My Bubby referred to Pesach as “the 11th makkah.”
Her commentary on this additional plague evolved through the years. At first, it was said in a joking-but-serious manner, as in, what a huge production — cleaning the house, taping up cabinets, dragging the Pesach dishes up from the basement, planning out menus, buying the matzah, buying the cream cheese, buying the eggs, buying the potatoes, peeling the potatoes, readying the seder plate, and so on and so on — all this in preparation for a mere eight days of the year.
As time went on, this half-joke kind of got swallowed up by a critique on the absurdity of it all. By “critique,” I mean more like an abbreviated, dismissive, bah-humbug wave of the hand, followed by a drag of her cigarette and a tap against the ashtray, and then a return to peeling potatoes with my mother.
Growing up, I didn’t think much of it — just the usual catchphrase, year after year, followed by stuffing potatoes into the food processor, piece by piece, as they journeyed closer and closer to becoming kugel. Pesach prep — I laugh at this now — was exciting, a high among the monotony of the rest of the year.
I had my appointed duties, at which I became increasingly adept: smoothing out the contact paper that lined the kitchen table and counters (and sometimes popping unruly bubbles with a toothpick), cleaning all the mirrors in the house with Windex, assisting my mom and Bubby with the potato peeling (the ratio of my finished product to theirs was about 1:10), polishing some of the silver. Pesach food, itself, also provided a break from the regularities of daily living: bringing crushed matzah and cream cheese sandwiches into Yankee Stadium; making matzah brei/pizza/lasagna/anything that transformed it out of its cardboard state; popping macaroons between breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and anything to do with potatoes, potatoes, potatoes.
Each year, ever since transitioning from being guest to being hostess, I remember my Bubby’s phrase — particularly on my umpteenth trip up and down Pathmark’s Passover aisle in the middle of the night — and then I give the heavens a nod as if to say, “Bubby, when you’re right, you’re right.” But when I say this, also joking-but-serious, I like to keep in mind that while choosing between half a dozen brands of matzah lining the shelves of Aisle 4 might overwhelm me to tears at midnight, the holiday’s true meaning — the redemption from slavery to freedom, from tears to celebration — is the reason why I can and why I am stocking up on these provisions in the first place.
I think it’s all too easy to lose the real meaning of a holiday, religious or otherwise, when we’re so caught up in the details that the details overshadow the festivity itself. Now, Mom, I’m not pointing a finger at Bubby; for her, the meaning of Pesach was spending time with her grandchildren, this new generation, her pride and joy, which outweighed any bah-humbug about the minutiae of Pesach prep. Likewise, in addition to the “11th makkah” mentality (as in, for example, searching high and low for those last bottles of Dr. Brown’s Diet Cream Soda, only to come home hours later, frustrated, frazzled, and empty handed), I, too, try to find meaning behind all the tedious planning.
For me, the Haggadah is where it’s at. Or, rather, from late adolescence and on, I gravitated toward one particular phrase in Maggid, arguably the most fundamental part of Pesach itself. We’re instructed that in every generation, a person must view himself as if he, personally, experienced the Exodus. There’s much talk among the sages and modern-day rabbis about what this might mean. Yes, it’s about retelling of the Exodus from Egypt, imagining what it was like to be enslaved and then freed, and, most importantly, handing down the experience from generation to generation. What I take away from this phrase is that there’s a different, personalized redemption for each of us.
For me, it takes on a psychological meaning, something compared to that moment when depression starts to lift and the inner self migrates from darkness to light — certainly from the dark winter months to spring — now freed from emotional imprisonment. I also think that you don’t have to experience a mood disorder to take on this approach of emotional freedom, from tears to laughter, from a time of sorrow to one of celebration.
For my husband, growing up in a large extended family, it’s been about embracing the holiday and freedom itself with divrei Torah throughout the seder, stealing and re-stealing the afikoman with a craftiness that would impress any Mossad agent, taking turns reading the Haggadah aloud, and capping off the night (at well past 2 a.m.) with ruach-filled, harmonized singing.
For the family in which I grew up, it’s been, as with many families, about the freedom to have our own unique traditions: the scattered observations and interpretations throughout the seder, both Torah-related and comical; the way my brothers and I, while hungrily awaiting the meal, would at random moments dip a potato in saltwater, and kezayis be damned, yell out “karpas!”; how at the end of the seder, with most of us faded away, the few still half-awake would get a second wind and belt out “One is Hashem!” with rhythm, beat, and style.
It seems there’s room for all of it — the details and what’s behind the details. The conventional story of the Exodus, my own personal spin, how my husband and his family celebrated, how I experienced it growing up, and in whatever way in which it will be passed down to our children. Ultimately, as I understand it, it’s about tradition — “V’higadita l’vincha / and you shall tell your son” – and the freedom to pass down the story of our nation, each in his own way, from one generation to the next.
In which case, certainly there’s room for the “11th makkah” alongside everything else – my Bubby’s seemingly clashing “pheh!” to Pesach, accompanied by a potato-peeling, kugel-making tradition handed down from mother to daughter to daughter for generations to come.
Note: This op-ed was originally published in the Jewish Standard in 2014. Going through the same grocery store aisles four times this week got me thinking, as it does every year, of my Bubby’s catchphrase.