Most people today would associate the word "Shmaltz" with "glitz or "ritz," as in "it was a shmaltzy affair." Little do they know that the old Yiddish word "Shmaltz" really means chicken fat!
Years ago, Passover preparations on the Lower East Side started months before the holiday. Beginning about Chanukah, when my mother went shopping for chickens for Shabbos, she bought only chickens with a lot of fat, because now was the time to start saving 'schmaltz for Pesach'.
And who could have too much schmaltz for Pesach? You needed it for the chremzlach, for potato latkes and even just to put on a slice of matza with some salt. Schmaltz was in big demand.
Don't forget this was in the days before Nyafat, and Rokeach was only making kosher soap for washing dishes. There were no Kosher certifications for canned food, and chocolate candy was certainly chametz then. There was very little you could have with matza except the good old schmaltz.
So Mama started collecting chicken fat, which she kept in a special stone Pesachdige crock, covered with a blanket, in a corner that was already prepared and fully reserved exclusively for Pesach.
Next, after Purim, it was time to start making 'russel', and sure enough, on Rivington Street, you'd see pushcarts with burikes, the big beets needed to prepare what would be borsht.
Now it was also time to talk about buying new clothes for the Yomtov.
Everybody had to get something new. Even if there wasn't enough money to buy all new clothes, at least new shoes for everybody was a must. Finally it was 2 days before Erev Yomtov and it was time to get the Pesachdige dishes ready.
Now let me explain a bit. In the cellar, in every tenement, there were little locked cubbyholes for each family, where they kept the things there was no room for in the apartment upstairs. With all the children, and even a boarder now and then, and hardly any closets, there was hardly any room for people upstairs.
There in the cellar, then, were stored all our pesachdige dishes, pots, glasses and silverware, wrapped in newspaper and left there, protected, from one year to the next. The pots had to be brought up right away and cleaned so that the cooking could start for the Yomtov. Each of the dishes, glasses and silverware had to be unpacked and washed, and believe me, with all the milchige dishes and enough fleishige dishes to feed at least 50 people at the Seder, two days wasn't too much time to get the dishes ready.
Finally, it was the evening before Pesach and as the oldest son, it was my job to go around with my father to collect the pieces of chometz that he had placed in nicks and crannies around the house. I held a lighted candle while my father brushed the pieces of bread with a chicken feather into the wooden spoon he held in a piece of rag. After counting to make sure all the pieces of bread had been collected, he blew out the candle, put it in the spoon with the pieces of bread and the feather and tied it all together in the rag, and gave the bundle to me. Next morning, I took it downstairs, lit a fire and burned it.
You could actually feel the holiday coming nearer and nearer all over the East Side that morning. The smell of holiday cooking, men coming home early from work, many hours before they would ordinarily return to get ready for Pesach. The stores soon began closing, one after the other, -you felt that Yomtov was here. On this night, in this neighborhood, only the drugstore on the corner stayed open. Everybody else celebrated.
The men went to shul, freshly bathed and dressed in their finest, while the mothers were finishing with last minute preparations, getting dressed, and taking care of the little children, all at the same time.
After all these preparations, the great moment had arrived. Seats were found for everyone and with eleven children, a few uncles and aunts, several cousins, landsleit and even a yeshiva bochur or two, who were away from home, there were at least 50 people at the Seder table. That's when the Seder began.
American Jewish Archives Cincinnati, Ohio