Liberating Passover

Pesach used to be fun.

Our mothers toiled like slaves. They didn’t have food processors, or ready-made foods. They couldn’t replenish kosher-for-Passover milk or dairy products on the holiday. My family, heirs to Hassidic tradition, didn’t eat gebrochts (soaked matza), so we needed to be especially creative in our culinary exploits.

On Passover eve, with the last morsels of chametz brushed into their appointed brown paper bag, holiday preparations turned frenetic. We peeled bushels of potatoes and apples while my father lugged cartons from our shared storage space in the basement of our apartment building. We sliced and diced and chopped. For weeks, our hands were stained crimson with the nectar of the countless beets we grated.

But there was a party feel to the house. The customary kitchen clutter was pared down; the makeshift pantry smelled of Barton’s bonbons that, for no obvious reason, were an annual treat. Everyone pitched in. We bonded.

– “Hey, where’d this meat grinder come from?”

– “What does Dayenu mean anyway?

Around the kitchen table in the wee hours, we personified the midrashic understanding of Pesach as peh sach, the mouth that talks, unconsciously fulfilling the holiday’s flagship commandment of “Vehigadeta l’vinkha — You shall tell your children.” Effortlessly, we absorbed masoret, tradition, and minhag, custom.

It was truly the family holiday. When we sat down to the Seder, our parents, certainly exhausted, were radiant, faces reflecting off freshly polished Seder plates and wine goblets. This night was indeed different from all other nights, and different was exciting, and fun.

For eight days, we ate weird foods like rhubarb and borscht, and chremslakh, fluffy mashed potato latkes perfected by generations of Polish grandmothers. Without “Passover” bagels or pizza, or quinoa, we feasted on dreamy chocolaty confections, rich in sugar and cholesterol, and rubbery macaroons dispensed from shiny blue and white tins that we anticipated all year. And it was fun.

But, alas, decades later the fun seems to have gone, together with the wooden spoon that used to arrive in the mail. As the holiday approaches, drudgery has overtaken delight, and exhaustion has overwhelmed experience. All around me, peripatetic spring-cleaning, masquerading as Pesach preparation, has become an obsession, as has a preoccupation with distorted legal minutiae.

Is it any surprise then that our foreparents’ flight from servitude in Egypt is celebrated with a mass exodus to hotels and resorts, and rental apartments, and anywhere else so long as it isn’t home? What happened to the family huddle, where knobby roots of horseradish were shredded by hand, to the accompaniment of histrionic gasping and eye-dabbing?

It’s time to take back the holiday. The mishna mandates that, “Chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzraim… — every individual must see him or herself as having left Egypt.” So stop scrubbing Lego, and forget about lining the laundry hamper with kosher contact paper.

Drag your kids away from their electronics and into the great outdoors, where nature, renewing itself with ineffable beauty, recalls that Passover is also Chag Ha’Aviv, the “Spring Festival.” Seize the once-a-year opportunity to recite Birkat Ha’Ilanot, the Blessing of the Trees, and celebrate God’s creation.

I’m a grandmother myself now and the product of an indulged society very different than the one in which I grew up. My Passover dishes nestle comfortably in the kitchen year-round. We can purchase an infinite number of ready foodstuffs at local markets should we choose, and an army of caterers vies for our business.

But I still love what I loved then: Watching my food reserves dwindle, making way for the Passover inventory; the je ne sais quoi of Pesach aromas; the spring in the air. I still get excited when we take out our holiday utensils each year, greeting them like a kid rediscovering the toys put away for a rainy day.

I made my first Pesach rhubarb today. And as it bubbled boisterously on the cooktop, I was transported to a former time and place. I inhaled its tanginess, and headed outside to catch a closer look at my budding rosebushes, steadfastly resolved not to wash any curtains at least until Rosh HaShanah.

About the Author
Shira Koppel is a freelance writer and editor. She made aliya from New York in 1990.
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