I hate Pesach cleaning. I live in constant fear of it. I am not one of those people who feels wonderful after my house is all clean. I only feel drained. Most years, I go away during Pesach, as I was meant to this year. And in this way, I get away with a cursory clean, don’t need to change over any dishes, get rid of my chametz, and that’s it. But this year, not only am I clearly going nowhere, but I am going to have to make Seder for myself, and be home for the entire holiday.
Even though I promise myself not to go overboard, and even though I close up some of the drawers and cupboards, I still end up crazy cleaning. There is a repeated dialogue with myself while I do this. It goes something like: “This is dust, it’s not chametz, you don’t have to clean dust.” “But I’m already here on the shelf, standing on a chair with a cloth in my hand, I might as well do it. And if not now, when?” And so, with the specter of a whole Pesach at home and conducting Seder for myself looming before me, I thoroughly exhaust myself for a week and a half before the holiday starts. Cleaning. Shopping for things that I’ll need for the Seder, both symbolic and real foods. Trying to understand what I need to do, having never made Seder before.
I am easily distracted and effective time management is definitely not in my skill set, so what should only take a couple of days stretches out, seemingly unendingly. During this time, my WhatsApp and Facebook feeds are packed with articles on how to make meaningful Seder on one’s own, music, holiday songs, and jokes. It is beyond my comprehension how anyone could have time to read or listen, I am so frantically preparing (and also working) until late at night every day. Just getting through the Seder will be enough, I tell myself.
I have the good fortune to live in a community that, although I am on its fringes, still provides for all my Judaic needs. I am a vegetarian and don’t know where I will get a shank bone, or any kind of bone, to put on my Seder plate. So I advertise on the community WhatsApp group, and three people offer to give me a roasted chicken wing, and the person whom I get it from also gives me a piece of horseradish root, three shmurah matzas (insisting that I must use shmurah matzas for the Seder), and lets me burn my chametz in his yard.
Not only do I overclean until my hands are raw and dry and itchy, but I overbuy kosher l’Pesach food, so much that some of it is still on my couch. I finish my cleaning and solitary bedikat chametz at one in the morning erev Pesach, completely wiped out. And I am still cleaning floors and organizing Pesach dishes and cooking almost until the holiday begins.
One nice thing about chag, as opposed to Shabbat, is that you don’t have the deadline of candle lighting time. You can transfer fire to light your candles anytime after sunset. So I make sure that, before sunset, I have a 24-hour candle lit, and all the electrical appliances or lights that I’ll need during the chag organized. And then I continue at my own pace, getting into the shower when it’s almost dark. As I get out of the shower, I hear my downstairs neighbors calling up to me. I go to the window in my bathrobe, with my hair wrapped in a towel, and all four apartments in my building sing Ma Nishtana, and some other Pesach songs, together. From another home nearby, we hear Dayenu being sung.
For my solo Seder, I have decided to wear a beautiful embroidered green silk bathrobe that I bought second-hand many years ago and have never worn. How often can you wear a bathrobe to a seder? As a friend of mine pointed out, I’m going to be the best dressed host and the best dressed guest at my Seder. After singing with the neighbors, I put on my special outfit, light candles, and sit down to meditate, knowing that I have no deadline, that I am now, after a week and a half of breathlessness and intense stress, entering a deep, timeless, expansive space. I sink into the cushion, breathing slowly and deeply, breathing into my solitude, breathing into Passover, into liberation.
A knock on my door.
My neighbors, a group of young people the age that my children would be if I had children, are starting their Seder. Would I like to join them? They can put a chair right by the door and I can sit on it and be part of their Seder without entering the house. I decide to do the opening Kiddush with them. I had been wondering, as a woman doing Seder alone, whether I should say shehecheyanu when I light candles or when I make Kiddush. I said it when I lit candles, and now, doing Kiddush with my neighbors solves the quandary. I stay with them for the first glass of wine. I even bring my own glass so that nothing needs to be passed from hand to hand. I enjoy doing the beginning of this ritual with other people, and then I go home, organize my seder plate, my table, my food on the plata, fill a goblet of turquoise glass with wine for Eliyahu HaNavi and put a heart-shaped stone at its base. I sit down, think of my other friends who are doing solo seders, imagine myself at a table with them, and settle in for a long night, at my own pace, lingering where I want to linger, reading the stories that I want to read from my Haggadah.
After the meal and the second cup of wine, I am having a hard time staying awake. I nod off for the first time during birkat hamazon. And for the rest of the Seder, I waver between sleep and waking. After Hallel, which I sing with great gusto, I open the door for Eliyahu HaNavi. As always, “shpoch chamatcha” is challenging for me, so I improvise a different invitation, one that asks God to reveal Himself with love, rather than with wrath.
Opening the door for Eliyahu is different this year. Passover celebrates the Jews’ redemption from slavery in Egypt, and, according to some interpretations, the final redemption will also happen in this month, the month of Nisan, and Eliyahu will be the messenger who comes to announce it. Many religious people believe that what we are going through now in the world is a sign that redemption is near. This year, we truly invite Eliyahu to come as harbinger of the Messiah.
I make it to the end of the Seder. I have drunk all four cups of wine. I even sing Yivneh Beito, the whole Echad Mi Yodeya, the entire Chad Gadya. And then I fall asleep on the couch with my cat.
The next day, I wake late. I come downstairs to the remains of the Seder plate, and Eliyahu’s still full glass of wine, with its heart-shaped rock. I don’t know what to do with the wine in Eliyahu’s cup, or with the chicken wing or the egg or the potato left on my seder plate. I give the chicken wing to the cat. I daven and say the prayer for dew, to end the season of rain, on my roof. Most years, with our land parched and desperate for water, it is hard for me to say this prayer. But this year, rain has been copious, the Kinneret is full for the first time in decades, and, really, I am sick of the rain, so I say the prayer wholeheartedly.
For lunch, I make an appetizer of seder plate salad, with parsley, lettuce, potato, egg, and grated horseradish, whatever was left on my seder plate. Below me, the streets of Ein Karem, which are usually teeming with cars and people on holidays and Shabbatot, are empty. It is a ghost town. Later in the day, I walk the deserted streets. Synagogues, from which prayer would be heard on any regular Passover, are dark and closed. I walk until it is almost nightfall, and then return home.
I still don’t know what to do with the wine from Eliyahu’s glass. Perhaps I will just leave it on my table for the whole week of Pesach. Or until the end of Nisan. For who knows? Maybe, just maybe, he will come to drink it.