonya Synenko, a regional spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Local radio interviewed Abdel Hafeez Mohammed Abdallah Hamed, head of the bakers' union in the state, who said, "I visited the bakeries on Thursday and encountered a student who wanted to buy a loaf of bread for one hundred pounds, but she was given two loaves of bread. Overwhelmed with joy, she couldn't contain her emotions and ululated" – a high-pitched trill used to express sorrow but also joy.

A baker at work in 2021 in Wadshrefy, Sudan. The bread in this part of the country is a fermented, somewhat spongy flatbread, similar to the injera bread of Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the Darfur region, bakers make a fluffier pita-like bread. Both breads serve as excellent scoops for meat, cheese, vegetables and bean dip.
Abdulmonam Eassa / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A baker at work in 2021 in Wadshrefy, Sudan. The bread in this part of the country is a fermented, somewhat spongy flatbread, similar to the injera bread of Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the Darfur region, bakers make a fluffier pita-like bread. Both breads serve as excellent scoops for meat, cheese, vegetables and bean dip.

The wonder of bread

Of course, bread is not just a symbol, a reminder.

It is a food that many people love. A comfort food for sure. And on Passover, when bread is literally off the table for eight days, those who observe the "no bread" tradition eagerly await a taste of challah, of injera, of naan, of baguette when the holiday ends.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prepares Matzoth, unleavened bread, at a bakery in Jerusalem on April 18, 2024 on the eve of Judaism's Passover holiday. Religious Jews throughout the world eat Matzoth during the eight-day Pesach, or Passover holiday, to commemorate the Israelites' exodus from Egypt some 3,500 years ago.
Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prepares Matzoth, unleavened bread, at a bakery in Jerusalem on April 18, 2024 on the eve of Judaism's Passover holiday. Religious Jews throughout the world eat Matzoth during the eight-day Pesach, or Passover holiday, to commemorate the Israelites' exodus from Egypt some 3,500 years ago.

And yes, nutritionists will note that bread in and of itself, without fortified flour or whole grains, is not exactly a nutritional paragon.

But it has other virtues.

"As an avid bread baker," says Rabbi Axler, "I can say that the smell of fresh bread, the chew of sinking your teeth into that – there is a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction."

Hanna Palamarenko, a producer in NPR's Ukraine bureau, reported from Ukraine. Fazelminallah Qazizai, a freelance journalist in Afghanistan who contributes to NPR, reported from Kabul.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Pierre Kattar
Hanna Palamarenko
Fazelminallah Qazizai